Why is the number 13 viewed with such suspicion?
Surveys show that of all bad luck superstitions, unease surrounding the number thirteen is the one that affects most people today—and in almost countless ways. The French, for instance, never issue the house address thirteen. In Italy, the national lottery omits the number thirteen. National and international airlines skip the thirteenth row of seats on planes. In America, modern skyscrapers and apartment buildings label the floor that follows twelve as fourteen.
Recently, a psychological experiment tested the potency of the superstition: A new luxury apartment building, with a floor temporarily numbered thirteen, rented units on all other floors, then only a few units on the thirteenth floor. When the floor number was changed to twelve-B, the unrented apartments quickly found takers.
How did this fear of the number thirteen, known as triskaidekaphobia, originate? The notion goes back at least to Norse mythology in the pre-Christian era. There was a banquet at Valhalla, to which twelve gods were invited. Loki, the spirit of strife and evil, gate-crashed, raising the number present to thirteen. In the ensuing struggle to evict Loki, Balder, the favorite of the gods, was killed. This is one of the earliest written references to misfortune surrounding the number thirteen.
From Scandinavia, the superstition spread south throughout Europe. By the dawn of the Christian era, it was well established in countries along the Mediterranean. Then, folklorists claim, the belief was resoundingly reinforced, perhaps for all time, by history’s most famous meal: the Last Supper. Christ and his apostles numbered thirteen. Less than twenty-four hours after the meal, Christ was crucified. Mythologists have viewed the Norse legend as prefiguring the Christian banquet. They draw parallels between the traitor Judas and Loki, the spirit of strife; and between Balder, the favorite god who was slain, and Christ, who was crucified.
What is indisputable is that from the early Christian era onward, to invite thirteen guests for dinner was to court disaster. As is true with any superstition, once a belief is laid down, people search, consciously or unconsciously, for events to fit the forecast. In 1798, for instance, a British publication, Gentlemen’s Magazine, fueled the thirteen superstition by quoting actuarial tables of the day, which revealed that, on the average, one out of every thirteen people in a room would die within the year. Earlier and later actuarial tables undoubtedly would have given different figures. Yet for many Britons at the time, it seemed that science had validated superstition.
Ironically, in America, thirteen should be viewed as a lucky number. It is part of their many national symbols. On the back of the U.S. dollar bill, the incomplete pyramid has thirteen steps; the bald eagle clutches in one claw an olive branch with thirteen leaves and thirteen berries, and in the other he grasps thirteen arrows; there are thirteen stars above the eagle’s head. All of that, of course, has nothing to do with superstition, but commemorates the country’s original thirteen colonies, themselves an auspicious symbol