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Magpie Rhyme – One For Sorrow, Two For Joy

July 1, 2022
bird carrying seeds from a nest box answering why are birds important
a robin looking at humans
a magpie that inspired the magpie rhyme singing in a tree

Many birds come with a lot of lore, and one bird, in particular, has its own rhyme. Magpies have often been the source of many superstitions; thus, the Magpie Rhyme was born. While some cultures view a magpie as a bad omen, others see them as a sign of good luck and heralding good fortune. 

As with most superstitions, there is a little bit of truth hidden in these stories, but these are more related to the “fear of the unknown” than the birds themselves. 

What Is The Full Magpie Rhyme?

 

a magpie that inspired the magpie rhyme on a garden path

There are many different versions of the Magpie Rhyme[i]; however, the original one was first recorded in 1780 in John Brand’s Observations On Popular Antiquities;

One for sorrow, Two for joy,

Three for a girl, Four for a boy,

Five for silver, Six for gold, 

Seven for a story yet to be told. 

The full version of the Magpie Rhyme has a few extra verses added:

Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss,

Ten for a bird, You must not miss. 

The Different Versions Of The Magpie Rhyme

 

a singing magpie

Over the years, many different versions of the Magpie Rhyme have appeared, and your location and background may have determined which version you grew up with. As we mentioned earlier, John Brand’s Observations On Popular Antiquities recorded one of the original versions in 1780. John Brand was a member of the clergy of the Church of England who spent his life observing and recording English folklore. One full version is somewhat scarier than others[ii]

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 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.

What Is The Magpie Superstition?

 

The superstitions behind this rhyme[iii] mean that if you see one magpie, expect sadness to follow. This usually resulted in people desperately scanning the skies, hoping to spot a second magpie. Some interesting superstitions surrounding magpies, which possibly inspired the rhyme, included: 

  • Scots believing magpies to be evil with a drop of the devil’s blood under their tongues
  • The French believed evil priests were reincarnated as magpies or crows. 
  • Early Christians saw the bird as vain for not having fully black feathers to mourn the crucifixion. It is said that the magpie was the only bird not to sing or offer comfort during the crucifixion of Christ. 

Perhaps some of this lore is due to magpies being territorial and aggressively protective of their nests, epically during the breeding season when there are eggs or young magpies in the nest. They are known to swoop down on pedestrians and peck or claw at their heads. 

As with all superstitions, there is always a loophole. While some believe one magpie is an omen of bad luck, many people would look around to spot another magpie to negate the bad luck, or they would greet the singular magpie with a “Good morning, Mr Magpie. How is your lady wife?” This simple greeting was said to be a sign of respect for the magpie so he would not pass on any bad luck. People also believe that by mentioning the magpie’s wife, you would be acknowledging that there were indeed two magpies, and two were considered good luck. 

Perhaps this part of the rhyme is related to the fact that magpies tend to mate for life, and if the mate were to die, the surviving magpie would indeed be very sorrowful. Magpies are also attracted to shiny objects and would steal jewellery whenever people presented the opportunity to them. It goes without saying that finding a precious piece missing would definitely be considered bad luck.

Debunking The Magpie Rhyme!

 

The important thing to note is that while the Magpie Rhyme is a part of British folklore, it is based purely on superstition, and magpies won’t bring you bad luck, no matter how many of them you see. As with most birds, they are beneficial to the environment and, for the most part, these birds are quite harmless. However, if you do see a magpie sitting alone in a tree, there is no harm in greeting the bird and asking about his wife. 


Sources

  [i] https://www.birdspot.co.uk/culture/one-for-sorrow-magpie-nursery-rhyme 

[ii] https://birdfact.com/articles/one-for-sorrow-nursery-rhyme-about-magpies 

[iii] https://www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/curious-questions-origin-one-sorrow-two-joy-rhyme-magpies-191254#:~:text=One%20for%20sorrow%2C%20Two%20for%20joy%2C,story%20yet%20to%20be%20told

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6 comments

  1. I always watch the magpies from my bedroom window as I sit and enjoy a cup of tea in bed, that my husband brings up. They often sit on the window ledge outside and seem to “talk” with us.
    They are so beautiful and today is frosty with sunshine. They look stunning against the many autumnal colours of the trees on the allotments across the road from us. Today I counted eleven, which is why I wanted to know how many there are in the rhyme.

  2. Hello,
    I have at least 10 Magpies living in my roof (not sure how many). They seem to love my garden… I provide food occasionally and water throughout summer…

    They seem to be happy and healthy ..
    However, I’m a little concerned about the roof…

    Anyway, the idea is to conserve what little nature we have left…. so I’ll fix the tiles and keep feeding the birds…

  3. Are you made of wood? That sounds like something a witch would say about magpie’s. Everyone knows Magpie’s have witches blood

  4. A wonderful rhyme. I’ve read it goes up to 20, but I think it gets a bit tedious after 10, and 13 is definitely not nice as far as magpies go.
    I love magpies, and I get them regularly in my garden; no doubt it’s the GWD products they get!
    They are also very fond of cat biscuits.

  5. i have a male a femalemagpie there partners and now there baby which is a girl comes withthem whe i feed the mind you this is the first baby they have allowed to be with them