Sunday, January 15, 2012

Friday the 13th and Other Superstitions

Friday the 13th just passed, and as far as I can tell, except for the unfortunate cruise ship disaster off the coast of Italy, there was no more than the normal quota of bad luck and misfortune.  Just as a joke, I posted a comment about this on my Facebook page.  As usual, my post provoked a number of comments from some of the people who follow them; many apparently didn’t get the humor and quoted religion at me – I’m getting used to that – but, it got me to thinking.  Where did the fear of Friday the 13th come from in the first place?

The sixth day of the week, at least, the sixth based on Western calendars, and the number 13 have bad reputations that some say date from ancient times.  In my travels, though, I’ve found that this is mainly in Western or Christian countries; in many parts of Asia it’s the number 4 that people are queasy about because in Mandarin Chinese the pronunciation of ‘four’ is very close to the pronunciation of the word ‘death’ or ‘die.’

According to some sources, though, the superstition about Friday the 13th is the most widespread superstition in the United States, with people refusing to go to work or eat out, or schedule important events on that day.  There’s even a term for this phobia; paraskevideatriaphobia, coined by Dr. Donald Dossey, a psychotherapist who specializes in treatment of phobias.

But, I digress; the objective here is to try and determine where this superstition came from.  That’s always difficult, though, given that such things are usually passed along by word of mouth, and if you’ve ever experienced how messages get garbled this way, you can understand that the stories you hear have to be taken with a shaker of salt.  One theory has it that the ancient Egyptians considered the number 13 auspicious, representing the eternal afterlife.  After the civilization of the pharaohs disappeared, the symbolism of 13, and its association with death, persisted, thus associating the number with the fear of death rather than reverence for afterlife.

Another theory comes from the Hindus of India, who believed for unknown reasons that it was unlucky for 13 people to gather for dinner.  One has to wonder if this was just an aversion to the lack of symmetry caused by having an odd number at the table.  There’s even an explanation from ancient Norse mythology about 13.  Supposedly, twelve gods were invited to a dinner at Valhalla. Loki, the god of mischief, had been left off the guest list, but crashed the party, and true to his nature, raised hell, causing Hod to kill Balder with a spear made of mistletoe. 

There’s even a biblical association with the unlucky nature of 13.  According to the Bible, there were 13 present at the Last Supper, and one of the guests betrayed Jesus Christ, who was later crucified – and on Friday by the way.  In ancient Rome, Friday was execution day; and I’ll leave it to some reader who’s interested to research that one. 

I’ve read a lot more about this superstition, and, while I don’t personally subscribe to it, I can understand why otherwise rational people might believe in it.  People in general are good at finding excuses for why things don’t work the way they’re supposed to, or explanations for the unexplainable.  Many people engage in superstitious behavior without even being aware of it.  When, for instance, was the last time you opened an umbrella inside, or walked under a ladder?  Superstition is a belief in some supernatural cause of events; in other words, one event leads to another without any link in the physical world.  Many people consider religious beliefs and practices different from pagan superstition, and that’s an argument best left to theologians, I suppose. 

If you thought that by now you’d have a definitive answer to why people consider Friday the 13th unlucky, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.  The fact is, I just don’t know.  With science advancing by leaps and bounds it’s hard to imagine that in the 21st Century we’d still have people believing in such things.  But, there you have it.  If you’re one of the superstitious, I have some more bad news – there will be three more Friday the 13ths this year.