Magpie Symbolism Explained
Back before the 1500s in the UK the magpie was just called the pie because of the colours. Black and white combinations are called pie (like the pied wagtail which is black and white). But sometime during the 16th century someone added the prefix “mag” which means chatterer, and It’s not too hard to understand why. Magpies have a long history with mankind, and somewhere along the way, they got a bad press.
Magpies can be found pretty much anywhere that man is including the continents of North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. As people moved around in nomadic times, the magpie would follow and scavenge through their leftovers. They have a varied habitat, they like to live in gardens, hedgerows and wooded areas. Unlike many birds magpies mate for life, they are often called nosy but it’s more that they’re inquisitive.
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What Does The Scientific Name For The Magpie Mean?
We know that the word magpie can be broken down to two coloured talkers, but what about the scientific name “Pica Pica”? According to Merriam-Webster the word pica means an eating disorder – or:
“an abnormal desire to eat substances
(such as chalk or ashes) not normally eaten”
Which does sort of make sense as magpies do appear to eat virtually anything. The Latin word pica actually means magpie.
Magpies And Superstition
Magpies are members of the Corvid family, that’s the crow and raven family so it was always going to be hard to get pleasant thoughts about them during those dark, superstitious times of Medieval Britain. Add to that the black and white colouration with the added hues of blue – purple on the wings and you have the perfect idea of evil. They are also attracted to anything that shines, if you find a bird’s nest with silver foil, or other shiny objects and you can be pretty sure, you’ve found a magpie’s nest. So they also have the reputation of being thieves, it’s not looking good for poor old Mr. Magpie.
There’s an old nursery rhyme about the magpie that was also used for the song which introduced a children’s TV program back in the 1970s that was entitled Magpie. But that nursery rhyme was a cleaned up version of a poem from the 1770s that has more versions than we can ever record.
One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil’s own sel’.
As Far as we can tell, this was the original, but there are many other versions and some additions that are interesting. As far as we can find the highest amount of magpies seen in connection with the rhyme are 13 and one of them goes like this:
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss
Eleven for health
Twelve for wealth
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.
As 13 is often associated with bad luck we can understand why the devil gets a mention in the 13th verse. There is also another that uses some pretty colourful language, but only gets up to 12 and probably harks from the days of the 100 years war with Britain’s oldest adversity, and it goes like this:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for rich,
Six for poor,
Seven for a bitch,
Eight for a whore,
Nine for a funeral,
Ten for a dance,
Eleven for England,
Twelve for France
Yet another version runs as follows:
I saw eight magpies in a tree,
Two for you and six for me.
One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth.
Five for England, six for France,
Seven for a fiddler, eight for a dance.
In the UK magpies have had an association with bad fortune, death, witchcraft and the devil. For instance in Yorkshire their association with witchcraft is so strong that people used to cross themselves if they saw them. In Scotland it was believed that magpies had a drop of the devil’s blood under their tongue, and if you saw one near a window death would follow soon. The Scots also believed that scratching a magpie’s tongue with a sharp piece of an unmilled sixpence (old silver coin) and a drop of human blood dripped into the wound, the bird would be able to speak like a man.
The Church And The Magpie
According to some christian traditions, the magpie is a really bad piece of work. Their traditions (not from the Bible) say that the magpie represents the devil because during the crucifixion of Jesus a dove and a magpie sat on the cross. The dove apparently caught one of Christ’s tears but the magpie never.
The church also started the myth that magpies have a drop of the devil’s blood under their tongues, and if you cut the tongue of a magpie off, it would be able to speak like a human. They also said that of all the creatures to enter Noahs’ Ark, the magpie refused to go in. It apparently sat on top of the ark and laughed while the world drowned.
There is also the tradition that if you see a solitary magpie whilst travelling on your way to church, you should cross yourself while repeating “Devil, Devil, I defy thee” to ward off evil or negative energy. They also say that it’s pied appearance signifies the Holy colour (white) and the colour of evil (black).
There are other superstitions associated with magpies and death or misfortune. But it’s interesting that these only started once the church started to bad mouth them. More on the other side of magpie symbolism later but first, some more superstition from the medieval and Victorian times.
Good Morning Mr. Magpie
Showing reverence and respect to the magpie dates back many hundreds of years, and there are many different rituals practised in the presence of a single magpie. Some people used to:
- Greet a single magpie by saying “Good morning, Mr Magpie, how are Mrs Magpie and all the other little magpies?”
- Say “good morning General”
- Say “Good morning Captain”
- “Good morning mister magpie, how is your lady wife today?”
- “Hello Jack, how’s your brother?”
- Raise their hat
- Doff their cap
- Wave a friendly greeting
All of the above were supposed to ward off the bad luck, or evil supposedly coming your way. Others believed that if you saw a single crow immediately after seeing a lone magpie, the curse was cancelled.
The Symbolism Of Magpies
Historically speaking the magpie is a very symbolic bird. As the above superstitions show, we have attached a significance to their presence in our lives for centuries. From nursery rhymes to the church’s association with the personification of evil, there is so much more associated with the actions of the magpie.
Magpies And Freedom
OK we might be reaching here as all birds are associated with freedom, and why not? They can fly unhindered by gravity like we are, they cross boundaries from one garden to another, and borders from one country to another too. It doesn’t matter how many “no entry” or “Private property” signs you put up, the birds will ignore them if they see something to attract them.
Magpies will attack other smaller birds’ nests and prey on the hatchlings, nestlings and even the fledglings of sparrows and finches. That’s why you will always see little birds flapping their wings and chirping if they see a magpie. Those little birds will fight to the death to protect their offspring, and this is probably why we associate them with death here in the UK. Plus they are members of the crow family, a bird family well known for eating human remains on battlefields etc.
So the magpie is the harbinger of doom on his own, but in pairs according to the rhyme they bring joy – happiness. But as long as you show respect to a single magpie you’ll be ok – or will you?
How Do The French Regard Magpies?
Let’s face it, as a nation, we don’t have a very, how can we put it? We don’t have a very agreeable history with the French. So it probably won’t surprise you to find out they don’t agree with us about magpies either.
They believe seeing a magpie signifies good luck, because way back when we lived in forests, if there was a hungry wolf prowling around looking for a snack, and a magpie spotted him, they would squawk like there’s no tomorrow (which for us there probably wouldn’t be without the magpies warning). In thanks for this long remembered and never to be forgotten service, the French put bundles of sticks in trees for the friendly magpie to make a nest with.
In China, they pretty much agree with the French, they believe magpies are representative of good fortune and happiness. The Chinese name for the magpie is xǐ què and the first word, xǐ is Chinese for happiness – In fact, if they see 2 magpies facing each other, it means twice the happiness. Plus there’s an old myth in Chinese folklore that puts magpies in a really good light.
The Cowherd And The Weaver Girl
This is the story of a budding romance between Zhinü a weaver girl (who represents the star Vega) and Niulang a cowherd (symbolising the star Altair). Their romantic notions were frowned upon and as a punishment they were sent to opposite sides of the heavenly river (depicting the milky way). Every year on the seventh day of the seventh Lunar month a flock of magpies formed a bridge so the 2 lovers could be reunited for a single day. This story is also known in Viet Nam, Japan and Korea.
The Story Of The Manchu Minority
The Manchu are an ethnic minority in China and this is the story of how they came to be…
The Goddess Fokulon and her 2 sisters were sitting by a lake playing, when a beautiful magpie carrying a red fruit flew over them. The bird dropped the fruit and Fokulon picked it up and ate it. Some months later she gave birth to a son, she called him Bukulirongshun; he was the ancestor of the Manchu minority.
Bukulirongshun and all of his descendants were skilled fighters and all heroic, so all of the neighbouring tribes formed an alliance to kill them. Which they did quite successfully except for one boy whose name was Fancha. The alliance troops found out about Fancha and gave chase. After alluding his would be killers for a whole day( in which he kept on running) he stopped to catch his breath and they almost caught him, but as he stood there in the fading light of dusk, a magpie landed on his head. From a distance he looked like a tree trunk and his would-be killers ran in the other direction. So Fancha survived the genocide that happened to his tribe.
Fancha was so grateful to the magpie and he believed it was a sacred bird. And that it was the magpie that brought him good luck and happiness.
The Courageous Magpie
Magpies are not afraid of humans, in fact they constantly edge closer to us. But they are also very aware of any threat we might present to them. There are those that believe they have a magpie spirit totem. These people are very courageous, but also remain cautious so as not to put themselves or their family in any danger.
In some cases, the magpie’s courageous displays against some of its predators borders on arrogance, often with catastrophic results for the bird. If you dream of magpies, many believe it is a warning to be more cautious in your life. Learn some humility, and show respect towards others.
Magpies often have more than one hatchling per season, with both parents building the nest, feeding the young and watching out for the fledgling. So people with the magpie totem are often very family orientated people, showing love, kindness and loyalty.
Magpies are black and white, the symbols of light and darkness, negative and positive. Thus the magpie spirit guide is showing that you need to be balanced in thoughts, deeds and emotions. When you have the magpie spirit totem you become more spiritually aware and less bothered with material possessions and on your true path to achieving peace.
What Do Magpies Mean From A Symbolic View Point?
As we’ve seen so far, magpies are revered in some parts of the world, and mistrusted and even hated in others. So what do magpies mean symbolically? Magpies bring:
Magpies tend to be loud communicators, singing often to each other. They are very social birds, with a bright and breezy personality.
The first part of their name, Mag comes from the old English for chatterer, magpies are constantly talking to each other. They are enthusiastic chirpers and this is part of their character.
Like many other birds, the magpie is a very intelligent bird. It displays its intelligence in the way it remembers words (when trained) and how they can recognise themselves in a mirror – no posturing as if to brow down a foe with the magpie.
In some places the magpie is considered to be the devil, or a witch, or at least be associated with things that are “magic”.
As we saw earlier magpies are not welcome or trusted in some parts of the world. Because they are tricksters, they damage farmers’ crops, steal shiny things, which explains why they are mistrusted in some parts of the world.
No one can doubt a magpie’s opportunism, they steal food, shiny objects, and 3 or 4 magpies will distract and steal food from another bird’s table.
There are magpies on almost every continent in the world, that shows just how adaptable they are. They can survive in all conditions, and seem to find food where there appears to be none. And they will create some sort of distraction to get what they want or need.
Although they are viewed negatively in some circles, they are still very creative and admirable birds. With their black and white coats with the touch of greeny purple, it’s almost as if they are trying to communicate with us on some level.
When looking at the above characteristics, think about your own and how many you share with the magpie. It could be that you already have the magpie spirit totem. Magpies are risk takers for instance, they will work out the chances of stealing food from a farmers field even when the farmer is present. This shows courage, skill, and a great deal of cheek.
Magpies Represent Different Things At Different Times
As can be seen from the symbolic points above, the magpie can mean light or dark, good or bad. It’s for you to work out what these symbols mean at the point in your journey you are at right now. There can be 2 people receiving the same signs, and they can represent 2 completely different paths.
Remember to remain positive, magpies are bringers of joy and positivity. But they can also mean it’s time to change the path you are following and start on a new venture. Magpies are also depicted in folklore as rebels – Not entering the Ark, not crying at the crucifixion etc, if you have a magpie spirit totem, you need to be careful of just what you rebel against, choose your battles wisely.
What Happens When A Magpie Discovers A Dead Magpie?
Magpies, as we heard earlier, mate for life and are truly dedicated to their families. It can take up to 40 days building their large nest, with its top covering as well. They look for food in gangs of between 3 to 5 and can often be seen travelling around the gardens, woodlands or wherever they think they will find food.
When one discovers a dead magpie, it will start calling loudly to attract the attention of other magpies, we have seen upwards of 40 birds all congregating near the dead bird. They all sing and squawk in loud voices for between 10 to 15 minutes, before they all fly off in silence. This exhibits how one call can summon the rest of the clan.
Look at your life, think about who you mix with, and remember that they can help you through periods of loss. Not necessarily death, but the loss of a job, something that has harmed your ego or reputation.
The Magpie Spirit – Comforter
There are times in our lives when we don’t want to hear the truth. What we want is something that deep down we know is wrong, incorrect, fiction. We crave this self-deception because we want to reassure ourselves that what we are doing – or have done is the correct course of action.
For instance, in a study conducted 20 or more years ago, 2 groups were told they either had, or didn’t have an enzyme that would cause serious pancreatic disorders. The group that were told they had this fictitious enzyme were far more likely to rate the test as inaccurate. They didn’t want to think they might be ill so they reasoned that the test was wrong.
We all have a tendency to do similar things to help us feel secure, even with small inconsequential things. If the magpie is your spirit totem you will be more inclined to be less insecure. Remember the story of the Ark, the magpie never feared the storm, he just laughed.
Frequently Asked Questions
Magpies symbolize different things depending on what part of the world you live in. In Western cultures, the magpie symbolizes bad omens, ill tidings and witchcraft. In Eastern cultures, the magpie symbolizes good fortune, good tidings and happiness. They also symbolize bridges and the fantasy world.
The spiritual meaning of a magpie is to be more adventurous, so you can ultimately be victorious. The magpie also stands for the forces of both negative and positive (light and dark) like the markings on a magpie’s feathers.
2 magpies symbolise joy and happiness, on this, both Eastern and Western cultures agree.
A group of magpies is called a mischief.
No, magpies are not mentioned in the bible. There are several mentions of different birds in Leviticus 11: 13-19 and Deuteronomy 14: 12-18 Many of these birds cannot be identified so it’s possible that the magpie is one of them, but they are not named specifically.