Monday, 28 December 2009

The danger of magpies

I'm reading a book of my Dad's, well dipping in now and then, called, 'Stories and Tales of Old Lancashire', selected and edited by Cliffe Hayes. It's a modernised version of a book called 'Lancashire Stories', by Frank Hird written about 1910. It's all rather fascinating.

I've just dipped into a section entitled, 'Some Old Lancashire Superstitions'. In this section magpies are mentioned:

The magpie occupied a curious position in this world of superstitious belief. A single magpie was one of the worst of evil omens, but when accompanied by others there was a different significance attaching to each number, as set out in the rhyme -

"One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding
Four for a birth"

In some parts of Lancashire they carried on the numbers thus-

"Five for rich,
Six for poor,
Seven for a witch,
I can tell you no more."

Gentle and simple alike regarded the single magpie as the harbinger of evil, and various charms were resorted to, which were supposed to avert the evil influence, when the bird was seen. One was to raise the hat, if it was a man, or to curtsey, if it was a woman, in polite salutation; another was to make the sign of the cross upon the breast, or make the same sign by crossing the thumbs."

My Nan, of Lancashire heritage, taught me the magpie superstition as a child (as an adult I am no longer superstitious). She taught me that one must salute the magpie if it were a single bird in order to avoid whatever dangers a magpie was thought to bring. Many a time on the bus I would surreptitiously salute a magpie hoping that no-one would think I were mad. The rhyme I was taught was quite different:

"One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told,
Eight for a letter,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird you cannot miss."

Arghhhhhh, run for your lives!

I wonder where this magpie superstition came from? The book mentions that for anglers the 'pyat' signalled good or bad fishing - one bird alone meant the other was keeping the eggs or young ones warm due to the cold weather, two birds meant that it was mild enough to leave the nest - therefore good fishing.

Magpies are unpopular with farmers because of their liking for grain and with gamekeepers because they steal eggs, they are also known for their thieving ways taking a fancy to bright shiny objects. Birds from the crow family have featured in superstitions and 'omens' since at least the middle ages, often being linked with witchcraft. Indeed, it is not just those from Lancashire who dislike magpies, a quick Google showed that all over Great Britain and Europe they feature in various omens and superstitions. I read somewhere that in Korea they believe magpies can foretell the arrival of guests.

It's a funny old world.


  1. Thank you for the interesting post. I've never heard that about magpies before. I wonder if there are the same supersitions in the US about them? I'll have to look that up.

    You're right about it being a funny old world! :o)

  2. it is a funny old world. thinking of superstitions...I remember being in a bookstore and this mom told her son not to walk under a ladder because it was bad luck. I laughed and deliberately walked under the ladder. Not sure they saw me...but...

  3. Sarah, not only do we share our name, but I to salute the magpie. My gran used to spit into her hanky, to get rid of the Jin/gin. Then salute and say "good morning Mr Magpie, hows the Mrs?"

    Spitting like in my big fat greek wedding.

    Ladders, cracks, under road signs like ladders, new shoes on the table.

    Heck I observe them all. I am surely made

  4. Susan - glad you enjoyed the post.

    Cabcree - I think the worst thing that can happen is a pot of paint or window cleaner etc dropping on your head from walking under a ladder.

    Slice of Life, did you ever say 'bread and butter' when you were separated from a companion as you walked down the street (i.e. you both walked either side of a signpost). That has got to be one of the weirder superstitions.

    hang on - found it on wikipedia: