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Battling Magpies

By Ashleylister @ashleylister
 Magpies  divide opinion. It's almost black and white. I don't like them. Not at all. They may be handsome in their pied (particoloured) plumage, they may be intelligent (right up there with chimpanzees and dolphins as alpha animals), but they are noisy and unpleasant birds. They make a raucous clackety sound just like football rattles (if you remember them). And they are bullies. They mob and terrorise smaller birds and will kill and eat them if they can. I'm not superstitious, but I can understand why magpies have acquired an unsavoury reputation as devilish creatures, and I always chase them out of the garden if I see them, just so they cannot intimidate the finches, robins, sparrows, tits and wrens.  On the day after Russia attempted the biggest annexation of territory in Europe since Hitler in the 1930s, I've decided to give this blog a Slavic twist. I can't shift the mental image of Putin as marauding evil magpie. So I thought I'd delve into Russian and Ukrainian folklore to see what traditions there have to say about the pied one.

Battling Magpies

The avenging Russian Magpie

It is recorded that Ivan Vasilevich (1530-1584) better known as Tsar Ivan IV or Ivan the Terrible, became severely depressed after his wife died and this depression eventually deepened into a mad obsession with his own health. He surrounded himself with physicians wherever he went, employed a food taster, and kept everybody at a distance (parallels with the current president of mother Russia?), for he was convinced that witches were cursing him. That being so - as the myth goes - he ordered all the witches in Russia to be rounded up and brought to Moscow. He had them corralled in the main square within a great circle of straw bales which he ordered to be set on fire on every side. Flames engulfed the witches, black smoke and cackling screams rose into the air and then a strange thing happened. Out of the smoke flew a vast flock of magpies, one for every witch. They had shape-shifted and so evaded the fate which the mad Tsar had ordained for them. They flew to every part of Russia where they proceeded to exact revenge on humankind by stealing the souls of unborn children so they would be still-born, or if that failed they would try to peck newborn babies to death as they emerged from the womb. Scary stuff. No Russian mother-to-be wants a magpie anywhere near her to this day allegedly. They are a bad omen.In Ukraine, by contrast, the magpie is regarded as a sacred bird and a messenger from the ancestors. Each March 9th the festival of Soroki is celebrated in honor of the Forty Martyrs. (Soroki conveniently means both forty and magpie.) It also essentially a Rite of Spring. Little sweet cakes are made in the shape of magpies and these are blest and eaten in honor of departed souls which are thought to be revisiting while those still alive celebrate the rebirth of Earth after the harshness of winter. There is an indirect link to the country's famous sunflower symbol (dating back to ancient belief in a sun deity) and the Pysanka art of Ukraine often contains tracks of Magpie footprints, these being synonymous with the journey the sun has taken. I find all of that much more pleasing than the dark, cruel Russian myth.

Battling Magpies

Слава Україні. Glory to Ukraine.

Finally, this latest poem isn't really about Magpies. I couldn't bring myself to devote any creative effort to a bird I don't particularly care for. Nevertheless, they are present metaphorically for much of the poem, which documents some less than comfortable memories, and they do make an appearance in the final line.
Whose Fault Magpies?Sorry Lincolnshire seaside town, what more to say?Your proudest boast is you're not Grimsby.That salt-eroded little station proclaims a welcomebut the hoarding might have stated a starker truth:You've reached the end of the line.The best bit about you always in my rear-view mirror.
Good for wind-farming, the constant wearing onshore howl through your open plan sanitorium of a townonce famed as a genteel retirement retreat, tang-fuelled and strong enough some days to sweep unwary promenaders off their feet,but it never quite blows the pall of neuroses away. 
You screaming how you could kill your mother,your sisters skewered by decades of parenting,so much festering jealousy and ghostly resentment in a beige box as to make The Family Reunioncome across like a jolly holiday variety show.I felt your pain but dreaded playing the outsider. 
I'm sure there must be calm days of soft sunshinethough in all my visits I never knew one,just the steamy-windowed cafes with patronsmaking mugs of coffee last way beyond cold,queues of tramps waiting for the library to open,grimy pubs primed with fizzy continental beers.
The unlikeliest touch, a novelty shop on the esplanadethat sold model trains and planes carved out of coal,made me think prisoners, whether of war or darkdomestic crimes I never could decide. It matters not.None were bought because what people really wantedwas anything to take the edge off living on the edge
and you were all dependent on your different drugs.We queued once for take-away pizza, my suggestion,a convention-defying bid for something ordinary,and watched in silence as across the road on the immaculate lawn of the clifftop floral gardensa bunch of magpies noisily pecked a starling to death.
To redress the balance somewhat and as a cheering musical bonus, here are The Dials with a slice of top notch pastoral English psychedelia. Just click on the song title to activate the YouTube link > Good Morning Mr Magpie Thanks for reading, S ;-) Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to Facebook

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