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Thief, Omen, or Bearer of Good Tidings
The Korean magpie continues to thrive as a colorful, if noisy, part of daily life
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-06-26 14:20 (KST)   
In Korean mythology and folklore, animals often played an important role and were given human-like characteristics and abilities. The tiger and magpie were two such creatures. Often magpies are depicted in Korean paintings perched upon a tree branch over a tiger. There are several interpretations of these paintings. Some claim that the magpie, a messenger of the gods, is conveying good tidings to the smiling tiger -- a servant of the mountain spirit and a good friend of man. Others interpret the tiger as a noble man being scolded by the magpies and unable to reach them in his wrath.

Tiger and magpie
©2007 From Prof. Soh Chung-hee
Even today the magpie is revered and often attributed with superstitious abilities. To see a magpie in the morning is often thought of as an indication that a welcome guest or good tidings will soon appear. Many cities throughout Korea have adopted the magpie as their official bird, and one city has declared that the magpie's "clear song... reflects the bright and hopeful spirits" of its residents. The magpie, in effect, has become the welcome guest spoken of in lore.

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But a hundred years ago, not all who lived in Korea found the magpie a welcome guest. Many of the Europeans in Seoul and Chemulpo probably still harbored the same fears and superstitions that their fellow countrymen held back in the home-country. Germans were said to view the birds with different regard depending on the number of birds they spotted. A single magpie was said to bring bad luck, while four were said to bring glad tidings and five were an indication of a welcome visit.

The Scandinavians, depending on century, viewed the magpies as wizards and witches going to and from their unholy covenants or viewed them as symbols of luck and fertility. Unfortunately, many of these early European residents did not write much about the magpie, but fortunately there was one American who did -- Horace Allen, the first Presbyterian missionary and later the American representative to Korea.

Allen was a fond of hiking and biking through the Korean countryside and noted that there were plenty of magpies that would follow him and scold him in a "sociable way." While he was charitable with his description of them while hiking, he was extremely vexed by them when it came to his garden. The American legation in Seoul had a very large flower and vegetable garden surrounded by an assortment of fruit and pine trees that had been brought from the United States.

Magpie in a tree and a tiger or leopard
©2007 From Prof. Soh Chung-hee
Allen was extremely proud of his little Garden of Eden in the midst of Korea's dirty and crowded capital and often wrote about his garden to his friends and colleagues with much enthusiasm. Thus, when he noticed several large magpies amusing themselves by "taking turns running up and pulling out a tulip leaf" from his rows of fine tulips, he resorted to a very violent and unmissionary-like method of dealing with them -- he shot them.

Shooting them, however, only provided a temporary relief for the arrogant birds returned shortly after Allen went back inside. In desperation he ordered that several of the birds be "planted in the tulip beds with the bills and wing tips protruding from the ground." The result was a great deal of chattering and preening of necks by the surviving birds who then deserted the legation's yard and garden leaving the tulips in peace for sometime.

Apparently Allen was unaware of the old British belief that when a flock of magpies suddenly abandoned its nesting area that death was present and hard times would plague the region. One can only imagine what his horrified Korean staff must have thought as they watched him treat their servant of the gods in such a manner.

Allen, undoubtedly, dismissed their protests, if any, as superstitions unworthy of his attention, but even Allen was eventually unnerved by the magpies. When a magpie died after accidentally eating poisoned meat (Allen was trying to kill some unwanted stray cats haunting an abandoned house nearby) he was shocked at the reaction of the birds.

Tiger and his constant companion - the magpie
©2007 From Prof. Soh Chung-hee
The magpies flocked to an old tree and stared intently down upon two of their fellow birds as they tried to revive the dead magpie and get it to fly again. "[T]he two old birds took the prostate one by its wings and tried to fly up with no success; the poor thing fell back with a thud." An old English legend claimed that magpies, when their mate died, would assemble other magpies so that the dead bird could be honored by its peers -- perhaps this is what Allen was witnessing. Allen went on to explain that "it was all so humanlike that it made me feel creepy as though they might pronounce me guilty of murder."

Mary Linley Taylor, the daughter of an English diplomat and the wife of an American gold miner, lived in Seoul from the late 1910s through 1940. She recalled that there was a large tree near her house that many of the local Koreans viewed as a holy shrine. Apparently the Koreans came and made small sacrifices of food and coins to the spirit of the tree in order to relieve the ills that they suffered.

Many were convinced that the spirit in the tree was real because the small coins quickly ended up disappearing after they had been left, but it was several years later, after a large limb from the tree broke off and nearly crushed her sister, that the secret of the disappearing coins was revealed. The tree was a favorite roost for magpies and they often stole the coins and hoarded them in their nests in the tree.

Although the magpie was thought highly of most Koreans, according to Mrs. Taylor's account, her Korean employee was far from pleased from the duplicity of the birds. Armed with a long bamboo pole he tried desperately to knock them out of the tree while yelling at them in Korean that they were "crazy people for stealing the money."

Whether they are bearers of good tidings and guests, evil omens, or just winged-thieves, the Korean magpie continues to thrive in Korea and is still a colorful, and noisy part, of every day life.

Korean postage stamp
©2007 Korean Postal Service
Appreciation to Prof. Soh Chung-hee for the images from her site
An excellent site on superstitions concerning magpies
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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