What is it about Friday the thirteenth that has people looking both ways for black cats? In many countries around the world, the number thirteen has a bleak and blackened profile, as a harbinger of doom.
The view of 13 as an unlucky number can be found in a few ancient cultures. Zoroastrianism traditionally considers 13 to be sinister and wicked, so the thirteenth day of each New Year (Sizdah Be-dar) is seen as a day when evil’s power might cause problems. The answer? Leave town and spend the night camping in the countryside.
In Norse mythology, there is a story of 12 gods sitting down to dinner in Valhalla when Loki walks in, uninvited. (The trickster fire god, not Tom Hiddleston.) Once there, and now the thirteenth guest, he tricks god of darkness Hoder into shooting god of joy, Balder, with an arrow tipped with mistletoe. Balder, of course, dies and the Earth goes dark.
According to Christianity, Jesus’ last meal with his twelve apostles saw Judas Iscariot arrive last, and so become the thirteenth guest at the table. Judas was late because he was off chatting to some Romans and arranging a signal by which he could betray Jesus.
When we consider the lunisolar calendar, we find 12.41 lunations (orbits of the earth by the moon) for every solar year. That means, every year, we have 12 true months and one smaller, unaccounted-for, thirteenth month.
The unease with the number thirteen continues in contemporary times.
In tarot cards, XIII is the card of Death, with the cloaked figure and his scythe foreshadowing an end. Traditionally, a condemned man walked thirteen steps to the gallows. Apollo 13 remains the only unsuccessful moon mission. A coven of witches consists of twelve witches and the devil (or thirteen witches, in a contemporary setting).
And, of course, thirteen is the age at which we enter our teens. What could be scarier than that?
What do you think of the number thirteen? Is it unlucky for you? Does your culture have a different unlucky number? Share your thoughts in the comments below.