Nov 9, 2010

Superstition - Part V
the Number Thirteen

There are those who believe that fears surrounding the number 13 are as old as the act of counting. Primitive man had only his 10 fingers and two feet to represent units, so he could count no higher than 12. What lay beyond that — 13 — was an unfathomable mystery to our prehistoric forebears, hence an object of superstition.

It’s also possible the number 13 may have been purposely vilified by the founders of patriarchal religions in the early days of western civilization because it represented femininity. Thirteen had been revered in prehistoric goddess-worshiping cultures because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The "Earth Mother of Laussel"— a 27,000-year-old carving found near the Lascaux caves in France often cited as an icon of matriarchal spirituality — depicts a female figure holding a crescent-shaped horn bearing 13 notches. As the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar with the rise of male-dominated civilization so did the "perfect" number 12 over the "imperfect" number 13, thereafter considered anathema.

Ancient Persians believed the twelve constellations in the Zodiac controlled the months of the year. Each ruled the earth for a thousand years at the end of which the sky and earth collapsed into chaos. The number thirteen was identified with chaos and Persians would leave their houses on the thirteenth day of the Persian Calendar to avoid bad luck, a tradition called Sizdah Bedar.

The Norse believed that Loki was the 13th god. Loki was said to have engineered the murder of Balder, and was the 13th guest to arrive at the funeral. This is perhaps related to the superstition that if thirteen people gather, one of them will die in the following year.

In the Christian religion, Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th guest at the last supper.

On October 13, 1307, officers of King Philip IV of France carried out mass arrests in a well-coordinated dawn raid that left several thousand Templars in chains, charged with heresy, blasphemy, various obscenities, and homosexual practices.

A more modern myth about number claims that if you have 13 letters in your name you will have the devil's luck. Consider, for instance, Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy, and Albert De Salvo.

But not everyone believes the number thirteen is unlucky.

In Judaism, thirteen signifies the age at which a boy matures and becomes a Bar Mitzvah. According to Maimonides, it's the number of principles of Jewish faith while the Torah claims God has 13 Attributes of Mercy. The number of circles, or "nodes", that make up Metatron's Cube in Kaballistic teachings is thirteen.

In the Hindu religion, a feast is organized on the 13th day of death. Known as "Tehranvi", it is believed to be organized for the peace of the departed soul. In Hindu astrology, it is considered auspicious to name a baby girl on the 13th day after her birth.

The Mayan Tzolk'in calender has trecenas marking cycles of 13 day periods. The pyramids are also set up in 9 steps divided into 7 days and 6 nights, 13 days total.

Colgate University also considers 13 to be a lucky number. They were founded in 1819 by 13 men with 13 dollars, 13 prayers, and 13 articles. (To this day, members of the Colgate community consider the number 13 a good omen.) In fact, the campus address is 13 Oak Drive in Hamilton, NY and the all men a cappella group is called the Colgate 13

In 1881, an influential group of New Yorkers led by U.S. Civil War veteran Captain William Fowler came together to put an end to this and other superstitions. They formed a dinner cabaret club, which they called the Thirteen Club. At the first meeting, on Friday 13 January 1881 at 8:13 p.m., 13 people sat down to dine in room 13 of the venue. The guests walked under a ladder to enter the room and were seated among piles of spilled salt. All of the guests survived. Thirteen Clubs sprang up all over North America for the next 40 years. Their activities were regularly reported in leading newspapers, and their numbers included five future U.S. presidents, from Chester A. Arthur to Theodore Roosevelt.

Mystery writer Agatha Christie (1890-1976) actually capitalized on the superstition that surrounds the number 13 when she penned 13 short stories and put them in a book titled, "The Thirteen Problems" in 1933. Each story featured her busybody sleuth, "Miss Jane Marple." Christie did it again when she wrote the mystery, "Thirteen at Dinner".

So, is the number 13 lucky or unlucky? I think that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.


Erica M. Chapman said...

Interesting! I'm a 13 fan myself ;o) I didn't know all that though. I counted my name, I have 12 without the middle initial ;o)

C R Ward said...

I got my first job on a Friday the 13th, but it was as a sales clerk so I don't know whether that was good luck or bad luck. :-)