Britain is a very superstitious little island. Every single country and county has different superstitious beliefs passed down from families, sometimes for generations.
My Nan would tell me that seeing a solitary magpie would mean bad luck was coming. There is even a weirdly jolly if somewhat morbid rhyme for it:
“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.”
So, if I see one lone magpie I have to follow it until I find another one, or I am convinced I’ll have bad luck (seriously, I once spent an hour hunting for a second magpie. The fear is real) In some parts of the UK, instead of following the magpie, you salute it (which tbh feels like the laziest form of meaningless superstition).
So whats the deal with magpies? Well, the magpie has long been associated with death and bad luck in the UK as far back as the 16th century, with some version of the rhyme being almost as old.
Historically speaking, death was a much more common occurrence before the age of medicine and more understanding around the mechanics of our own biology, so people looked to nature for ways of foreshadowing coming troubles. Which gave birth to many of the superstitions we still have today.
This continued to be backed up through the centuries, particularly when we hit the Victorian era, thanks to the their obsession with the occult. In fact almost everywhere you go in the UK, you’ll find a new or slightly different centuries old death superstition.
So lets embark together on a magical mystery tour of Britain’s fascination (and fear) of death and the symbols that may just herald its arrival…. starting with:
There’s so many ways death can announce itself but none more so than birds!
Once more, the good old magpie crops up here, with the belief that if a magpie taps on your window that’s a sure sign death is on the way. The bird is trying to warn you.
And much like my Nan, the Victorians were particularly superstitious about magpies, with the belief that seeing one solitary magpie is a very bad omen, gaining a lot of traction in this era.
There’s also the belief that hearing an owl screech three times or landing on your bedpost meant death was going to pay a visit.
And of course, crows have long been known as a deathly omen, linked to witchcraft and satanism since the Medieval age.
In fact both owls and crows are closely associated with death in Celtic folklore often being ambassadors for the gods of death and the underworld.
And it’s not just live birds that will get you. One old wives tales, which came about during the 16th century’s outbreak of witch trials, warned that if a bird happens to fly into your window/wall and die, then thats a very good indication that you can expect a fatality within the week.
Ah, man’s best friend. Because of dogs supposedly close connection to humans, it was thought that they could sense trouble coming for their owners. With one belief citing that if a dog continued to howl by your bedroom window at night you could expect to die pretty immanently.
But not all dogs are friendly in folklore though (well, if you count friendly as predicting your death…)
In Wales there’s the legend that if you see Cwn Annwn, a white dog with glowing red eyes the size of a calf, then you’re predicted to die within a matter of days. These dogs are said to belong to Gwyn ap Nud, Lord of the Underworld. You can hear their bark before you see them, and terrifyingly they get quieter the closer they get to you.
Meanwhile, over in Scotland, they aren’t fond of black sheep or any kind of black animal. The colour black has been associated with Satan by them since the 15th century. The birth of a black lamb would foretell misfortune and bereavements, and if two lambs with black faces were born then you’d be said to lose your flock by the end of lambing season.
Black cats are good or bad luck depending on which part of the UK you’re in. Obviously, Scotland believed a black cat crossing your path was a sure sign death was coming to someone in your family. And, black cats were associated with witchcraft, so were seen as a very bad omen.
This kind of superstition is sadly still prevalent today, with black cats actually being the least likely to be adopted from rescue shelters.
3. Household Items
During the medieval era, it was a tradition that brooms shouldn’t be used during the month of May. Because if you did use a broom, then you were inviting death into your home. Similarly, if your broom fell over of its own accord, then that meant death announced itself to your household. So basically don’t clean.
Umbrellas were also frowned upon. With the Victorians believing that umbrellas being opened inside the house meant a member of the culprit’s family would be murdered! This is an interesting one in that it spread across the western world and to this day, its commonly seen as a sign of bad luck to open a brolly indoors (even if most people don’t know why/how its bad luck)
And if you thought that you could escape death omens when sleeping..think again.
4.Dreams and Doubles
Dreams were seen as a precursor and warning of impending bad luck or a bereavement. If, in your dream you saw your doppelgänger, the devil or a solitary crow this meant death was coming for you. They made it personal.
The double as a death omen has been around for hundreds of years. Queen Elizabeth I was rumoured to have seen her doppelgänger reclining in her bed looking pale and lifeless a few days before her own passing!
In Celtic folklore there’s a legend of a fairy creature known as a ‘Changeling’ who should steal children and replaced them with doubles who became sickly and died within days. This explanation meant parents could hold on to the belief their children were alive with the fairies somewhere.
5. Funeral Processions
As you’ve probably noticed, the Victorians feature heavily in the world of folklore and death omens. They had a curiosity around death and the supernatural. With one popular and very much believed death omen was around funeral processions.
If you saw a real life funeral procession going on you should not cross paths in front of it or you risked inviting death into your family.
There was also the belief that if you saw a ghostly funeral procession this foreshadowed the end of your life. So, to keep yourself safe you had to turn and walk away from the procession, disrespect be damned!
There was also the legend of Corpse Candles, flickering lights that seemed to hover. These were seen by folks from their window or out walking. They were said to lead the souls of the dead to their resting place. With corpse candles, heralding an oncoming bereavement. And if you were very unlucky, the corpse candles would come towards your house, foreshadowing a death in the household.
It’s funny to think of how we dismiss these old omens nowadays. This has come with more of an understanding of how our bodies work and fighting back against many diseases that today we don’t even register but used to kill in great numbers.
There’s still a few that are held onto which have been passed down in families, inexplicably followed almost automatically. We don’t want to give up on these small beliefs and our desire to understand the unknown… and why should we?
This was interesting, where can I find out more? I thoroughly recommend the book A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Chainey, there’s a chapter around folklore in Death & Burial, but the entire thing is a fascinating read.
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.