Magpies (and Skadi)

I have been intrigued for some time by a bit of lore that I’ve run across on several websites, without any credit given. It connects the Norse goddess Skadi and magpies, and makes several rather large claims about a “magpie clan” and a priestesshood, and it usually runs something like this:

Under Christianity the same shift of superstition from lucky to unlucky occurred in Norse countries as across the rest of Europe. In old Norse mythology, Skadi (the daughter of a giant) was a priestess of the magpie clan. The black and white markings of the magpie were seen to represents sexual union, as well as male and female energies kept in balance. Later on in time, Scandinavians thought that magpies were sorcerers flying to unholy gatherings, and yet the nesting magpie was once considered a sign of luck in those countries.
(OBOD page on magpies)

I’m not picking on the druids; I’ve seen this asserted in many places. I just wonder where it comes from. One source is The Witches’ Goddess, by Janet and Stuart Farrar, although they hedge their bets with “seems to be”. I’m not convinced that the yin and yang were a major part of Norse symbolism, nor have I ever heard of a “magpie clan”. (It’s interesting that most of the sites that mention this are more interested in bird lore than the ancient Norse.)

PIca pica by kevredkidis on deviantart.

You could argue that the magpie’s habit of picking up any shiny thing has found its echo in the unthinking repetition of this bit of lore. In modern mythology Skadi has certainly developed an association with magpies.

It helps that in modern Danish Skade can mean “magpie” as well as other, more Skadi-like words such as “damage” or “hurt”. (The name Skadi is related to words meaning ‘scathe’, ‘shadow’, and ‘harm’.) The Modern Swedish skate, meaning “magpie” is also close to her name.

Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology notes the similarity of the words for magpie and the name Skadi but doesn’t draw any conclusions from this. (Chs. 21 & 32) According to Alice Karlsdottir, the Old Norse noun skadhi was the word for “magpie”. So I suspect there’s some folk-etymology going on here.

Given, however, that magpies are generally considered thieves and tricksters, Loki would seem a more logical choice than Skadi. I suppose the black and white markings on the magpie could suggest the dual nature of the mountain-giantess who was also the “shining bride of the gods”.

Norse mythology in general, however, is pretty short on magpies. There are ravens, of course, as Odin’s pets, eagles (Odin again, but also several giants), and falcons (Freyja and/or Frigga has a falcon or hawk-shape that Loki borrows). No magpies, and believe me, I’ve looked.

220px-Snowy_Owl_Barrow_AlaskaAnother UPG suggests that Skadi’s bird is the owl, especially snowy owls. These deadly and silent hunters would be a good fit for the bow-hunting goddess on her snowshoes or skis. As a circumpolar bird, too, it shares the goddess’ habitat. Like the magpie, the black-and-white markings could be interpreted symbolically. (Their competitors include several types of eagle; Skadi’s father Thiazi was able to shape-shift to eagle form.)

I am quite fond of magpies, and when I lived in England I got almost superstitious about them – if I saw a magpie it was going to be a good day. This despite the fact that they pulled out the plant tags in my garden, and of course they are predators, who kill other birds.

Some people dislike them for this, but nature doesn’t conform to human expectations, however much we might like it to. (Incidentally, most magpie rhymes say “one for sorrow, two for joy” so my one magpie should have been unlucky. I’m glad I didn’t know that.)

As the RSPB website puts it, “[m]agpies seem to be jacks of all trades – scavengers, predators and pest-destroyers, their challenging, almost arrogant attitude has won them few friends.” Like most corvids, however, they are intelligent birds, able to recognize themselves in mirrors, and using tools, among other talents.

So the connection between Skadi and magpies is a modern one, based on the sound-alike names. The stuff about the “magpie clans” and priestesses is equally modern, and very hard to verify.

And in case you see a magpie (or several) today, here is one of the commonest counting rhymes:

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.

PS – Since I wrote this, I discovered that the cartoon birds Heckle and Jeckle were magpies. It does explain a lot:

hekljekl


(A large part of the information here, especially the linguistics, comes from a discussion on the old Yahoo! group asynjur. I would like to thank Joe Mandato, Erik Ingevaldare and Jim Johnston for their information.)

For an examination of the sources, see “Frá mínom véom oc vǫngom” – an examination of literary representations of the mythological figure of Skaði, by Sarah Welschbach. Also, Alice Karlsdottir’s “Njordr and Skadhi: the Marriage of Light and Darkness”, in Mountain Thunder, Issue 7, Winter issue, is an interesting examination of her marriage. There was a devotional book on Lulu called The Huntress Within but that doesn’t seem to be available anymore.

For more on magpies, see the following:

Chesterfield Pagans: Magpie folklore and superstition
OBOD: Magpies: A Story of Seven
Science Daily refutes the charges against magpies: New study takes the shine off magpie folklore
And there’s always Wikipedia.

If you like the magpie image at the top, click here.

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