The Biography of a Beastly Number

Why thirteen is the number of our nightmares

Mitch Horowitz
Jun 21, 2017 · 5 min read

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When you travel to a resort or hotel this summer, take a look at the panel of buttons in the elevator: the likelihood is that you’ll find no thirteenth floor.

Our fear of the number thirteen runs so deep that many hotels, casinos, resorts, and apartment towers simply omit the dreaded number from their floor plan. See, for example, the elevator buttons below, which are from a picture I took recently at the Wyndham Virginia Beach.

Why do rational, digital-age people continue to rue thirteen, as in unlucky Friday, Apollo 13, and a certain franchise of slasher films?

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“Look, Ma! No thirteenth floor…”

Fear of the number thirteen is actually one of humanity’s most enduring superstitions. The earliest known origin of this superstition comes from ancient India, where it was considered unlucky for thirteen people to sit together at a meal. In a similar belief, Nordic mythology holds that the evil Loki is the thirteenth guest at a banquet of gods, which ends in argument and violence. The same narrative element — a nefarious thirteenth guest at a dinner — hangs over the story of Judas Iscariot, the so-called traitor apostle, who was the thirteenth man at the Last Supper.

When different cultures, each separated by vast stretches of time and geography — in this case, Vedic, Nordic, and Hebrew/early Christian — agree on a historical theme, such as a maleficent thirteenth figure at a banquet, the congruity gives one pause.

Another ancient source, a work of Greco-Egyptian magical literature, part of what is cumulatively called the Hermetica, and dated to the decades immediately following Christ, describes a formula of “sympathetic magic” for getting a lover to submit to you by crafting a wax doll and piercing it with, here we go again, thirteen needles.

Some modern practitioners of Wicca and neopaganism postulate that ancient Celtic Druids organized their ceremonial orders in circles of thirteen, and replicate the practice today in covens of thirteen members.

Of course, the most famous thirteen myth involves Friday the 13th , which fell this year in January, and returns in October. Two such Fridays a year is not so bad — we had three in 2015, a phenomenon that won’t occur again until 2026.

Why did the baker’s dozen get associated with Friday as a day of bad luck?

Historically, Jesus was said to be crucified on Good Friday, which got linked to the number. In Catholic tradition, Jesus is also said to have died on the cross at 3 p.m., which some now designate as a special time of prayer and contemplation.

Friday the 13th also marked the day of the mass execution of the medieval Knights Templar. Following fissures and conflict with the Vatican, the Christian knights were all but wiped out by papal decree beginning on Friday, October 13th, 1307.

Conspiracy theorists lick their lips over the prominence of the number thirteen on our dollar bill: thirteen steps line the unfinished pyramid, thirteen leaves and berries appear on the olive branch, and the eagle clutches thirteen arrows. This was no diabolical design, but represents the thirteen original colonies.

I cannot, however, feign indifference toward the dreaded number. I made one of the worst decisions of my life on Friday the 13th in the year 2013, around the thirteenth hour of the day. Did the dreaded number contribute? I’m not entirely ready to make that leap, and I don’t counsel putting off vital business on such days. But still … I do believe that superstition adds a pinch of healthy humility to a modern world in which we feel overconfident in our rational abilities.

A neurosurgeon I know will not perform operations on Friday the 13th and has actually cancelled surgeries upon experiencing “bad omens” (such as a crow on the road in front of him). His reasoning? “Luck,” he tells me, “is a very precious thing. The difference between good luck and bad luck can mean a life. I never speak lightly about factors like luck, and I like to have every possible advantage — even a feeling of good luck — on my side when performing surgery.”

Last year, I wondered aloud on social media (where everything is done aloud) whether thirteen was a factor in our last presidential election. Shortly after the 2016 election, I wrote about a recently discovered and somewhat ill-aspected planet: “Did the discovery of the planet Sedna thirteen years ago this week astrologically foresee Hillary Clinton’s loss? I’m not so sure, but I described the newly found planet this way in 2005: ‘Viewing Sedna as a woman stripped of choice, the more politically inclined might see Sedna as the harbinger of a worldwide decline in reproductive rights, or something else associated with feminine social concerns, just as Uranus and Pluto [discovered, respectively, in 1781 and 1930 before global upheveals] were thought to coincide with outward events of their day. Continuing to look outwardly, we may also consider whether Sedna harbors an environmental message for our era.”

When matters of life and death (or elections) are not at stake, a little dose of thirteen, or a touch of bad luck, can be good medicine. When “bad luck” challenges us, we learn, grow, and stretch ourselves. Unexpected downturns of fortune compel us to cultivate or locate resources we didn’t know we had. If we could eliminate reversals or setbacks, we would lose opportunities at self-refinement. Episodes of getting lost, missing travel connections, or having to take charge of a crisis have probably formed some of the more educative experiences of your life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “law of compensation” holds that every ill tiding brings a stroke of commensurate and compensatory good fortune. This is one reason why some of us in the occult subculture (where I’ve attended Friday the 13th barbeques) believe that, for seekers, thirteen is actually good luck.

For more on the dreaded number, see this episode of my ORIGINS: SUPERSTITIONS (which includes, of course, thirteen episodes):

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