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Magpies as Portents

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Image by Gemma Correll. Used with permission.

"One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a girl, and four for a boy,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told."
Nursery Rhyme (one of many variations, this one popularised as the theme song to Magpie*)

There are a number of superstitions surrounding magpies, black and white birds that feature in a lot of stories (especially in the British Isles). These include, as the rhyme indicates, that they are omens (for good or ill) of the future and that the bad luck of a lone magpie must be warded off with a ritual of some sort. Some of the "warding off bad luck" superstitions are quick and only require a simple salute, while others are a bit more eccentric, involving pinching, spitting or saying certain phrases. The idea that magpies are omens of the future has led to a flock of them being called a "tidings of magpies".

Magpies are members of the corvid family and relatives of ravens and crows. The rhyme—in all its manifold variations—is also used on occasion for crows. (Australian Magpies, on the other hand, are unrelated songbirds that just happen to bear a resemblance.)

Note: This trope is not about magpies per se, but about the association of certain numbers of magpies with good or bad luck, and the rituals for warding the bad luck off.

Thieving Magpie is about magpies' compulsion to steal, particularly shiny objects; see also Creepy Crows and Clever Crows.


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    Comic Books 
  • In The Crow, the rhyme is referenced (with blackbirds in the place of magpies) by Eric as he prepares to kill a bar full of thugs, and capped with a classic line.
    Eric Draven: Seven blackbirds in a tree, count them and see what they be. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret that's never been told. You're all going to die.
  • Journey into Mystery (Gillen) begins with 7 magpies on a quest after the demise of Loki at the end of Siege. The seventh is the only one to make it to their destination.
    • Also, Ikol (a magpie-shaped remnant of the old Loki) tells kid Loki the magpie rhyme at the beginning of the Everything Burns crossover, and sets the record straight about it.
      Ikol: Humans see groups of magpies. Magpies don't. Magpies know they stand alone. ... There is only ever one for sorrow.
    • This becomes something of a theme for young Loki in later series, like Odin hearing "thunder, and the laughter of magpies" when Thor and Loki need him in the Original Sin tie in of Loki: Agent of Asgard. What can we say, the guy isn't only trouble, but also bad news.
  • In Once & Future, also by Gillen, it's Doubly Subverted, Issue 13 opens with a magpie flight down and interrupting Bridgette's smoke on the care home's deck. Then the otherworld light show kicks off and it's joined by five other magpies and Bridgette recites two versions of old rhyme and asks if she's in for Gold or Hell, only to be told it's the latter. So Bridgette, being the pragmatic Monster Hunter she is (if pulled from a long retirment), shoots four of them and says now it must be either joy or mirth, only for one magpie to tear the throat out of the other and say she's in for Hell.
  • Invoked in The Sandman (1989):
    • In "Parliament of Rooks", Eve sings the rhyme while holding the infant Daniel. Abel finishes with the last line, then adds, "It's true, you know."
    • In The Wake, the summons to Morpheus's funeral takes the form of a single magpie.
      Delirium: One for sorrow, two for sorrow, three for sorrow, four for for for I don't know. But I'm bored of sorrow, five for three two one, six for gold, seven for a magpie who tells me where to go...

    Fan Works 
  • The rhyme is used in the Kingdom Hearts fanfic A Sorrow of Magpies in a What Do You Mean, It's Not Symbolic? kind of way. More specifically, the rhyme is as follows:
    Luxord: [using two dice, but mentions magpies] "Two is for fresh luck, while three starts the play. Four means start running, five means you stay. Six earns you silver, seven earns gold. Eight for new allies, nine for the old. Ten wins good fortune, eleven risks all — but twelve wins the match and there, stops the ball." When asked about one, which is an impossible result with a pair of dice, he says, "One is for sorrow, because it's always alone."
  • In the Troll Cops Homestuck AU, there is a pair of stories called "One For Sorrow", which has:
    One is for Sorrow.
    Two is for Mirth.
    Three is for a Funeral.
    Four is for a Birth.
    Five is for Heaven.
    Six is for Hell.
    Seven's for the Devil himself.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Ashe Corven of the movie The Crow: City of Angels references a variant of this rhyme as he's trashing the bad guys of a strip booth establishment where his second target is, using crows in place of magpies.
  • Snow White & the Huntsman: Magpies are all over this film. One appears right before Snow White is to be led to the Queen and murdered, two appear later to lead her to her horse. Basically, any time something happens, either one or two magpies will appear to portend it, whichever is appropriate. Not that anybody comments on this.

