Arguably no bird in history has received such bad press as the Magpie, associated with evil, mistrust, bad luck and dubbed a thief.
The rhyme “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy” determines whether a person will encounter good or bad luck depending on how many Magpies they see. Various different versions of the rhyme exist, and we’ll be taking a look at what might lie in store for you if you’ve just seen a single Magpie, a pair or even a group of 13 of these fascinating black and white corvids.
The most common version of this nursery rhyme is as follows:
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.
One of the world’s most recognizable bird species, the Magpie is also well-known to be an incredibly sociable bird once the breeding season ends. Groups of juvenile Magpies gather from late summer onwards and are then frequently joined by adults to form flocks of up to a dozen or more.
The collective name for a group of Magpies is often referred to as a mischief, a congregation or a tribe, and they can symbolize both good and bad impending fortune.
The famous ‘One for Sorrow’ Magpie rhyme has undergone several revisions and adaptations over the centuries and has since become ingrained in folklore, with superstitious antidotes to counteract any bad luck associated with Magpies also being widely practiced.
An Eurasian Magpie. One of the world’s most recognizable bird species, the Magpie is also well-known to be an incredibly sociable bird once the breeding season ends
The most common version of the One for Sorrow rhyme today has a line for each number of Magpies spotted up to seven, although some fairly common alternatives continue up to sightings of 10 and even 13 individual birds. You can learn more about the earliest written version of the Magpie rhyme below.
Origins of the superstitions associated with Magpies can be traced back to the 16th century when they were noted for their noisy chattering presence. The first written record of the Magpie rhyme dates from 1777, in John Brand’s “Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain” was a simple four-line verse, alternating between positive and negative fortunes.
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral
Four for a birth
The meaning of each line is fairly unambiguous, contrasting between sadness, happiness, tragedy and celebration. Future versions included additional lines and subtle changes, but no matter how many Magpies you encounter, they remain strongly bound up in superstition and folklore centuries later.
We’re all probably fairly familiar with the opening lines that refer to one or two Magpies, and it’s likely that you’ve heard of the rhymes for lines three and four, but what comes next, and what does it all mean? To learn more about the lines that follow ‘One for Sorrow’ keep on reading!
The most common version of the Magpie counting rhyme stops at seven:
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.
A Black-billed Magpie. Origins of the superstitions associated with Magpies can be traced back to the 16th century when they were noted for their noisy chattering presence
The opening line suggests that when one lone Magpie is spotted, sadness will surely follow. One theory that explains why a solo Magpie may be a cause for misfortune is that Magpies tend to mate for life. A Magpie spotted on its own could indicate that it has lost its mate, which of course, is a valid reason for sorrow.
However, all is not lost if only a single Magpie crosses your path. Different traditions have evolved that aim to cancel out any potential bad luck.
Some people salute and bid the bird good morning, hoping that this is enough to change it to a positive encounter. Others greet the Magpie with a friendly “Good morning Mr Magpie, how’s your wife and family?” suggesting that in fact there is actually more than just one unlucky lone Magpie in the picture.
At this point, the rhyme takes a more optimistic turn. The second line, two for joy, contrasts with the imagery of a lone Magpie, with the sight of a pair together being a sign of great happiness.
Three for a girl, and four for a boy offer nature’s answer to a gender-reveal for any pregnant women that cross paths with a trio or quartet of Magpies. Although it’s not always entirely accurate, these lines definitely spark conversations among anyone expecting a baby themselves or their close friends or relatives who might see three or four Magpies in the months before the birth.
Five for silver, and six for gold indicate levels of impending good fortune, with silver and gold representing wealth and prosperity in the immediate future.
Seven for a secret never to be told, is perhaps the most ambiguous line, as it isn’t immediately clear if this is a positive fortune or a more sinister omen. The mysterious secret could be either good news that is not to be shared, or it could be a burden of truth that someone has to carry eternally without ever speaking of it out loud.
A Pair of Eurasian Magpies perching together on a branch
The four-line original rhyme conveys the ideas of contrasting sadness and happiness, and good and bad fortune, but is not quite as specific as the modern version that has since evolved. In modern times, meanings are offered for sightings of up to 13 Magpies relating to future health, wealth and happiness. Read on to learn about what different numbers of Magpies might represent.
A longer version of the rhyme, which continues to map the significance of up to 13 Magpies, was popular in the English county of Lancashire, spelling out further potential good fortunes that you may encounter when seeing a larger number of Magpies, although you may wish you hadn’t counted 13 when you read the meaning below.
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.
This reflects an earlier version from the 1840s, which was included in the Proverbs and Popular Saying of the Seasons by Michael Aislabie Denham, which followed the original wording with three additional lines:
Five for heaven,
Six for hell,
Seven for the devil, his own self.
In the Victorian era, Magpies were viewed as evil and were feared across society and as a result, they were hunted almost to the point of extinction. Their reputation as thieves of silver and precious jewels stems from the early 19th century, when works of playwrights and composers used Magpies as symbols of trickery and cunning, playing on their association with the devil and adding to public fear of the species.
