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The Magpie


Source: Welsh Folk-lore

The magpie was considered a bird of ill-omen. No one liked to see a
magpie when starting on a journey, but in certain parts of
Montgomeryshire, such as the parish of Llanwnog, if the magpie flew from
left to right it foretold good luck; in other parts, such as
Llansantffraid, if seen at all, it was considered a sign of bad luck.

However, fortunately, a person could make void this bad luck, for he had
only to spit on the ground, and make a cross with his finger, or stick,
through the spittle, and boldly say--

Satan, I defy thee,

and the curse, or bad luck, indicated by the appearance of the magpie,
could not then come.

The number of magpies seen implied different events. It was a common

One's grief, two's mirth,
Three's a marriage, four's a birth;

and another rendering of the above heard in Montgomeryshire was:--

One for bad luck,
Two for good luck,
Three for a wedding,
Four for a burying.

Another ditty is as follows:--

One's joy, two's greet (crying),
Three's a wedding, four's a sheet (death).

As stated above, one is grief, or bad luck, if it flies from right to
left, but if from left to right it implied success or joy. So these
various readings can only be reconciled by a little verbal explanation,
but four's a birth cannot be made to be an equivalent to four's a
sheet, a winding sheet, or a burying, by any amount of ingenuity.

Should a magpie be seen stationary on a tree, it was believed that the
direction in which it took its flight foretold either success or disaster
to the person who observed it. If it flew to the left, bad luck was to
follow; if to the right, good luck; if straight, the journey could be
undertaken, provided the bird did not turn to the left whilst in sight,
but disappeared in that direction.

I heard the following tale in Denbighshire:--In days of old, a company of
men were stealthily making their way across the country to come upon the
enemy unawares. All at once they espied a magpie on a tree, and by
common consent they halted to see which way it would take its flight, and
thus foretell the fortune which would attend their journey. One of the
party, evidently an unbeliever in his comrades' superstition, noiselessly
approached the bird, and shot it dead, to the great horror of his
companions. The leader of the party, in great anger, addressed the
luckless archer--You have shot the bird of fate, and you shall be shot.
The dauntless man said, I shot the magpie, it is true, but if it could
foretell our fate, why could it not foresee its own? The archer's
reasoning was good, but I do not know whether people were convinced by
logic in those distant times, any more than they are in ours.

I will relate one other tale of the magpie, which I heard upwards of
twenty years ago in the parish of Llanwnog, Montgomeryshire.

I was speaking to a farmer's wife--whose name it is not necessary to
give, as it has nothing to do with the tale--when a magpie flew across
our view. Ah! she ejaculated, you naughty old thing, what do you want
here? I see, said I, you think she brings bad luck with her. Oh,
yes, was the response, I know she does. What makes you so positive,
said I, that she brings bad luck with her? My question elicited the
following story. My friend commenced:--You know the brook at the bottom
of the hill. Well, my mother met with very bad luck there, a good many
years ago, and it was in this way--she was going to Newtown fair, on our
old horse, and she had a basket of eggs with her. But, just as she was
going to leave the 'fould,' a magpie flew before her. We begged of her
not to go that day--that bad luck would attend her. She would not listen
to us, but started off. However, she never got further than the brook,
at the bottom of the hill, for, when she got there, the old mare made
straight for the brook, and jerked the bridle out of mother's hand, and
down went the mare's head to drink, and off went the basket, and poor
mother too. All the eggs were broken, but I'm glad to say mother was not
much the worse for her fall. But ever since then I know it is unlucky to
see a magpie. But sir, she added, there is no bad luck for us to-day,
for the magpie flew from left to right.

The magpie was thought to be a great thief, and it was popularly supposed
that if its tongue were split into two with silver it could talk like a

The cry of the magpie is a sign of rain. To man its dreaded notes
indicated disaster, thus:--

Clyw grechwen nerth pen, iaith pi--yn addaw
Newyddion drwg i mi.

List! the magpie's hoarse and bitter cry
Shows that misfortune's sigh is nigh.

If this bird builds her nest at the top of a tree the summer will be dry;
if on the lower branches, the summer will be wet.

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