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?
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
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.