I’ve seen at least four of them in the last two days, as I’ve been walking around the streets catching Pokemon. They all have worms in their beaks. They all seem to be watching me. Being a modern person I know that’s because it is spring here, the magpies are having babies, and they need to carry food back to them. They’re watching me because they don’t want to give away the location of the nest when they drop off the worm, or possibly because Australian magpies are ridiculously belligerent and they’re trying to work out if they can drop off the worm and then turn around and attack my head with a razor sharp beaks.I know this sounds like an Australian tale spinning, drop bears and so fort, but I’ve been attacked by magpies that have drawn blood from my scalp. I think that’s probably true of every Australian schoolboy who had a country up bringing.
To a medieval person repeated magpies would be taken as a sign. Which Realm would it be tied to? God doesn’t use magpies much. In some versions of the Noah story a raven had his big chance and didn’t take it, so instead the job of being the great symbol of peace went to a dove. Similarly the infernal powers use crows and ravens because, well, they are spooky, but don’t seem to use magpies very much. This leaves us with two Realms: Magic and Faerie.
Now it could just be that your character is being followed around by a Bjornaer magus: that is, a magus that can take the form of a magpie, and it’s carrying the worm because it wants a snack. In that sense it’s somewhat like the police officers in Hollywood films, who sit around with doughnuts. In this case: why is your character being observed? Have you committed a crime” Have the oracular power of some birds indicated that you are likely to commit a crime? Have you been prejudged, and the magpie’s just sitting around waiting for you to commit a crime, because it’s a hoplite in the service of the quaestiores? Am I pushing this policeman donut metaphor slightly too far?
Indeed I am so let’s move on.
The Latin name for magpie, pica, comes from the word for “word” and it has that name because magpies can speak. That is: they can be trained to parrot woods. This is particularly useful if you are a Bjornaer magus because it means that you don’t suffer spell costing penalties for being unable to talk in your animal form.
I was trying to work out who Maggie was. To quickly explain: a lot of bird names contain the Christian name of a person, that got tacked on as a sort of them folk tradition during the Middle Ages. Magpie, for example, is short for “Maggie pie” or “Margaret pie” and the bird is called “pie” because it is pied: it has a mixture of white and black feathers. There are several other bird names that are similar: “robin redbreast” is the obvious example.
So Maggie pie: I haven’t managed to work out who she is. I was hoping it would turn out to be someone very useful like Margery Kempe. Since we don’t know who she is, she could be some sort of primordial spirit, or she could be a faerie, or she could be a creature in the Hall of Heroes that manifests in the world through Aspects which take the shape of magpies. Presumably she’s a bit of a gossip, because that’s what magpies are known for.
I mentioned previously that magpies a slightly oracular. By seeing them you’re meant to be able to predict the future. There are various folk rhymes for this. I’m not certain that any of them go back into the game period. One of the earliest versions is: “One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a funeral, four for a birth.”
The modern version is somewhat longer:
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 you must not miss.
Now the problem with this is that the first entry, one for sorrow, is a bad one. Fortunately the second one is good. This means that it’s important, when you meet a magpie in Europe, to pretend that there is a second magpie. This is why some people, even in the modern world, salute magpies. It some parts of England, it’s usual to say “Hello Mister Magpie. How’s the missus?” and that point there, of course, is to suggest that there are two magpies. This seems like a traditional faerie ward. Its also traditional amongst British soldiers to salute magpies because, again by tradition, they have a rank in the British Army. In parts of England this folklore goes even further: the way of avoiding the curse of the magpie is to flap one ‘s arms up and down and make the cries of the magpie, therefore indicating that there are two magpies, because you yourself are a magpie.
There’s one additional wrinkle for me, which is that I’m Australian. So when I said I’m being followed around by magpies, I’m not talking about the creature that the European and American listener assumes. The creatures which were following me around were probably Cracticus tibicen terraregnae. (Butcherbird pipers of the land of the queen). Butcherbirds get the name from the terrible habit of grabbing their prey and impaling it on trees, much as medieval Butchers used to hang meat about their stores. Sometimes the birds just impale a whole insect, and sometimes they pull out the organs of the victim and hang them up. This is why one of the serial killers in the recent Hannibal series was named the Shrike: it’s a similar sort of bird.
Now this is slightly horrible, but there’s nothing that folklore can’t make worse. This could be a simple source of vis. A shrike keeps grabbing slightly magical creatures and impaling them on a thorn tree that you can then go and shake for vis. More disturbing is, as I’ve mentioned in some of the previous podcasts, there are human magicians and fairies that can survive with some of their organs separated. It’s perfectly possible for you to find a heart impaled on a tree, still perfectly functional, and belonging to someone who would like it back.
I had an idea for an adversarial character who was magpie queen. She’s a political character, an faerie adventuress, who controls several men through a power that grants the virtue allowing the removal of their hearts. She places the removed hearts on a special tree, so that, in a sense, their hearts belong to her. The player characters can’t simply destroy her, because her death would lead to the end of grant of the virtue, which would mean that her male victims just fall dead. The characters would need to find a way of incapacitating her long enough to place the hearts back in the victims, or they could ignore this more moral of approaches, snd simply harvest Corpus vis. That being said, what happens if they put the wrong hearts into people? Does this allow a transfer of passions? Does it allow an elderly character to act like a young man again?
How could characters incapacitate the Magpie Queen (let’s call her Margaret because we have that name available). I thought that one way of incapacitating it would be to use another weakness of magpies in folklore. They collect shiny objects. Perhaps you could trap it with mirrors, or maybe (like certain types of vampire) she can be incapacitated by being encircled with dozens of tiny objects (in this case bright shiny ones) that she needs to pick up.
The broader point I’m trying to make in this broadcast has very little to do with magpies. It’s that medieval people had a way of looking at the world. The world was a story in which messages were being sent to them by the Divine through a process of revealed significatos. A significato is a meaning behind an element of Creation. If you’re looking at the world with a similar mindset you can create stories out of the most trivial of occurrences, like being followed around by magpies.
When you’re trying to flesh out the stories it’s helpful to have things like “Brewer’s Phrase and Fable” or the etymologies of names to assist you, but the key point is that mindset. Life is narrative. You are living a story. The author is sending you clues through trivial occurrences. Now I’m not wanting to delve into matters of real-life faith here. What I’m suggesting is that, as a Storyguide, there is an enormous untapped well of available stories in everyday, trivial occurrences.
Magpie image credit: