The magpie belongs to the family of corvidae. It’s easily recognizable by it’s black-and-white coat feathers and it’s loud, rasping voice. The magpie is an intelligent bird that adapts easily to different environments.
Corvids have long been associated with bad luck, and it’s no different for the magpie. It’s a bird of witches and the Devil, announcing bad luck and even death.There are many folk stories in which witches take the shape of magpies, or travel on the backs of magpies.The West-Flemish nickname, or slur, aakster or akstere, which derives from Dutch ekster (magpie), means as much as ‘witch’ or ‘sorceress’. According to the Flemish writer Guido Gezelle, “if you can watch a magpie or crow in the living eye and therein see your own image, reduced, make a pear tree with the head down and the legs in the air, it is certain that you have a wizard or witch in your hands.”
It is thanks to their associations with the Devil and witches that magpies have got the gift of predicting doom, death and war. In The Distaff Gospels, a small 15th century manuscript containing 15th-century superstitions, one of the women ensures the reader that when the magpies cry before noon and one sees them from the frond, good will come – but when one sees the magpies after noon and sees their backs, evil will always follow. The way magpies fly tells a lot – in the Ardennes a magpie flying from right to left is bad news for someone who is traveling, while in Bretagne this goes for magpies flying from left to right.
In the German Eifel area the magpie is called Totenvogel, ‘death bird’. This idea is actually wide spread, to the point that when magies fly above a particular house while for a long period of time, the person living in that house will die. In other areas it is believed that it will not cause death – but even still, an unwelcome visitor will arive…
In western Flanders, folklore says that it is a bad start of the day to see a magpie. The lore of this unlucky bird goes on and on, and I will write more of it soon. Still, I’m glad to see how many people are actually quite fond of this bird!
(Image header: Rubens Peale, Magpie eating cake, 1865)
Source: Boussauw, Johan. Vogels in volksgeloof, magie en mythologie. Tirion Uitgevers, 2005.