The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The magpie is large, curious, active bird with a harsh call and a swaggering walk. It originally inhabited scrublands, forests, and other areas with dense foliage but it is now adapted to other areas, including urban habitats. Omnivorous, it eats pretty much whatever it can find: insects, seeds, fruit, small mammals, or carrion. It is a very clever bird and has a reputation for stealing and hoarding shiny objects.
Magpies inhabit North America, Europe, Northwestern Africa, the Middle East, Central and East Asia. Virtually wherever they are found, they are associated with witchcraft either as familiars or, more frequently, as the form into which witches transform. One Russian nickname for witch is “soroka-veschchitsa,” “magpie-witch.”
Magpies are members of the corvid family like jackdaws, crows, and ravens, but they have their own section here for two reasons:
Magpies were understood as a different type of bird. The other three very closely resemble each other in color (solid black) and nature. Magpies are dramatically black and white, although depending upon the light their black feathers may appear blue, green or purple.
Magpies possess very different magical and mythical associations, often specifically identified with romantic and women’s magic.
Magpies are associated with female power, romantic magic, and prophesy. In Macbeth, Shakespeare notes that magpies were used as augurs. Russian folk belief suggests that magpies announce storms. People who live near magpies will notice that the birds often announce the arrival of visitors or other changes.
Scottish, Swedish, and Russian witches commonly take the form of magpies. Latvian witches allegedly adopt the form especially for Midsummer’s Eve. Siberian witches can allegedly transform into any type of bird or animal they wish to: magpies are their most common choice.
Various legends describe Russian magpiewitches. According to one, Ivan the Terrible gathered together all the witches he could find in order to burn them, but before he could, they transformed into magpies and flew away. According to another legend, there are no magpies in Moscow because church leader Metropolitan Alexei, recognizing them for what they truly were, forbade them to fly over the city. The seventeenth-century usurper of the Russian throne, known as the False Dmitrii, had an unpopular Polish wife widely believed to be a sorceress. She allegedly escaped from Moscow by flying away as a magpie. Magpies were also occasionally burned as witches in Russia, or hung onto peasant barns as a warning to witches.
Not all magpie-witches are living transformed witches. One story suggests that murdered witches reincarnate as magpies. They are true birds but their souls remain those of witches. It’s necessary to be kind and respectful to them, some even suggest saluting them, because otherwise they’ll cast a spell on you.
In Russia and elsewhere in Europe, magpies became identified with Satan. In England, they’re known as the devil’s own bird. In Russia, flocks of magpies are associated with Satan, betraying subtle identification of witches with diabolical forces.
Chinese mythology has happier associations. Magpies form the bridge that, one day a year, permits the sacred Weaving Maiden to be reunited with her beloved husband, the Cowherd. In Chinese the epithet “Heavenly Woman” is shared by celestial goddesses and magpies, which may be goddesses in disguise.