  • Several versions of the rhyme occur in Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum. It's explained that none of them work very well, because nobody knows the version the magpies use. Also, the "modern" vampires of that book shape-shift into magpies rather than bats, which is a pun on their family name (de Magpyr). The sayings to ward off bad luck also get referenced when Agnes automatically says "Good morning, Mr Magpie" when she sees one.
    • In The Folklore of Discworld, Pterry bemoans the fact that Britain used to have hundreds of regional variations on this rhyme, but nowadays if you ask anyone they'll all give you the version from Magpie. He got to know the book's co-writer, Jacqueline Simpson, because she answered "About fifty-seven?" to the question "do you know the magpie song."
  • There's a book called One For Sorrow, Two For Joy, by Clive Woodall, about more-or-less-anthropomorphic birds. It's a little like Watership Down, but with birds. The villains are magpies.
  • A magpie literally named One For Sorrow appears as an assistant to and messenger of the guardian of the old animal highways in The Wild Road. You can pretty much guess what happens to him based on his name.
    • Not only this, but Cornish cat Pengelly mentions a (cat-adjusted) version of the rhyme that goes: "One's sorrow, two's mirth, three's a mating, four's a birth, five's a naming, six a dearth, seven's heaven, eight is hell, and nine's the devil, his own sel'".
  • The Mercedes Lackey story "Counting Crows" has a different version: "One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a wedding, four for a birth".
  • The beginning of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival compares the unsteady man, in whom good and evil are mixed, to a magpie, which is half black, half white.
  • Star In The Storm by Joan Hiatt Harlow uses "One for sadness, two for mirth; three for marriage, four for birth; five for laughing, six for crying; seven for sickness, eight for dying; nine for silver, ten for gold; eleven for a secret that will never be told."
  • In Michael Flynn's In the Lion's Mouth, Shadows' subordinates, in black and white, are called magpies. When one is always in Donovan's line-of-sight, he feels uneasy, knowing the old Terran belief that a single magpie is bad luck.
  • Weathercock by Glen Duncan has the Catholic protagonist (plagued by a case of Chronic Villainy, to put it mildly) suffer periodic intimations of evil. Outside a church, he is visited by no less than nine magpies. He tries to remember the rhyme, but to his unease can only recall the more modern version from TV's Magpie. Fridge Brilliance or Fridge Horror, should the reader remember that in most versions of the rhyme, nine magpies signify the presence of the devil.
  • In Ashworth Hall, one of the Pitt Series Detective Fiction books by Ann Perry, a single magpie appears at a conference between Irish leaders trying to come up with a solution to the conflicts between the Irish Catholics, Irish Protestants and the British. A character recites the "one for sorrow, two for joy" line. The other characters consider it just a superstition. Later on in the story, the conference is plagued by adultery, murder and a bombing.
  • In Imajica someone lets a magpie into a house where a significant act of magic is about to take place. Someone else points out that this is terrible bad luck. No points for guessing what happens next. The bird isn't actually responsible, and the mayhem had been planned long before. Still, omenery.
  • Used In-Universe in Anthony Horowitz's Magpie Murders. Keeping with Agatha Christie's tradition of using stories based around nursery rhymes, mystery writer Alan Conway uses this nursery rhyme in the structure of his latest detective novel, also titled Magpie Murders.
  • The magpie portents naturally feature in K.J. Charles's gay Victorian detective series, The Magpie Lord, and competing versions are provided as a prologue. In addition to actual magpies, with whom Lucien Vaudrey, Lord Crane, has an initially unwitting affinity, there are his magpie tattoos, acquired overseas, whose movements and number are conditioned by Crane's mood.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Magpie was the name of a kids' TV show on ITV circa the 1970s/80s (which was pretty much a Blue Peter lookalike). The theme song used a version of the rhyme as its lyrics (see beginning of this page), and the show's mascot was a cartoon magpie named Murgatroyd, who looked too fat to fly.
  • A news discussion Top Gear once went on about how dangerous magpies are while driving because of gestures, but none of which the presenters could agree on which one was correct. Richard Hammond's was the most confusing; it turns out rather than picking one of the many variations to ward off bad luck, he chose all of them at once; adding to it each time someone mentions a new one to him.

