Have you ever wondered why some of us are superstitious? Why sometimes, we won’t walk under a ladder or cross over a line in the pavement. Why we won’t put new shoes on a table or open an umbrella once indoors?
Have you ever wondered just why we find ourselves dreading the sight of a magpie, or saluting him, wishing him good morning or asking him where his wife is?
According to Neuroscientist Bruce Hood, the author of ‘Supersense’, some people’s heightened propensity for superstition stems from “an inherent need to find patterns and order in our world”.
More significantly he states “The brain, and the mind it creates, is designed to seek out patterns in the environment, to interpret those patterns in a meaningful way and to look for causal mechanisms that can explain those patterns. In general, that leads to natural models of the world, but it can also lead you to a supernatural view, which is simply any explanation that goes beyond what we currently understand as the natural boundaries.”
Within this phenomenon, the magpie is one of the most far-reaching mysteries of superstition globally. For a whole host of reasons, it’s powers share roots of interest within British, American, Italian, German, Chinese and Indian cultures and have done so for thousands of years. Beliefs range from that of bad luck upon first sight of a single magpie, to very good luck whether you see it on the morning of your wedding or a few days before the arrival of a much wanted baby. Dependent on what your particular culture assumes and what folklore it follows, these beliefs can be reversed based on the number of magpies seen at any point.
The traditional British rhyme associated with magpies to date follows thus:
- 1 for sorrow
2 for joy
3 for a girl
4 for a boy
5 for silver
6 for gold
7 for a secret never to be told.
Upon first sighting, those who are superstitious of this bird are meant to salute the magpie and say “Good Morning Mr Magpie, how is your wife?”
This greeting is thought to be two-fold. One, to acknowledge the magpie as a negative force,having lost his partner and therefore being cursed with sorrow. Two, to remove any possible curse from yourself by being polite to him. As the magpie is believed to be one of the only common birds to mate for life, the loss of its partner is seen as a curse or an omen. The curse can only be lifted by the action of being polite and making him feel better. Other traditions accepted in parts of America and Ireland include taking your hat off and nodding in respect, spitting over your shoulder or in more extreme cases, making the sign of the cross. Such is the sorrowful flight of the magpie that in Italy, tradition states the greeting must be:
“Good morning Mr Magpie, how are you and yours? Good luck, good health and happiness to you and yours”, whilst saluting or bowing. In addition to this, the ever changing cultural rhyme is believed to have followed thus throughout Italian generations:
- 1, For anger,
2, for mirth,
3, for a wedding,
4, for a birth,
5, for rich,
6, for poor,
7, for a bitch,
8, for a whore,
9, for England,
10, for France,
11, for a wedding,
12, for a dance.
In this instance, believers followed the magpies appearance as a way of foretelling the future; much as often happens today guessing a baby’s gender before birth: “3 for a girl, 4 for a boy”.
So where exactly does this incredible and international fear of the magpie stem from and when did it begin? Some believe that it all began two thousand years ago. It has been said the magpie is cursed because it was the only bird that didn’t sing and comfort Jesus when he was crucified on the cross. In German, Italian, French, and Norwegian folklore magpies are often depicted as thieves. They steal eggs and young from other nests and hoard anything they can find; being attracted to shiny objects the most. A heinous flaw or trait.
In Scotland a single magpie near the window of a house is not just bad luck but the sign of impending death; possibly because they were believed to carry a drop of the devil’s blood under their tongue.
However, there is some positive press in the world for this black and white spectacle. In China the name of the bird is translated as “happiness magpie”. In fact, spotting one it is actually considered a sign of good luck. The Manchu people in north-east China even regard magpies as sacred and they carry a thread of magpie heroism in their legends. One such legendary story carried through generations is relayed below:
A goddess called Fokulon and her two sisters were playing beside the lake when a beautiful magpie dropped a piece of red fruit. Fokulon picked it up and ate it. Soon she gave birth to a boy, named Bukulirongshun, and he became forefather of the Manchu people.
Bukulirongshun and his descendants were all heroic and skilled fighters, but neighbouring tribes felt threatened and combined to wipe them out. All but a boy called Fancha was killed. He escaped, pursued by the killers. As dusk fell, they almost caught up with him.
But then a magpie landed on his head. He stood motionless- and the hunters mistook him for a tree trunk. Ever since, Manchu people look upon magpies as a symbol of happiness and luck. In 1644, a Manchu ruler became China’s emperor and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and most Chinese people now accept the magpie story.
Although there are many good reasons for and against fears of the magpie, one question still tugs at my brain… what if the magpie you’ve seen isn’t in fact a ‘he’… what happens then?
© Tess Egerton 2011
Chinese folklore story was courtesy of ‘Magpie In Nature and Myth’ and Ye Qinfa @ Answerbank.