Category: myth

Magpie as Pawnee Presence

As I revisited (in research and in travel) the Republican River Valley of The Darkwater Liar’s Account for my next novels, I sought to learn about people of all races who lived and died in that region. My research led to the Pawnee tribe, with its Skidi, Kitkehahki and Chaui bands, who historically and currently call Nebraska and Kansas their ancestral home. Learning invoked my respect, which encouraged further study and blessed encounters with two Pawnee tribal members, who helped me see how the Pawnee people and culture remain vital today. In all of this, I learned about Magpie as Pawnee presence.

Magpie was a significant animal and spiritual figure to the Pawnee, as evident in stories recorded by George Amos Dorsey (1868-1931). G.A. Dorsey was an American ethnographer of North American Indigenous people and an anthropologist for the Field Columbian Museum. He is both a helpful and troublesome character for me in terms of research, as he documented a great deal of Native folklore, even as he desecrated and plundered Native graves and regarded Indigenous people and customs as relics of dead civilizations. Yet, I had to appreciate that several of Dorsey’s Pawnee stories, recorded in his The Pawnee: Mythology, feature Magpie as recounted by specific, named members of the three Pawnee bands in the waning years of the 19th Century.

A few of the traditional stories tell how Magpie stood out from other birds as a helper to humans, an intercessor and actor who would guide the lost and bring healing. Even though I was once-removed from the first storytellers, reading Dorsey’s translation from the Caddoan Pawnee language, I felt a quaver of the old voices through the pages, across time. My world view is far from theirs, but I treasure their meaningful accounts of Magpie and the other powerful animals and characters in their tradition, such as Coyote and Bear. So much so, that I wove a few into my next two novels.

In my next post, I’ll talk about Magpie as a character in my writing, and how I received my own blessing from this bird. (And thanks to Nanette Day, a writer, editor, publishing consultant and friend, for this post’s key illustration, which she designed with a quote from one of my previous posts.)

Magpie and Myth

The word “myth” in conversation is often used to label something untrue, but in many dictionaries, that definition is secondary. Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of myth is “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” The word “ostensibly” raises doubts of factual truth, but doesn’t rule out aspects of truth in cultural myths, or their important purpose of explanation. Those who study Greek and Roman myths, for example, understand that while the more magical antics of gods and goddesses are likely not factual, they speak a sort of truth about our human foibles, while mentioned battles, conquests and heroes may originate in recorded events and real people.

Science poses questions, ventures hypotheses and seeks proofs to determine what is fact. I love science, and believe that anything true has nothing to fear from science. Yet, science has yet to develop measurements or proofs for every aspect of human experience. Therein remains the margin, the mystery and the role of myth, even in an age of science. Because of the space between fact and meaning, there lingers our human need for a good story, to enlighten and explain.

So the magpie remains, not only as genus and species, but also a meaningful figure. Sometimes heralds of disaster or bad weather, in other cases, magpies are considered good omens. Mixed human feelings about the noisy birds are evident in nursery rhymes, first noted in European print in 1780, in John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities:

charhallmagpieptgOne for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
And four for death.
This beautiful illustration, titled “One for Sorrow Two for Joy” was painted by Char Hall. (Prints are for sale here on Etsy.)

Combing world history and literature for magpie stories, I focused on Magpie as a figure in Native American, specifically Pawnee, tribal lore. Readers of my first novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, may recall what seemed like a throwaway line on page 257. While mowing her lawn, Bridget wonders who will take up that chore after she dies. She considers, “Maybe it will just go wild, back to tall prairie grass. Better yet, back to the Pawnee, who hunted here.” (I have since writing that line met a person who did exactly that—he returned his Nebraska land to the Pawnee tribe. More on that, later.)

In my next post, I’ll explore how the Pawnee and their mythic Magpie became central to my upcoming novels.

Greeting a Magpie

My first childhood experience of greeting a magpie was in Estes Park, Colorado, in a parking lot. When I held a cracker or cookie or some other object overhead, a magpie would swoop down and take it. This interaction with people impressed me, as did the rushing, iridescent black feathers and sizzling white belly feathers on that swooping bird. Reading about magpies since, I find they have a reputation as highly intelligent thieves of shiny objects, especially in captivity.

Magpies are members of the corvid, or crow family, as are rooks, jays and nutcrackers. There are different magpie varieties, with the most widespread American bird being the type I met in Estes Park, the black-billed magpie, Pica hudsonia. Another variety with a yellow bill, Pica nuttalli, inhabits only woodland regions of central and southern California. The non-corvid Australian magpie, Cracticus tibicen, is a piebald bird. There’s also an entire genus of blue-green magpies in the Orient, Urocissa, and the azure-winged Cyanopica. A distant Corvidae relative, the black magpie Platysmurus leucoptyrus, is in fact a treepie and not a magpie. Take note, and thank you Wikipedia for sorting that out for us. We wouldn’t want to confuse our magpies and treepies!

I became a voracious seeker of magpie lore while researching my upcoming novel. Throughout North America, England, Germany, China, Korea and ancient Rome, the magpie appears in traditional stories and proverbs. On A Letter from the Netherlands, an expat British writer muses on how the superstition-laden magpie carries a bad reputation and is most often a bad omen in her tradition and family experience.

Reading about mythical magpies led me to reflect on the power and durability of myth, and how myths hold value for us today. In my next post, I’ll address this and greet Magpie as a mythic figure.

(Thanks to Christophe Libert for use of his magpie photo!)