My colourful Celtic Magpies & Magnolia art, plus a dive into magpie superstition, myth and meaning...
Beautiful black and white birds that are accompanied by a whole host of superstitions and meanings…
Here’s what you need to know about magpie superstitions, myth, folklore and meaning…
The magpie is a handsome and extremely intelligent bird – and one that I feel suffers a lot in our perception from the myths, folklore and superstitions that surround this highly unusual bird.
The bird, Pica pica (the Eurasian magpie) was originally known, from at least as early as the 13th century) as the ‘pie’ – thought to mean ‘pointed’ referring either to its pointed beak or tail.
It was colloquially known as ‘Maggie Pie’ – it was quite common to give a proper name to a bird (for example Jenny Wren, Jack Daw, Robin Redbreast). Maggie is a diminutive of Margaret which was sometimes used to mean a woman (generic woman) – supposedly because the chattering of the Maggie Pie sounds like the conversation of women.
Now we know the term ‘pied’ as meaning black and white. But it’s thought that this came from the black and white plumage of the magpie and was then used to refer to other birds with similar ‘pied’ colouring.
The Ancient Romans (correctly) believed that the magpie was a highly intelligent bird (more on that later) – while the Ancient Greeks associated the magpie with Bacchus, the god of wine… wine makes tongues loosen in idle chatter.
In Greek legend, the Pierides (note the use of the word ‘pie’), nine Thracian maidens, boastfully attempted to rival the famous 9 Muses but were defeated in a singing contest and the Muses turned into magpies. In Ovid’s poem of the legend, his ‘Metamorphoses’, he associates them with envy, presumption, snobbery and idle gossip.
Various Native American communities believed that the magpie was omniscient, was a messenger of the creator, a shamanic guardian, or associated with a fearless spirit.
In Celtic myth, black birds were seen as evil or bringers of death and misfortune, while white birds were good or bringers of good fortune. The magpie took an awkward position, encompassing both qualities in its black and white colouring, but was normally more associated with the other corvids, the black birds of myth that scavenged battlefields and field hospitals and were tied to the idea of death and bad luck.
Magpie superstitions & folklore
In the Christian tradition, the magpie started to be further distrusted and disliked. It was believed that the magpie would not go inside Noah’s ark with the other birds and preferred to sit outside in the lashing rain “jabbering over the drowning world”. Furthermore, it was said that the magpie did not sorrow at Jesus’ death and was not baptised.
It was thought that the magpie had the devil’s blood in its tongue – and if you cut the magpie’s tongue it would be capable of human speech. We now know that magpies can indeed mimic human speech, so it’s understandable how this skill might have led people to believe the bird had the devil in it.
It’s said to be unlucky to see a single magpie – and hearing a magpie tap at your window was seen as a harbinger of death. It was thought to be unlucky to hear the chattering of magpies - and in Yorkshire, where magpies were associated with witches and witchcraft, if you saw a magpie, you should make the sign of the cross to ward off evil.
The magpie, uniquely amongst British birds, has many folklore traditions and superstitions in Britain, many associated with diverting misfortune when the bird was seen.
It’s common to greet or ‘salute’ a single magpie when you see one to escape the bad luck that might otherwise ensue – and it’s a superstition I and all my friends certainly followed as a child (…and even into adulthood!).
The famous magpie rhyme teaches as that while one magpie might, indeed, be unlucky, two or more could actually bring good fortune…
One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
And four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
And seven for a secret never to be told...
In addition, it was thought in Sussex that to see a magpie on the roof of your house is a good thing and means that your house is not likely to fall down anytime soon!
Indeed, in other cultures, to see a magpie was thought to be extremely fortuitous…
In China, a singing magpie was thought to bring luck and happiness. The birds were associated with a faithful marriage and were said to tell a husband if a wife was unfaithful. Magpies are today believed to be monogamous birds and are commonly thought to mate for life.
The Chinese Qixi festival celebrates the annual coming together of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, when the magpies all gather at a celestial bridge where the lovers meet, so symbolising the coming together of man and woman.
A similar association is made in Scandinavian tradition, where the black and white colour of the magpie symbolises a balance of the masculine and feminine sexual energies.
In Scandinavia, the magpie is also linked to Skadi, an ancient Norse winter goddess.
In Mongolia, it was said that magpies could control the weather!
In Korea, magpies are lucky – they are thought to bring good news or to invite good people into your life.
In Western tradition, magpies do have a reputation for thieving and being attracted to shiny objects. Modern studies have found no basis in fact for this assumption – and while magpies are thought to be curious about any unusual object, there’s no evidence that they’re particularly attracted to shiny objects over duller ones, nor that they take or ‘steal’ these away to their nests. In fact, they may even be scared of shiny things!
However, a 19th century French play may be the basis for this assumption about the magpie. ‘La Pie Voleuse’ (The Thieving Magpie) related the story of a servant sentenced to death for stealing the silverware, where it was actually the master’s pet magpie who was the culprit.
Rossini’s opera ‘La Gazza Ladra’ (The Thieving Magpie) took up the same story with an unfortunate young girl executed as a thief while a magpie was actually the guilty party – although we might now see him as the victim of this seemingly baseless rumour!
It’s known that the magpie is an extremely clever bird – thought to be amongst the most intelligent non-humans and certainly amongst the most intelligent birds (alongside other corvid species).
Magpies are able to recognise themselves in mirrors. This is very rare amongst the animal kingdom. In experiments conducted on multiple species of animal and bird, only four ape species, bottle-nose dolphins, Asian elephants, and the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica) show this self-awareness.
Scientists put a non-irritating coloured mark on the neck of magpies. When put in a cage with mirrors, and after seeing their own reflections, the magpies tried to scratch at their necks, seemingly to remove the marks. They had recognised themselves and also knew that there was something different to their anticipated appearance.
It’s also been shown that the highly intelligent magpie also shares a similar type of emotional experience and social community to humans.
Dr Mark Bekoff, of the University of Colorado, has noted a case of magpies appearing to grieve for a fallen friend, gathering ritually around the body to keep vigil, calling out in sorrow, touching the corpse, and even laying ‘wreaths’ of grass alongside the body in an amazing ‘magpie funeral’. Further similar instances have since been recorded.
Magpies are also known to be able to count, imitate human voices, use tools, and gather socially for strategic group hunting or other reasons. We recognise this gathering of magpies in one of our sayings for a large group of magpies – a 'parliament' of magpies.
A ‘mischief’ of magpies is also commonly used – cheeky chappies!
These are definitely fascinating and intelligent birds, as well as being strikingly beautiful – certainly worthy of our respect.
Magpies are wit and intelligence. They are communication and society. They are a balance of black and white, good and evil, masculine and feminine, misfortune and happiness – the essential duality of life.
What does the magpie mean to you..?
Creating my magpies artwork
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