The persistent ‘belief’ that thirteen is an unlucky number has always puzzled me. I remember first learning that some tall buildings do not have a thirteenth floor. What? The extra zap associated with Friday the thirteenth just raised the superstition to greater heights. Then, somewhere along the way, during my feminist awakening, I heard that the root of all this fear and angst was that there were/are thirteen witches in a coven. That settled it. The number thirteen became a power day for me, a locus of women’s energy, if you will. In honor of today, I decided to spend a little time researching the superstitions and their possible origins.
Google ‘thirteen witches’ and you will find: 13 rules, 13 powers, 13 runes and 13 goals of witchcraft, as well as a film and a television show. From the World of Wicca website comes this factoid: “…the earliest reference to the term coven was in 1662 when Isobel Gowdie confessed that in her experience witches met in covens of thirteen.”
I went on to read the text of an NPR interview with Nathaniel Lachenmeyer the author of 13 : The Story of the World’s Most Notorious Superstition, where I found these ‘facts’:
[The] first record of it being a superstition was in the late 17th century, and the first incarnation of unlucky 13 was ’13 at a table.’ If you sit 13 people at a table, one will die within a year. And at the time… [it was commonly accepted that] the origin of the superstition… was the 12 plus one of Christ and the disciples at the Last Supper.
The term triskaidekophobia originated about 1910. It was the creation of a psychoanalyst at a time when… there was a lot of focus on phobias. Triskaidekophobia is one of three things that the 20th century brought to the 13 superstition. The other two were Friday the 13th. That superstition didn’t come around until the 20th century. And the third was the missing 13th floor.
P.T. Barnum… thought enough of the number to devote an entire chapter…[in his autobiography] to analyzing 13 in his own life, very earnestly, to try to figure out whether or not it… was a malevolent force or not. And in the 20th century… Adolf Hitler and Herbert Hoover were both triskaidekophobes.
I went on searching, trying to select sources that seem most reputable, (but who knows…) In a National Geographic article: Friday the 13th Phobia Rooted in Ancient History, they quote a phobia expert:
Donald Dossey, founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, also a folklore historian, … said fear of Friday the 13th is rooted in ancient, separate bad-luck associations with the number 13 and the day Friday. The two unlucky entities ultimately combined to make one super unlucky day.
[He] traces the fear of 13 to a Norse myth about 12 gods having a dinner party at Valhalla, their heaven. In walked the uninvited 13th guest, the mischievous Loki. Once there, Loki arranged for Hoder, the blind god of darkness, to shoot Balder the Beautiful, the god of joy and gladness, with a mistletoe-tipped arrow.
“Balder died and the whole Earth got dark. The whole Earth mourned. It was a bad, unlucky day,” said Dossey. From that moment on, the number 13 has been considered ominous and foreboding.
Thomas Fernsler, an associate policy scientist in the Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center at the University of Delaware in Newark, said the number 13 suffers because of its position after 12. [He states that] numerologists consider 12 a “complete” number. There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles of Jesus.
In exceeding 12 by 1, Fernsler said 13’s association with bad luck “has to do with just being a little beyond completeness.”
This fear of 13 is strong in today’s world. According to Dossey, more than 80 percent of high-rises lack a 13th floor. Many airports skip the 13th gate. Hospitals and hotels regularly have no room number 13. On streets in Florence, Italy, the house between number 12 and 14 is addressed as 12 and a half.
Folklore offers remedies, however. One recommendation is to climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them. Another is to stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.
Now that is gross. Not the socks, but eating gristle? No. If you haven’t had enough trivia yet, here’s a link to today’s Huffington Post. Numerous sources say that people refuse to engage in major business transactions on Friday the thirteenth, including buying a house or acting on a stock tip. Some folks refuse to fly. Reportedly, this leads to an economic slowdown for the day. I also got the sense that it is realtors and developers who keep the superstitions about the 13th floor and # 13 rooms and apartments alive. They are worried that people will not buy or rent places with the #13, so they exclude them.
All of this is mainly in the U.S. and Western Europe, of course. In Japan it is the # 9 that is skipped, especially in hospitals, due to the sound “ku” being associated with the word “kurushimu” (“to suffer”). In China, the fear of four (Tetraphobia) is the reason that a fourth floor is usually omitted from most elevator fixtures in a Chinese building, this is because the number means “death (死)”.
Enough of this. I am going to stick with my belief – or is it a superstition? – that Thirteen is a power number for women. And that, my friends, is that! I hope you had a fine day.