Magpies have a very mixed reputation. In much of the Western world, these birds are maligned as thieves, as enemies, of Christ, and as the subject of a great deal of superstition. In actuality magpies are extremely clever corvids who are wholly undeserving of the negative connotations attached to them.
Magpie Symbolism and Meaning
When imagining the symbolism of the magpie, this old nursery rhyme might come to mind:
“One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told,
Eight for Heaven, nine for Hell,
And ten for the Devil’s own self” (1)
While not entirely negative, this rhyme highlights the fact that magpies are firmly connected with superstition, clairvoyance, and omens. In the rhyme itself, the magpie can be seen as representing both birth and sorrow, and heaven and hell.
One of the most popular associations involving the magpie is that of thievery and materialism. Magpie are often thought of as inordinately attracted to shiny objects and unashamedly willing to steal in order to obtain them. This reputation is mostly false, as magpies in experiments demonstrate little preference for shiny objects. Instead, their tendency to pick up bits and bobs demonstrates their incredible intelligence and curiosity. (2)
During their breeding season, especially in Australia, magpies are known to become highly protective and territorial. This time of year is often referred to as “Swooping Season” because fearless magpies will dive at anyone who enters the vicinity of their nest sites. In some areas, people are encouraged to wear anti-magpie helmets to prevent swooping injuries. (3)
The magpie symbolizes magic, superstition, omens, the future, curiosity, intelligence, protection, hostility, and the act of being misunderstood.
Magpie Native American Symbolism
Native American traditions often depict the magpie as an ally to humans. In some cases, though, the magpie appears as a gossiping character who nosily intrudes on the business of others. (4)
Magpie Christianity Symbolism
In some Christian traditions, the magpie is cast as an enemy of Jesus Christ. This is thought to be a partial origin for all of the negative superstitions surrounding this bird.
Magpie Celtic Symbolism
In Celtic traditions, magpies are primarily representative of supernatural forces. Witches sometimes appear in the form of magpies or with magpies as their companions.
Magpie in Dreams
Dreaming of a magpie may represent a number of things based on the superstitions that one subscribes to as well as the circumstances of the dreamer and the context of the dream.
Dreaming of a flock of magpies may indicate a tense social situation. Feelings of foreboding often accompany this sort of dream, but the cause may be a simple misunderstanding.
A dream in which one is “swooped” upon by a magpie may indicate intrusion. Protect your privacy and respect the boundaries of the people in your life, even when these boundaries don’t seem important.
Dreaming of a single magpie may indicate a sense that one has been misunderstood. If others mischaracterize you, try to be patient and remember your true value.
Magpie Encounters and Omens
While instances of “swooping” tend to be unpleasant, magpies in general can make for very fascinating and enjoyable encounters. Often, magpies are seen interacting with their environments in ways that demonstrate their incredible intelligence. Witnessing certain magpie behaviors may be a reminder to nurture your mind and indulge your natural curiosity.
Encountering a specific number of magpies might imply certain predictions based on the popular rhyme mentioned earlier. In this case, one magpie might be seen as a bad sign while two can be seen as a sign of joy. Three might refer to a wedding while four magpies might signal an upcoming birth. The issue with relying on this rhyme is that many versions of it exist which attribute completely different predictions to different numbers of magpies.
Magpie in Mythology & Folklore
Magpies are common in myths and traditions from around the world. The following are just a few magpie tales!
Native American Mythology:
In various Native American traditions, the magpie is an ally to mankind. Many different groups have stories that involve a race between mankind and the buffalo to determine who would eat the other. The magpie is often cast in these stories as one who helps humanity to win. One version of the story states that long ago the buffalo used to prey upon and eat humans. Because the magpie and the eagle did not eat humans, these birds pitied mankind and wanted to help. So, they convinced the buffalo that they would hold a race to determine who could eat whom. Most of the animals sided with humanity, which is why they were not typically chosen as food. Determined to win, the magpie painted his black feathers white in certain spots and began the race. Before long, all of the animals were trailing behind the magpie and the fastest of the buffalo cows. Pacing himself carefully, the magpie overtook the buffalo at the very last second and secured victory for mankind. It is said that to this day their are areas of the buffalo that are not eaten because they contain the last bites of human flesh which the buffalo had eaten before they lost the race. (5)
According to an old Christian legend, when Jesus was crucified two birds landed atop the cross and observed his fate. One of the birds was a dove and the other bird was a magpie. Upon seeing the scene below them, the dove began to weep and mourn for the dying Christ. The magpie, however, stared at the scene with indifference. This story is just one of the many reasons that magpies have a negative reputation in some parts of the world. (6)
According to one Aboriginal “Dreamtime” story, the sky was once so low and close to the ground that no creatures could walk upright nor could any plants grow very high. Humans propped the sky up precariously with sticks, but the magpies, who were tired of being unable to fly, had a better solution. They grabbed a long stick and used the leverage it provided to push the sky back into its rightful place. This allowed the sun to rise for the very first time. (7)