    Music and Sound Effects 
  • The rhyme itself appears in the song "A Murder of One" by Counting Crows. The rhyme is also the origin of the band's name.
  • Seanan McGuire's Filk Song "Counting Crows" opens with a version of the rhyme, and continues on the theme. Chorus:
    In mercy's shadow, nothing grows./And she's running hard now, counting crows.
  • Similarly, Vixy and Tony's Filk Song Thirteen asks what happens when there are more than seven:
    Count my brothers and count my sisters, we'll tell your fortune and we'll tell you true/But the path's all covered in claws and feathers, Magpie, there's too many of you...
  • Patrick Wolf has a song that quotes the aforementioned rhyme as the last stanza. Unsurprisingly the song itself is named Magpie
  • "Two Magpies" from The Fireman's album Electric Arguments features lines from the rhyme. Unsurprisingly, it's extremely catchy.
  • Another song called "Magpie" by David Dodds depicts a community trusting in magpies as auguries despite believing the birds to be affiliated with the devil, and bemoaning their tendency to steal, and features the rhyme as a refrain. It's been covered by several people and groups, including the prolific and long-running folk duo Magpie, and The Unthanks' version featured in Detectorists.
    "Oh the magpie brings us tidings / Of news both fair and foul
    She's more cunning than the raven / More wise than any owl
    For she brings us news of the harvest / Of the barley, wheat, and corn
    And she knows when we'll go to our graves / And how we shall be born"
  • "Avian" by Color Theory describes the superstition of the magpie being the "avian Grim Reaper", and quotes the full ten lines of the rhyme.
  • Possibly the intention of "Down Came a Blackbird" by Lila McCann, where blackbirds mock a man whose misdeeds have driven his now-former lover away:
    Down came a blackbird
    Set on a fence
    Talkin' in riddles
    Makin' no sense
    'Cause she's gone
    You're baby's gone...
  • Paul McCartney's "Two Magpies" from The Fireman uses the "One for sorrow, two for joy" line from the famous Nursery Rhyme.

    Oral Tradition 
  • The oldest recorded version of the famous rhyme only counts to four, with the oldest extension counting to ten. However, there are now many different versions with many different lengths commonly ranging from 4-13. Outside the UK, other corvids may be substituted, such as jackdaws or crows or even the non-corvid myna.
    • "... Eight's a wish, and nine a kiss / Ten is a bird you must not miss."
    • "... Eight for heaven, nine for hell / And ten for the devil's own sel'."
    • "One for sorrow, two for mirth / Three for a wedding, four for a birth."
    • "... Eight for a letter over the sea / Nine for a lover, as true as can be."
    • "... Five for England, six for France / seven for a fiddler, eight for a dance."
    • "...Eleven for health, twelve for wealth / Thirteen beware, it's the devil himself."

  • In the last episode of Series 9 of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, Toby asks her dads about the magpie rhyme, and to Russ's horror, Alex unleashes one he devised when he was part of a comedy troupe, which just keeps going, eventually freaking out about the sheer volume of magpies, and concluding with "One thousand for how long the Magpie Age will last, in years."

    Video Games 
  • In The Secret World, this rhyme is used as a clue in a quest to solve a long-ago murder mystery. To solve it, you have to be dead at the time.
  • The Elder Scrolls
    • Ebonarm, a god of war worshiped in the Iliac Bay region, is followed by two ravens who portend his appearance on the battlefield. However, the "portending calamity" aspect can be averted once he appears, as he may deem the battle baseless and demand that it end.
    • Nocturnal, the Daedric Prince of Darkness and the Night who is also associated with Thieves and Luck, is associated with ravens and crows. Ravens with the ability to speak sometimes act as her messengers. The Crow's Wood is a pocket realm of Oblivion associated with Nocturnal, and it is ruled by the Blackfeather Court, a group of sentient crows who consider themselves as the realm's rulers.


    Real Life 
  • This took place in India in 1878. Sir Louis Cavagnari was to lead an embassy to Kabul. Earl Roberts records in his memoir, "As we [met before the embassy left], curiously enough, we came across a solitary magpie, ... Cavagnari pointed it out and begged me not to mention the fact of his having seen it to his wife, as she would be sure to consider it an unlucky heart sank as I wished Cavagnari good-bye. When we had proceeded a few yards in our different directions, we both turned round, retraced our steps, shook hands once more, and parted for ever." About two months later "...telegrams were received..., telling of the Mission [in Kabul] having been overwhelmed and every member of it cruelly massacred..."

Alternative Title(s): One For Sorrow Two For Joy