Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection
Signs

Magpies and Baby Teeth

Context

Instead of giving them to the tooth fairy, Korean children that shed their baby teeth used to toss them on top of roofs, hoping for a magpie to take it and bring back a new, permanent tooth. But as South Korea rapidly developed itself, the surge of high buildings inevitably modified the context in which the tradition was performed, creating difficulties in its practice.

Informant Information

The informant is my mother, who first learned of this custom during her childhood from her maternal grandmother.

Informant: “…so when I showed grandma my tooth, she scolded me, telling me that I should throw it [onto the roof] so that I can ‘get my new tooth from the magpie’. The idea of not having my tooth grow back scared me – I didn’t want to be toothless like an old person! I ran off to the yard and threw my tooth as far up the roof as I could.”

Collector: “Is this still a thing? I think I read that story from an old book, but I don’t remember any of my friends doing it.”

Informant: “Probably not, since traditional tiled rooftops are only in expensive traditional housing – all we get are apartments nowadays…”

Collector: “Fair enough. Why the magpie though? Why not some other bird?”

Informant: “Because magpies symbolize the coming of spring and good luck.”

Analysis

The ubiquitous nature of folklore pertaining to baby teeth in contemporary societies can be explained by the necessity of certain rites of passage in traditional societies. Since the eruption of baby teeth begins around the age of 6, the first loss of teeth marks the physiological change to adolescence. But also, by giving away one’s own baby teeth (one’s former juvenile self) for good luck, the child ritualistically readies oneself for an adolescent life with greater responsibilities such as helping out with family work or starting school.

Nowadays this superstition is seldom practiced in urban Korea. Formerly practiced on Korea’s once common one-story homes, contemporary Korea and its forest of buildings over ten stories high forces the tradition to contextualize itself to the world of tall buildings or be left with an “expiration date” of sorts.

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