One legend which exists in both Chinese and Japanese folklore is that of the “Bridge of Magpies,” or the “Magpies Across the Milky Way.” This story usually centers upon a weaving princess who creates garments form her loom and a peasant herdsman. The princess looked up from her weaving one day and her eyes met those of the herdsman. Immediately, she loved him so deeply that she convinced her father to allow them to marry. Reluctantly, her father agreed and the happy couple were wed. They were so happy together, though, that the pair began to ignore their work. The princess stopped weaving and the herdsman neglected his livestock. The gods, angry at the carelessness of the couple, punished them by separating the two forever. They placed the princess in one portion of the sky and the herdsman in another, then they made a river of stars between them. The pair could see each other but could never meet. Pitying the sad couple, one of the gods decided to allow them to be together just once more. He sent a flock of magpies into the sky to form a bridge over the river of stars. For one night the livers were reunited before returning to their places and watching the magpies disappear again. (8)
Several of Aesop’s Fables feature the magpie as a character. In The Peacock and the Magpie, the magpie intervenes when the birds of the world almost make a foolish decision. This tale describes all of the birds gathering around to decide on a new king for their kingdom. As the birds convened to choose a leader, the stylish and confident peacock strutted into the assembly and won over the masses with his flashy looks and behavior. Just as the birds began their vote, the magpie spoke up. Turning to the peacock, the magpie asked him what he planned to do to protect the bird kingdom if the fearsome birds of prey decided to attack the helpless songbirds. unable to answer, the Peacock lost the faith of the other birds. From then on, thanks to magpie’s intervention, the birds understood that a leader must be chosen based on their leadership qualities rather than their looks. (9)
The magpie appears again in The Miser and the Magpie. According to this fable, a miser once sat counting his hoarded wealth with his pet magpie in a cage nearby. When the miser glanced away from the coins, his magpie escaped and snatched a single coin away. Being such a greedy miser, the man noticed almost immediately that a coin had disappeared. Quickly, he spotted the magpie attempting to hide his stolen treasure in a crevice. Enraged, the miser declared that the magpie was a thief and that he had every right to kill the bird for its sneaky deed. The magpie, however, responded by pointing out that the miser was no better. By hoarding all of his wealth and behaving in such a stingy fashion the miser had proven himself to be as greedy as any thief. (10)
In The Eagle, the Jackdaw, and the Magpie, the eagle is king of the birds and holds court wherein he presides over birds as they present their disputes. Often, however, the court of the eagle king was interrupted by two birds who would constantly squabble over their ranking within the court. the jackdaw and the magpie both thought of themselves as important courtiers who should have more respect than the other. Tired of the constant competition which interrupted important proceedings, the eagle one day declared that the two birds could settle their dispute amongst themselves. The eagle king decided that he would favor the bird which was determined to be the biggest fool. Predictably, this did little to resolve things. (11)
It seems interesting that the magpie should appear in the first of these two tales as the voice of reason while also appearing as a contender for the biggest fool in the final fable.
Aesop’s Fables are not the only Greek legends which include the magpie, though. The story of the Pierides also features this bird. According to this myth, the Pierides were the nine daughters of a king named Pierus. These daughters believed themselves to be talented singers and were so sure of this fact that they began bragging that their skill was greater than that of the Muses. In response, the Muses held a contest against the Pierides to be judged by a group of nymphs. The Pierides were beaten soundly by the divine talent of the Muses and were promptly transformed into magpies. (12)
Magpie Spirit Animal
If the magpie is your spirit animal then you have the soul of a scientist. Always curious about the world around them, the magpie spirit is found in people who are clever, eccentric, and imaginative.
If your spirit animal is the magpie then you may struggle with how you are perceived by others. The curiosity of the magpie spirit animal may lead them to ask uncomfortable questions or fail to recognize social cues. Depp down, though, people with this spirit animal are empathetic, nurturing, and friendly.
Magpie Totem Animal
The magpie totem animal represents the spirit of innovation. Not content to accept the status quo, people with the magpie as their totem animal are always searching for answers and striving to achieve new horizons.
Although their interests may vary, the frenzied inspiration of the magpie is common between most people who hold the magpie as their totem animal.
Magpie Power Animal
The magpie’s power is observation. Magpies are very smart and wild magpies have even been trained, in some cases, to exchange litter for treats; effectively acting as a cleaning crew. The reason these birds are so receptive to such training is their sharp powers of observation and their knack for solving puzzles. (13)
People with the power of the magpie are constantly taking in information about their surroundings and forming new conclusions based upon what they have learned.
Magpie Tattoo Meaning
A magpie tattoo is a great choice for someone who enjoys old nursery rhymes, folktales, and superstitions. The magpie represents magic and mystery in some traditions, so a magpie tattoo may be chosen to represent this.
Otherwise, a magpie tattoo might represent curiosity, intelligence, problem-solving, reason, or protection. A magpie tattoo featuring stars might represent the romantic story of the “Bridge of Magpies.”
Like many other members of the corvid family, the magpie’s intelligence is just now beginning to be understood after centuries of mischaracterization. Thought of as thieves or as omens of death, magpies have been underappreciated for much of human history. It is surprising, considering this, that so many fascinating stories from ancient times cast the magpie in a favorable light.