An Eurasian Magpie. In the Victorian era, Magpies were viewed as evil and were feared across society and as a result, they were hunted almost to the point of extinction
Magpies generally get bad press, as evil, wicked, vicious, sneaky, thieving, conniving, and cruel. But just how did these black and white birds become the black sheep of the avian world? Read on to find out.
At the time of the Crucifixion, a Magpie and a Dove were said to have perched on the cross of Jesus Christ. While the Dove showed comfort and mourned, the Magpie allegedly didn’t display any grief, and since this time, it has been associated with negativity and ill fortune.
In even earlier times, it’s said that the Magpie was the only bird that didn’t enter the ark built by Noah at the time of the Great Flood, choosing instead to remain outside on the vessel’s mast post, cursing in the pouring rain.
Magpies are also believed to carry a drop of the devil’s blood under their tongues. Another tale, with origins in the early Church, states that if a Magpie’s tongue is cut, the Magpie would then be capable of human speech.
Continuing the religious theme, French folklore believes that Magpies are in fact reincarnations of evil nuns! Far-fetched as this may sound, the grains of the myth have trickled through to modern society and these pied corvids have found it hard to shake off their undesirable image in much of Western Europe.
In other parts of the world, particularly East Asia, Magpies enjoy a slightly more favorable reputation. In China, they are a symbol of good fortune and happiness, particularly when heard singing. In Korea, Magpies are seen as messengers carrying positive news, while in Mongolia, they are viewed as highly intelligent birds that can predict the weather.
A Black-billed Magpie. Magpies generally get bad press, as evil, wicked, vicious, sneaky, thieving, conniving, and cruel
Magpies have carried their air of intrigue into the modern era, and the nursery rhyme remains fixed in popular culture. Read on to learn more about the lasting lure of the Magpie.
The Magpie rhyme enjoyed a renewed wave of fans when the nursery rhyme was used as the theme tune of a children’s magazine-style TV show called “Magpie” that ran from 1968 to 1980. The show offered a series of badges related to the rhyme to viewers who wrote in, ensuring that ‘One for Sorrow’ and the lines that followed were firmly fixed in the minds of a new generation.
The US rock band Counting Crows’ name was inspired by the rhyme, and their hit single “A Murder of One” uses lyrics that are closely related to the Magpie verse.
Slightly further back, Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) references the association with Magpies as kleptomaniacs, being attracted to - and stealing - shiny or precious objects.
Magpies remain one of the least popular garden birds, according to a UK report, with their bloodthirsty scavenging habits, reputation for stealing eggs and killing young songbirds, and noisy confrontations around any food left out at bird feeders, driving off smaller birds with their intimidating presence.
For balance, in certain parts of the world Magpies are revered: they are the national bird of Korea and are believed to be sacred guardians and prophetic messengers in Shamanism.
Love them or hate them, they remain one of the most recognizable birds of the modern world and are enjoying a population boom, now standing as the 13th-most commonly seen bird in British gardens. Whether this increase in sightings has led to an increase in good fortunes remains to be seen!
Oriental Magpies are the national bird of Korea and are believed to be sacred guardians and prophetic messengers in Shamanism
As distinctive as it is in appearance, the Magpie also enjoys a memorable, if not slightly unwelcome, reputation that continues to pass through generations via the “One for Sorrow” rhyme. Many old proverbs have not survived the transition into modern times, so what makes the Magpie an exception?
Maybe it’s the simplicity of the rhyme itself, or perhaps the optimistic hope that good fortune could truly be linked to the number of Magpies spotted on a walk in the park that has so many people continuing to recite the rhyme in their heads when a noisy mob of black and white birds crosses their path.
Oral tradition plays a key role in shaping modern lives, and sayings relating to the natural world hold a special place in engaging future generations with the wonders of wildlife that exist all around us.
Magpies have a long association with both good and bad luck, and the famous ‘One for Sorrow’ rhyme has, over the centuries, reinforced the idea that seeing a flock of magpies together signifies that bad fortune lies ahead.
The superstitions have religious origins, with magpies being seen as suspicious and untrustworthy across much of Europe and the United States. However in East Asia, particularly China and Korea, magpies are a symbol of good luck.
Of all wild birds, none are so widely linked with bad fortune as the magpie, as the reputation of this black-and-white corvid throughout Europe will testify.
However, birds and animals are a common theme in many other traditional tales and nursery rhymes. Twenty-four blackbirds were baked in a pie in Sing-a-Song-of-Sixpence, and the Cock Robin was the victim of a baffling wildlife whodunnit.
In the UK, a long-standing superstition relates to the presence of ravens at the Tower of London. According to legend, if the Tower’s six resident ravens all leave, then the monarchy will fall.
A 2016 crime novel by Antony Horowitz, called The Magpie Murders, references the nursery rhyme in both its title and its storylines. A quick search online shows that there are no fewer than 15 books in current publication with the title “One for Sorrow”, ranging from memoirs to crime thrillers and children’s counting books.
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