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Fear the number thirteen.

Fear the number thirteen.

Songwriter Harry Nilsson and the band Three Dog Night would have you believe that one is the loneliest number (to get in the mood listen at Cover of “One” – Three Dog Night).  They are mistaken.  The loneliest number is in fact thirteen, for as observed by anthropologist Claudia De Lys, “Except perhaps among the ancient Chinese and Egyptians, the number thirteen has had an unsavory reputation ever since that misty eon when man first learned to count”.  Thirteen quite literally gets no respect, or rather it is respectfully avoided at all costs, the same protocol recommended for an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend/furry.  Companies and manufacturers make an effort to avoid using the number thirteen on their products; hotels and other lofty buildings pretend that the thirteenth floor doesn’t exist (when in reality it is generally the floor numbered fourteen – who do they think they’re fooling?).  Don’t invite thirteen guests to dinner since you’ll just be tempting fate in a Last Supper sort of way, unless you are actually inviting twelve and saving a seat for Elijah (he’s unreliable and rarely shows, so you’re probably covered).  And of course we have Friday the 13th, which may either involve excruciatingly bad luck or a homicidal dude in a hockey mask, depending largely on if you’re glass half-full or glass half-empty type of fellow.  What other number has its own phobia (triskaidekaphobia) and was purposefully excluded from the 282 laws listed in the 3700 year old Code of Hammurabi?  Obviously there is something monstrous about the number thirteen.  How did the number thirteen get such a bad rap?

The famous “unlucky 13” and especially the “13 at table” is, I believe, somehow connected with this tradition. Ernst Boklen has attempted to prove the prevalence of the superstition as early as Homeric times, but his evidence is drawn from his own discovery of instances where a misfortune is said to have occurred to one of 13 individuals.  I cannot believe this type of evidence to be valid, since the number is never asserted to be the cause of the misfortune nor is it ever directly labeled as “unlucky” in any discussion of significant numbers or elsewhere. The first specific mention of the unlucky 13 which I have been able to find occurs in Montaigne: ‘And me seemeth I may well be excused if I rather except an odd number than an even…if I had rather make a twelfth or fourteenth at a table, then a thirteenth. . .All such fond conceits, now in credit about us, deserve at least to be listened unto’. The fact that the number was associated with Epiphany by the Church, and appears not to have been considered other than holy by any of the medieval number theorists leads to the inference that the unlucky 13 was a popular superstition entirely disconnected from the “science of numbers.” Petrus Bungus is the first arithmologist to recognize any evil inherent in the number. He records that the Jews murmured 13 times against God in the exodus from Egypt, that the thirteenth psalm concerns wickedness and corruption, that the circumcision of Israel occurred in the thirteenth year, thus not reaching the satisfaction of the law and the evangelists, which are figured by 10 and 4. As 11 is a number of transgression, because it goes beyond the 10 Commandments, so 13 goes beyond the 12 apostles (Hopper, 1938, p130-131).

As Hopper points out, a number of uncompelling suggestions have been made in the attempt to root out the historical reason for the misfortune associated with the number thirteen, and settles on Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592 A.D.) as the source of the modern tradition (also mentioning 16th Century A.D. numerologist Petrus Bungus), who may have popularized the belief, but was most certainly not its origin.  Nonetheless, even big kahunas like Napoleon, J. Paul Getty, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt eschewed eating dinner at a table with thirteen people just in case.  Napoleon conquered most of Europe.  J, Paul Getty owned pretty much everything, and FDR couldn’t stop getting re-elected and went toe to toe with the Nazis.  And these guys were afraid of the number thirteen.  I’ve never conquered any significant plot of land, have only a modest savings account, and have never been elected to anything.  Maybe I should worry too?   The truth is, you can take any number and find lots of unpleasant occurrences to associate with it, yet the Western world seems to have a special place in its fear-stricken heart for thirteen.  Ever since we learned that numbers were cool for things like keeping track of livestock, making sure the local god-king wasn’t taxing us too much, and made us look smart to the ladies, our species has had a certain reverence for numbers.  Most of the time this reverence was enforced, since priests tended to be the only ones who paid attention in math class.  Greek mathematician Pythagoras of Samos (570-495 B.C.) wasn’t having much luck dating, but happened to be an ace mathematician, so he played to his strengths, and built his mystic philosophy/religion around numbers, including the notion that numbers could be good or evil.  That’ll show Mary Lou Angelopolous.

