Looking out of my study window here in Lewes, UK, yesterday afternoon, I saw four magpies on Brach Mound, the ancient defensive mound that dominates my view. Oh no, I thought, rapidly trying to remember that old nursery rhyme. This is the one I mean, in case you don’t know it:
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;
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss;
Ten for a bird that’s best to miss.
As I have more than a few annoyingly obsessive behaviour traits, I try very hard not to perpetuate old superstitions. I find once I start thinking about them, their significance grows to distracting proportions. I like to see myself as a recovering superstition addict so don’t encourage me.
Even so, seeing those four magpies did immediately register as a significant superstitious moment. What did it mean? I asked myself foolishly. The answer is obvious. It meant that four magpies, probably with sex on their minds, it’s Springtime after-all, were looking for food on Brach Mound. No, I thought, that’s not it at all. What does it foretell about my future? Well, looking at the rhyme, it means I must be pregnant and that I’m going to have a son. Wow! Well maybe, it’s not me – it would be a first in the natural world if it’s true. Maybe someone I know is pregnant and about to have a son. Quite likely I supposed, yawning slightly. My nephew married last summer – hmm, well, let’s not go there.
As with most nursery/folk rhymes, there are often different versions with different meanings. Here is a variation on the first one:
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 sel’.
Well, sensible people, folklorists, a non-specific birth is easier to predict so, that’s it then. Someone I know is pregnant. Congratulations if it’s you! As is the dark nature of these things, I’m pleased I didn’t see three magpies up there because weddings are bad enough but there’s another version of the rhyme that says ‘three for a funeral’. These superstitions come from the days when not much went on in simple rural communities. Mostly just sorrow, mirth, weddings, births and funerals, they didn’t have yet another new series of Downton Abbey on the TV to advertise in those days. So superstitious predictions of predictable events were bound to come true if you kept looking long enough. You see how these things can become obsessive. Of course another variation on that rhyme is ‘four for death’ but that got changed, tactfully, to ‘four for a birth. Really you could make the rhyme fit whatever you fancy. Another superstition suggests that seeing four magpies suggests a new beginning.
Now, I like that one best but I’m quite drawn too to the ancient Chinese saying about seeing four magpies. They represent the ‘four great delights’ – sounds promising. They are, don’t get too excited: 1) Many-coloured wedding-night candles 2) Rain after drought 3) Success in imperial examinations 4) Unexpected meeting with an old friend.
It’s ages since I last took an imperial examination and I’m fed up with rain but the many coloured candles sound nice, wedding night or not, and I’m perfectly happy to meet up unexpectedly with an old friend.
So what will it be? What do those four magpies mean? I’ll take the new beginning but, hey, I think I was right first time. They were just there for a romantic meal and bit of hanky-panky. After-all the magpie population in Britain trebled between 1970 and 1990 and they mostly live their whole lives where they were born, so, let’s not take their numbers too seriously. There’s a lot of them around and I see one almost every day. Whoops, what does one mean again?
If you find superstitions irritating, wait until you’ve heard this: