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WALK­ING IN THE coun­try­side one morn­ing re­cently, a mag­pie landed in front of me. With­out think­ing, I greeted it with “good morn­ing Mr Mag­pie”. It was only af­ter­wards that I started to won­der why I did. A con­ver­sa­tion with friends re­vealed that most of them did the same, with few hav­ing any inkling as to why. Re­search re­vealed that this is an an­cient cus­tom, prompted by a be­lief that it is un­lucky to see a sin­gle mag­pie. Hence the old rhyme “one for sor­row, two for joy”. In many places, the sa­lu­ta­tion is com­pleted by ask­ing af­ter the mag­pie’s wife. This not only shows re­spect, but also im­plies he is not soli­tary and there­fore not un­lucky. Why was a soli­tary mag­pie deemed to be un­lucky? The rea­son is lost in the mists of time. It may have been be­cause the mag­pie was the only bird not to mourn Je­sus’s death on the cross; it may be a con­nec­tion with witches; it may be be­cause mag­pies mate for life and a soli­tary bird has lost his part­ner. What­ever the rea­son, salut­ing the first mag­pie of the day is a deeply in­grained cus­tom in many places, and one I have fol­lowed for years. There are of course many ver­sions of the mag­pie rhyme. Most start as I have in­di­cated above. It is how they go on that dif­fers. The usual ver­sion is three for a girl, four for a boy, five for sil­ver, six for gold, seven for a se­cret that’s never told. This in­di­cates that it is only a soli­tary mag­pie that is un­lucky. But there are more sin­is­ter ver­sions, in­clud­ing one that con­tin­ues three for a wed­ding, four for death. This one goes up to 10 for the devil’s own self. Per­haps this all had a log­i­cal mean­ing to our an­ces­tors – or per­haps they were just dog­gerel. The truth is un­likely ever to be dis­cov­ered. I love these old say­ings and tra­di­tions. It does not mat­ter that no-one truly be­lieves them any more. It is sim­ply won­der­ful that they still sur­vive, de­spite all the ad­vances of mod­ern life.

Hi­lary Scott Ed­i­tor

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