The basis of Pythagoras’ philosophy was number. Number ruled the universe. Number was the basic description of everything. “Were it not for number and its nature, nothing that exists would be clear to anybody . . . You can observe the power of number exercising itself not only in the affairs of demons and gods, but in all the acts and thoughts of men,” said one of his disciples. One example of the power of numbers that the Pythagoreans discovered is that the pitch on a stringed musical instrument is dependent on the length of the string. A string twice as long as another will give a pitch twice as low.  Another less worthy discovery was the special character each number supposedly has. One, for instance, is reason; 2 is opinion; 4, justice. Four dots make a square and even today we speak of “a square deal” to mean justice. Odd numbers are masculine and even numbers feminine. Therefore, reasoned Pythagoras, even numbers represent evil; and odd, or masculine numbers, good. Five, the first sum of an odd and even number (1 was not counted) symbolizes marriage. On and on went this strange number lore whereby the future could be predicted, a person’s character known, or any other vital bit of information revealed. Today we have our own unlucky 13 and our soothsayer’s seventh son of a seventh son—all remnants of Pythagoras’ ideas. While present-day numerologists may be in bad repute, they are in good company (Muir, 1961, p6-7).

This still begs the question of why thirteen is so skeptically regarded.  The bottom line is it’s all about time.  Time is our most fearsome monster.  If you have too much time, you’re probably bored.  Too little time and you’re probably dead.  Very few people have just enough time.  Time is that horrible lurking creature that can’t be negotiated with, can’t be cheated, and winds inexorably towards the moment when you realize you’ve run out of it.  Brave knights, heartfelt prayers, and cutting edge science can but buy you a few more precious moments in the grand scheme of things.  Eventually time runs out.  At least for you and me.  When you mess with time, you are messing with a universal constant (and don’t start with the travelling faster than light thing where relative time slows down– let’s see you try.  Sure Einstein might have been brilliant, but what a prick).  I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the fact that I will one day die, presumably from a cholesterol induced coronary.  What can I say?  I like French fries, bacon, and scotch.  Having been only reasonably decent to my fellow man, not especially pious towards any particular deity, overworked, underpaid, and uninterested in cryogenically freezing my head, immortality is unlikely.  Thus, when I think about time, it tends to relate only to train schedules, holidays, and whether there will be enough in my 401K to raid for my son’s college tuition.  So in brief, time sucks.  It’s not time’s fault, after all we invented it, or at least the ways of calculating our relative position in time, which ultimately was probably an inadvisable move.  Even more so, if you happened to be the number thirteen.  “Mr. E has been hitting the scotch early today”, is no doubt what you’re thinking, but rest assured it’s only been a French Fries and bacon day (we will have to amend that shortly should the well of conspiratorial paranoia run dry), but it seems that our fear of the number thirteen relates directly to the differences between lunar and solar calendars.  Once you go Gregorian, you don’t go back.

These days, the international standard is the Gregorian calendar with which most of us are intimately familiar.  The Gregorian Calendar is a solar calendar (indicating the position of the earth on its revolution around the sun or equivalently the apparent position of the sun moving on the celestial sphere) consisting of 365 days and every four years, in a leap year, an intercalary or leap day is added as February 29th making the year 366 days.  The Gregorian calendar was a slight emendation of the Julian Calendar, also a solar calendar, (the difference between the two calendars is slight amounting to 0.002% difference in the length of a year), basically amounting to error correction, and the largest problem with the shift from Julian to Gregorian was the effect it had on the liturgical schedule.  This was pretty much over and done with by 1582 A.D. in the Western world.  Neither was this the source of our phobia about the number thirteen.  The real problem was the shift from historically popular lunar calendars to solar calendars, or more precisely (since many lunar calendars are actually lunisolar calendars), the transition from lunisolar to solar calendars.  For example, Hebrew, Hindu, and Chinese calendars are lunisolar, that is they reflect the lunar cycle (the Islamic calendar is a pure lunar calendar).  Unfortunately, a solar year is not exactly equal in length to the number of lunations in a lunar year.  The result of this is that without the occasional addition of a 13th month to a lunisolar calendar every two or three years, the actual seasons begin to drift in the calendar, and eventually you’re having winter in the middle of what’s supposed to be summer by your calendar.  This means that every once in a while you have a liminal month, that is, an aberrant 13th month inserted into the calendar, and if time itself is monstrous, then exceptions to the calendar are particularly disturbing, especially a rogue month that appears every now and again.  And indeed, the 13th month occasionally inserted into a lunar calendar is almost universally considered an unlucky month.  Since the calendar has traditionally been the province of religion, anomalous insertions into it have great cosmological significance.

