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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Number13: Hoodoo, myth or fact?


Hoodoo, myth or fact?

What’s your lucky number? I will hold a bet with you. It can be anything but the 13. For whatever reasons, this fear for number 13 is deeply rooted in us from our younger days as an unlucky and evil number. In Russia this number is known as the devil’s dozen.

Have you ever thought about this weird belief? For instance, from where was it originated and why do people believe in the magic of this number! This phobia is medically known as Triskaidekaphobia (deriving from Greek tris=three, kai=and, deka=ten. The dictionary defines it as an irrational fear of the number 13.

But where did it begin? Is it possible that the folklore associated with the number 13 has become a demonized numeral precisely because it was sacred in pre-Christian times? Think about it. Number 13 was a number central to certain traditions because it reflected a pattern which could be seen to exist in man, nature, and the heavens.

For instance, there are 13 major joints in your body. There are 13 lunar cycles in a solar year, and the moon travels 13 degrees across the sky every day. Six circles placed around a seventh central circle is a model of geometric efficiency and perfection in the second dimension that has been known to mathematicians for ages. But this same configuration in three dimensions consists of 12 spheres arranged around one central sphere, making 13 in all. It’s all confusing, isn’t it?


Let us begin from the very beginning. There is a biblical reference to number 13. Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th guest to the Last Supper. Still to this day it is considered among many Christians that it’s very bad luck for thirteen people to sit down for dinner together. It is believed that one of the dinner guests will die within the year.

Brussels Airlines, has been forced to change its logo following complaints from superstitious passengers.

“How Did It Begin?” by R. Brash (Pocket Books, New York, 1966) mentions the Last Supper but also says: “There is a less superstitious and more rational explanation which says that statistical surveys showed insurance companies that of any group of 13 one person would die within less than 12 months.”

Donald Dossey, a renowned Australian folklore historian 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,” says Dossey. Thomas Fernsler, a scientist in the Mathematics and Science in USA, says the number 13 suffers because of its position after 12. According to Fernsler, numerologists consider 12 a “complete” number.

There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, and 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.

The number becomes restless or squirmy.” Fernsler continues, It seems clear that, to the primitive mind of early man, number 13 was a mystery. He stopped at 12. So persistent are these old instincts that even today, we stop at 12x12 in our multiplication tables, though there is absolutely no reason whatever why we should do so.

We also find Charles A. Platt, the Mathematician, writing in 1925 saying that the reason 13 is considered unlucky is that a person can count from 1-12 with their 8 fingers, two thumbs and 2 feet, but not beyond that, so the number 13 is unknown, hence frightening and unlucky.

(Strangely, this idea discounts the use of toes or other body parts in counting.) Again, the symbolism of thirteen comes into mind when we learn of Osiris (the Egyptian god of life and death) who was murdered by his brother Typhon. Isis, Osiris’ wife and sister collected his body with intent to restore Osiris back to life.

However, Typhon stole Osiris’ body and cut it into fourteen pieces and scattered them about the earth. Isis continued her quest to revive her beloved, but when she reclaimed thirteenth body parts, the last one fell into the Nile and was eaten by a school of fish.

Coming down to more recent times, triskaidekaphobes quote the Apollo 13th ill-fated mission to the moon, as proof to bad effect of 13. The spacecraft Apollo 13, named “Aquarius exploded at 1:13 (1313 military time) on April 13, 1970.

The never-ending theories will go on and on. So, let’s skip to the next question.


What are the consequences of this superstition, socially and economically? 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. Many airlines skip a row 13, going straight from 12 to 14. 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.

In France socialites known as the quatorziens (fourteeners) once made themselves available as 14th guests to keep a dinner party from an unlucky fate.

Some people won’t eat out on the 13th. Some don’t like to begin extended journeys on the 13th. In some forms of motor sport, for example Formula One, there is no number 13 car.

In many cultures, getting married on any day of the week that falls under number 13 is highly discouraged. Microsoft plans to skip Office 13 for being “an unlucky number,” going directly from Office 12 to Office 14. After 13 years of being the richest man in the world, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates lost this title, according to Forbes magazine’s 2008 list of the world’s billionaires.

A new Belgian carrier, Brussels Airlines, has been forced to change its logo following complaints from superstitious passengers. The 13 dots making up the stylized ‘b’ brought a flood of complaints about the “unlucky” design. The airline said it was taken aback by the strength of feeling and felt obliged to respond.

Princess Diana died when her car hit the thirteenth pillar of a tunnel in Paris, on August 31, 1997.

It’s an endless list.

Finally, let me ask you a straightforward question. Are you adamant about your fear of number 13? For example, would you consider living alone on floor marked 13 in unit 13? Ask any scientist.

He cannot offer you any solid proof, but will say it is simply a superstition phobia. Yet, for centuries, the scary combination of the number 13 has signified misfortune to many across this world. Although the West is famous for scientific technological wizardry and education, the number 13’s superstition still has a powerful hold on many aspects of everyday life.

It seems to be that even concern authorities and governments recognize the power of this number and willing to bend the rules. Perhaps numbers do have their strength. That may be the reason why even to this day, the superstition lives on.

So, before answering the question, give it a little more serious thought.

----- The Sunday Obserever

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