One for Sorrow (Counting Magpies, Telling Fortunes)
DESCRIPTION: "One for sorrow, two for joy, Three for (a girl), four for (a boy), five for (silver), six for (gold)," and so on up to seven or ten or twelve. For telling fortunes by counting birds (mapies or crows).
EARLIEST DATE: 1895 (Denham Tracts); earliest version c. 1780 according to Simpson/Roud
KEYWORDS: bird nonballad prophecy
FOUND IN: Britain(England(North)) US(NE)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Beck-Maine, p. 79, "(One crow sorrow, Two crows joy)" (1 short text)
Dolby, p. 21, "One for Sorrow" (1 text)
Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #475 n. 32, pp. 210-211, "(One crow sorrow)"
Carey-MarylandFolkloreLife, p. 87, "(no title)" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, _A Dictionary of English Folklore_, Oxford, 2000, pp. 222-223, (entry on magpies) (portions of four versions)
Marjorie Rowling, _The Folklore of the Lake District_, Rowman and Littlefield, 1976, p. 106, "(One is for orrow, but two for mirth") (1 text plus variants)
NOTES: As a rhyme, this seems to have been very common, especially in the north of England. Most versions are about magpies, but Beck's Maine version, from an area without magpies, uses it to count crows.
I have not encountered this as a proper song, but Dave Dodds used it as part of the source for the song "The Magpie," so the piece should probably be indexed to show what the original looked like. Readers should see Simpson and Roud for a good idea of the range of possible prophesies.
For whatever reason, magpies seem to have been among the most "folkloric" of birds, and the stories seem to be ancient. They are not mentioned in the Bible (unless they are among the birds identified as unclean in Leviticus 11:13-19, Deuteronomy 14:12-18; several of these bird names cannot now be identified, but neither the King James Bible nor the New Revised Standard Version translate any of the names as "magpie" and the identifiable birds in the list are all flesh-eaters of the hawk and crow type; InterpretersDict, volume I, p. 439). But it is said to have been present in Noah's Ark -- and, depending on the version, either refused to enter the Ark, spending its time outside wisecracking (Simpson/Roud, p. 223) or was forced to leave the interior of the ship and journey on the mast because it chattered too much (Pickering, p. 183).
An Irish story reported by o Hogain, p. 36, says that the magpie is colored black and white because, when the birds went into mourning following the death of Jesus on the cross, the magpie did so only half-heartedly.
Supposedly a battle in the sky between magpies and jackdaws forecast a battle between French and Bretons in the reign of Charles VIII of France (Hazlitt, p. 383)
As in this fragment, seeing a single magpie is generally considered ill luck in Britain, but seeing two does not cause extreme misfortune (Simpson/Roud, p. 222). O hOgain, p. 36, reports that this belief is also found in Ireland -- and has a legend that the bird was brought there by Oliver Cromwell (this, presumably, reflects the Irish attitude toward the man who so abused them).
Briggs, p. 311, has a story of "The Good Magpie," from Nottinghamshire. A man passes a house where a boy cries out that his mother is going to roast him in the oven. The man thinks the boy joking, and rides on -- but a magpie harasses him to turn back. He does -- and finds that the boy was telling the truth.
Sometimes the word "magpie" was applied to things other than the bird. Partridge, p. 504, notes that it was sometimes used for Anglican bishops (presumably for their vestments), and that the word "magpie's nest" applies to the female genitalia.
In China, however, the magpie was said to be a bringer of good luck: "In popular parlance, the magpie has always been called xi-qiao, i.e. 'joy-bringing magpie'. Its call heralds good news or the arrival of a guest" (Eberhard, p. 174). On the other hand, Eberhard goes on to tell the tale of the Cowherd and the Spinning Damsel, who could only meet once a year because the magpie was forgetful. Once a year, on the seventh day of the month, the magpies would build a bridge over the Milky Way to let the lovers meet. A picture of twelve magpies was apparently a way to express twelve particularly good wishes (Eberhard, p. 175).
The magpie also plays a role in some Native American folktales (Jones-Larousse, p. 286). - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Briggs: Katherine Briggs, British Folktales (originally published in 1970 as A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales), revised 1977 (I use the 1977 Pantheon paperback edition)
- Eberhard: Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought (originally published in 1983 as Lexicon chinesischer Symbole), translated from the German by G. L. Campbell, 1986 (I use the 2003 Routledge paperback edition)
- Hazlitt: W. C. Hazlitt, Dictionary of Faiths & Folklore, Reeves & Turner, 1905 (I use the 1995 Studio Editions paperback)
- InterpretersDict: [George Arthur Buttrick et al, editor], The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, four volumes, 1962 (a fifth supplementary volume was published later)
- Jones-Larousse: Alison Jones, Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore, Larousse, 1995 (I use the 1996 paperback edition)
- O hOgain: Daithi O hOgain, The Lore of Ireland, Boydell Press, 2006
- Partridge: Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (combined fifth edition with dictionary and supplement), Macmillan, 1961
- Pickering: David Pickering, The Cassell Dictionary of Folklore, Cassell, 1999
- Simpson/Roud: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, 2000
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