Thus at an early stage of culture the regulation of the calendar is largely an affair of religion: it is a means of maintaining the established relations between gods and men on a satisfactory footing; and in public opinion the great evil of a disordered calendar is not so much that it disturbs and disarranges the ordinary course of business and the various transactions of civil life, as that it endangers the welfare or even the existence both of individuals and of the community by interrupting their normal intercourse with those divine powers on whose favour men believe themselves to be absolutely dependent. Hence in states which take this view of the deep religious import of the calendar its superintendence is naturally entrusted to priests rather than to astronomers, because the science of astronomy is regarded merely as ancillary to the deeper mysteries of theology (Frazer, 1935, p83).

Nothing could be more disorderly than having to periodically insert a 13th month to ensure the seasons still made sense.  When you think about it, if you’re a caveperson and you need to know when to go to a job interview, you really only have two reliable ways of keeping track of time (as nobody has yet invented to watch) – the day, that is sunrise to sunrise, and the month, calculated as the time between new moons.  The year (one orbit of the earth around the sun) is important due to that whole seasons thing, which in turn is important because we like salad and biscuits, but is difficult to observably measure, particularly if you have no notion that the earth orbits the sun.  The Muslim calendar is lunar, and simply lets each month slip back through the seasons in a 32 year cycle (twelve lunar months = 354 days). Ancient Mesopotamian, Hebrew, and Republican Roman calendars all thought that was unacceptable, and went ahead and occasionally inserted that pesky 13th month.  Egyptian priests got all uppity when they discovered they could measure a solar year by observing the star Sirius, coming up with our 365 day year, split into 12 30-day months, with 5 additional days tacked on outside of any month at the end of the year (the Mayans independently came up with the same figures, but split the year into 18 20-day months, also adding 5 days at the end of the year).  When Julius Caesar came to power in Rome in the 1st Century B.C., all the good astronomers were coming out of Babylon and Egypt, and the Roman lunar calendar kept screwing up the seasons due to the aforementioned slippage of months, so on the advice of a hip Alexandrian astronomer named Sosigenes, Caesar added ninety days to the year 46 B.C., and synched everybody on the solar Julian Calendar on January 1, 45 B.C.  Adoption by the Roman Empire and Christianity made sure that if you wanted to do business in Rome, you’d go Julian.  It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from there to our current Gregorian Calendar which really only made some minor adjustments. Yet, for much of our existence as a species that could write and count, the lunar reckoning of time held primacy.  Our widespread conversion to solar time orphaned those errant thirteenth months, and made them anathema, representing a time outside time.  Even among those cultures that follow a lunar or lunisolar calendar, the occasional, corrective thirteenth month is regarded as an especially portentous time, filled with a magical manna that easily translates into evil.

Deep in our little primate hearts, we know there is something wrong with the number thirteen.  All this historical fussing with the calendar makes the common man suspicious.  It’s like someone is stealing time from you, and as Benjamin Franklin observed, “Lost time is never found again”.  Feel free to dismiss the possibility that there is something unlucky about the monstrous number thirteen if that makes you feel better, makes you believe that one makes their own fortune independent of a comic universe that seems determined to demonstrate that the only constant is change, but heed author Joseph Conrad’s reminder that “It is the mark of an inexperienced man not to believe in luck.”  And stay away from 13-year old scotch.

Frazer, James George, Sir, 1854-1941. The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic And Religion. 3d ed. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1935.
Hopper, Vincent F., 1906-1976. Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, And Influence On Thought And Expression. New York: Columbia university press, 1938.
Muir, Jane. Of Men And Numbers: the Story of the Great Mathematicians. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961.