|A Lonesome Magpie|
Photo: Christophe Libert
I have to admit that I do have a thing about magpies. It's my only superstition or 'weird' thing. (I don't walk under ladders either but that is more a common sense thing than superstition.) If I see a magpie, I do ask him how he's doing and enquire about his spouse. I do it under my breath in a muttering kind of way, as opposed to a full blown 'everyone can hear me' voice. I try not to appear like a complete rambling lunatic wandering the streets talking to birds. To accompany the muttering I also salute the magpie as subtly as possible, again to prevent my neighbours and random people in the street, train or school playground from thinking I am a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
When my Dutch husband first saw the mumbling, saluting spectacle he was a little perturbed. He had not seen it before. It meant nothing to him. A British thing maybe? I know I am not alone - a good friend never lets a magpie go by without an acknowledgement either...... Apparently no Dutch folklore about magpies, if my husband is to be believed.
However, where I come from folklore has it that a lone magpie is a bad omen. As one version of the poem or childhood ditty goes seeing one magpie means only sorrow. If you see two, however, you're ok:
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's a wish
Nine's a kiss
Ten is a bird you must not miss
Why does the magpie have such a reputation of ill luck? Well, there are lots of theories, folklore and plain nonsense on this topic. There is no denying that magpies are a bit naughty, thieving nice, shimmery, silver things. So that for a start doesn't put them in anyone's good books.
They are also downright aggressive. They chase away tuneful songbirds from the garden and steal eggs from nests. I can attest to this as two years ago we had a pair of nesting wood pigeons in our garden. Those poor birds were hounded, cajoled and attacked until they abandoned the nest and the magpies presumably took the eggs. I was also traumatised as a teenager watching a magpie scoop up a duckling from its mother and fly away with it. Presumably not to keep as a pet.
Scottish folklore tells that a magpie near the window of a house signifies that death will come to the house. This rings in my ears too.
Many years ago my grandad was hospitalised with cancer. We were told to expect the worst and prepare ourselves for the end. He wouldn't be going back home. My mum and her sister kept a bedside vigil and me, my brother and my cousins visited when we could. One morning my mum and aunt went outside for a breather. Whilst stood outside the front of the hospital a single magpie flew down in front of them. They knew to go back inside. They went in to his room and my mum described that it was as if he had waited for them to return. He looked at them both and passed away peacefully. It is a story that will stay with me forever: and it's the main reason why you may just catch me mumbling and saluting in the company of magpies. I'm taking no chances.
What superstitions are related to your home or host country? Is a single magpie a bad omen in your home or host country?