THE NUMBER 13: LEGENDS AND MYTHS
As a writer of mysteries and suspense thrillers I spend a lot of time researching various rather peculiar, some might say creepy, topics. When I decided to write a short story for an anthology whose theme was the number 13 I was pretty sure my search would result in some interesting information. I had no idea I’d be stumbling over the bizarre, and yes creepy, once again.
Of course I knew there was superstition around the number 13 and that many considered it unlucky. For instance, airlines have no 13th row of seats, some hotels won’t assign number 13 to a room, and high rises will number the 13th floor 14. (As if that fools anyone)
But there are many phobias, and the fear is not always based in reality. The fear of 13 has a name, triskaidekaphobia. A fear of Friday the 13th is called friggatriskaidekaphobia from Frigge, the Norse goddess for whom Friday is named.
Many of us are aware that it’s considered bad luck to invite 13 people to dinner. This may be based on simple coincidence, such as the Christians belief that there were 13 guests at the Last Supper, Judas being the 13th. There is also a story that 12 Norse gods were sitting down to a banquet to which Loki, the 13th, was uninvited. This led Loki to kill one of the other gods, which led to events that eventually resulted in Ragnarok — the death of a number of gods, a slew of natural disasters, and the eradication of everything on earth save for two human survivors.
For an opposing view, there is also a contingent that believes the number 13 is lucky, especially for the United States. They will point out that the U.S. flag originally had 13 stars, and still has 13 stripes. That on the dollar bill there are 13 steps in the pyramid of the Great Seal. The motto above the pyramid, which reads “Annuit Coeptis,” has 13 letters; the eagle on the right side has a ribbon in its beak that bears the motto “E pluribus unum,” which also contains 13 letters. The eagle has 13 tail feathers, and on its breast there is a shield of 13 stripes. In one talon the eagle holds 13 arrows, and in the other an olive branch with 13 leaves and 13 berries. Over the eagle’s head are 13 stars that form the six-pointed “Star of David.” The phrase “July the Fourth” contains 13 letters and the number 4 (1+3), the birth number of the U.S. (July 4, 1776).
In my research I came across another interesting fact. The number 13 has similar folkloric legends in many cultures all around the world.
One explanation is that cultures who use lunisolar calendars (such as the Hebrew and Chinese calendars) must have 13 months in some years in order to synchronize the solar and lunar cycles. The occasional year which contained 13 full moons instead of 12 posed problems for those, usually monks, who were in charge of the calendars. This was considered a very unfortunate circumstance, as it upset the regular arrangement of church festivals. Could this be the real reason thirteen came to be considered an unlucky number?
What is it about calendars? Didn’t we spend a lot of time in 2012 talking about the Mayan Calendar? The end of the Mayan calendar's 13th Baktun was superstitiously feared as a harbinger of the apocalyptic.
Another calendar-based theory is that in ancient cultures, the number 13 represented femininity, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). (When Chinese women make offerings of moon cakes, there are sure to be 13 on the platter. Thirteen is the number of blood, fertility, and lunar potency.) As the patriarchy became stronger the number 13 was vilified.
Calendars and the moon aside, there do seem to be some rather eerie stories and coincidences around the number 13.
The troubled Apollo 13 mission was launched on March 11, 1970. It was written: 4-11-70. The numbers added up to 13. There were more 13s associated with the troubled mission. Like a Discovery Channel report read, "To reach its landing site on the moon, Apollo 13 would launch at 1:13 pm Houston time, or 13:13 on a 24-hour military clock. From there, the crew would enter the moon's gravitational pull on April 13." Yet, despite all those 13s, all crew members of Apollo 13 got back to Earth safely.
Winchester House, in Northern California, is one of the most famous “haunted” houses in the world. Whether or not one believes in Mrs. Winchester’s superstitions about spirits, it’s harder to dismiss occurrences of the number 13 throughout the house. Many windows have 13 panes and there are 13 bathrooms, with 13 windows in the 13th Bathroom. There are also 13 wall panels in the room prior to the 13th Bathroom, and 13 steps leading to that bathroom. The Carriage Entrance Hall floor is divided into 13 cement sections. There are even 13 hooks in the Séance Room, which supposedly held the different colored robes Mrs. Winchester wore while communing with the spirits.
A hangman's noose traditionally has 13 knots. Lesser knots could lead to inhumane suffocation. "Did you ever see a hangman tie a hangknot?/ I've seen it many a time and he winds, he winds / After thirteen times he's got a hangknot," sang Woody Guthrie.
The thirteenth trump card in a Tarot deck is the death card. Typically, it shows a skeleton riding a horse, carrying a black flag.
The names Charles Manson, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Albert De Salvo all contain 13 letters.
My search for information about 13 led to my most disturbing finding, a website maintained by a man who quotes from the bible to prove that the number 13 is satanic and is being used to promote the occult. He notes, “Mark 17:21-23 says that there are 13 evils in the human heart.”
He also writes that, “All children today go to school for 13 years (kindergarten plus 1-12 grades). It used to only be 12 years. But they kicked the Bible and prayer out in 1963 and then added kindergarten (making it 13 years). You have to go for 13 years to have your faith destroyed in God.
He is also very clear about the association between Heavy Metal and the number 13. “That’s what Heavy Metal Rock all about, that is, the total destruction of the United States of America.” He also notes other associations between evil and the number 13. “E pluribus unum (13 letters). New world order (13 letters). Annuit Coeptis (13 letters). Obviously he is viewing these same coincidences, which some see as favorable, in an entirely negative light. He also points to these inevitable dates as if they carried some special meaning. “After 12/21/2012 will comes 01/13/2013. What will the year 2013 hold for the world?”
Maybe it’s just this sort of eccentric view of a natural occurrence, stated with authority and not closely questioned, that leads to superstitions such as those surrounding the number 13. In any case I was happy to continue my online search for the unique properties of 13 at more science-based sites.
I learned that 13 is a natural number after 12 and before 14. It is the smallest number with eight letters in its name spelled out in English.
I also found that Friday turns out to be the most common weekday on which the 13th of a month can occur in the Gregorian calendar.
The number 13 is the sixth prime number and the smallest emirp (prime which is a different prime when reversed). It is also a Fibonacci number, a happy number and one of only 2 known Wilson primes. (I have no idea what a Fibonacci, a happy number or a Wilson prime is, but at least they’re not scary.)
In conclusion: Whether 13 is unlucky, lucky, or simply a number with no deeper meaning is something I will leave you to decide. I haven’t made up my mind and will have to think about it some more. In the meanwhile I’m going to go pour a cup of coffee and hunt up my favorite 13, a baker’s dozen — of donuts!