Monday, June 16, 2014

One for sorrow, two for joy - Magpies across Europe

You can be followed by your shadow. You can be haunted by a ghost. But how about a combination of the two in the form of a bird?

The black and white feathers of the magpie reminded me of shadows and spectres, but while these strange birds seemed to follow me around Europe, I was not afraid of their dark omens. Their old rhyme goes:

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.

My British friend teased me continuously about the amount of magpies we encountered as he drove me around the English countryside. He said he'd never seen so many in his life, so they must be following me. Either because I was a magpie in disguise, or because they were drawn to my sparkly personality. Whatever it may have been, the birds were there at every turn of my journey. Down small country roads, they perched by fields; in London, a city engulfed in pigeons, I saw magpies pecking in the Leathermarket Park; by the shore, they watched as I passed.

I thought the sightings would stop once I left England, but I continued to see them in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Hanau.

British folklore dictates that seeing a solitary magpie is unlucky, and the only way to reverse the bad luck is to salute the bird, or ask after its wife. This makes it seem that although the magpie is alone, he does have a mate, so the one for sorrow rule can be translated into two for joy. In Scotland, it's believed that seeing a solo magpie by a window of a house means death is on its way. The bird is considered a trickster and a thief all over Europe because of its cunning intellect and fondness for stealing shiny objects. The Ancient Romans associated the magpie with Bacchus, the god of wine, and considered it an animal of reasoning powers and intelligence. While in China, it is considered lucky and its name translates to "happiness magpie."

No matter the continent, magpies seem to capture the imagination and have inspired folklore and superstition for hundreds of years. Their intelligence and ritualistic behaviours might have something to do with that.

The magpie is part of the corvid family, which also includes ravens and crows. They're not only considered one of the smartest birds, but one of the smartest animals in general, with their brains being compared to those of primates. Their use of tools, mimicry, social rituals, teamwork, and strategy, put them in a class of their own. They have been known to pass self-recognition tests, the only non-mammal to have done so. With their crafty brains, striking black and white plumage, and ability to outsmart their friends and foes, is it any wonder that they've been associated with witchcraft and effect superstition.

I saw an innumerable amount of magpies during my travels, and no rhyme or lore can predict the uncountable. One for sorrow, two for joy... a hundred for endless possibility. I choose to side with the Chinese belief that the magpie is a messenger of good fortune and happiness. If my British friend thinks these birds were following me, and that I might be one in disguise, I'll take it as the highest compliment.

Superstitious or not, they are welcome at my window any day.

A magpie sits across the street from the house I stayed at in Canterbury. 

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