What’s your (un)lucky number?
Yesterday, while volunteering during my younger son Max’s visit to his school’s library, we found and read through a Boston Celtics book together. On the cover of the book was a picture of the Celtics playing the Chicago Bulls. When Max, who loves basketball and is playing in a youth league, saw the picture, he exclaimed “that’s my team!”
He then added that he wears jersey number 13 (presently worn by Joakim Noah), to which I joked “unlucky 13?!” Being a week shy of 6, Max looked at me and said “what does that mean?”
I realized our cultural dislike (in some cases fear) of the number 13 — which, in Greek, is called triskaidekaphobia — is learned. But why does our culture dislike the number 13? Since today is “Friday the 13th,” another common fear (called paraskevidekatriaphobia in Greek), I wanted to briefly explore some of the origins for these irrational ideas. Below are some snippets of insights I collected:
According to the USA Today article, Three Friday the 13ths, 13 weeks apart, a rarity, “for many pagans, 13 is a lucky number, because it corresponds with the number of full moons each year.” Interesting, the same USA Today article adds, the following:
“The number 13 and Friday are recurring presences in mythological, spiritual and religious tradition. In Christianity, 13 people attended the Last Supper before Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ death on a Friday. A Norse myth warns of dire consequences for dining in groups of 13. Friday the 13th was the date the medieval Knights Templar were imprisoned.”
An About.com article, “Why Friday the 13th Is Unlucky,” offers these unique insights:
“…the number 13 may have been purposely vilified by the founders of patriarchal religions in the early days of western civilization because it represented femininity. Thirteen had been revered in prehistoric goddess-worshiping cultures, we are told, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days).”
“Twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the Evil One, god of mischief, had been left off the guest list but crashed the party, bringing the total number of attendees to 13. True to character, Loki raised hell by inciting Hod, the blind god of winter, to attack Balder the Good, who was a favorite of the gods. Hod took a spear of mistletoe offered by Loki and obediently hurled it at Balder, killing him instantly. All Valhalla grieved.”
“As if to prove the point, the Bible tells us there were exactly 13 present at the Last Supper. One of the dinner guests — er, disciples — betrayed Jesus Christ, setting the stage for the Crucifixion.”
Michael Shermer — Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and columnist for Scientific American — examines the reasons “why people believe strange things” in his February 2006 TED Talk (presented below). You can also watch it on the TED website and follow along with an interactive transcript).
In his speech he addresses questions such as “Why do people see the Virgin Mary on cheese sandwiches” or “Why do people hear demonic lyrics in ‘Stairway to Heaven’?” It is for many of the reasons above that people look for logic — or at least deeper meaning — in places where there might really be none.
Consider the many other fears explained in the ABC News article, “Fear of Friday, the 13th (Paraskevidekatriaphobia) and Other Unpronounceable Phobias.” Often people invent explanations for things they don’t understand (or don’t want to confront). Just think about how the world functioned before the emergence of science!
For example, the current irrational obsession with all of the instances of “316” that presumably occurred when Tim Tebow lead the Denver Broncos to a playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend.
When it comes to Tim Tebow, many well-meaning and honestly inspired individuals nevertheless connect dots that don’t necessarily make sense connecting and draw conclusions that are entirely based on assumptions and anecdotal evidence. “Tebowmania” seemed to hit a crescendo following the hysteria when what appeared to be a “halo” formed over Mile High Stadium in Denver last Sunday after the team’s playoff win.
Interesting, whereas many jumped to conclusions that it was some kind of heavenly sign, one rationally minded reader of the article (who uses the name “Rotten Rodriguez”) explained it as follows:
“It wasn’t a halo. I was at the game. After Denver scores pyrotechnics are shot out of a cylinder in the south end zone. A smoke ring came off the cylinder then floated over the stadium for as long as it take a smoke ring to dissipate.”
Superstitions and strange rituals have been a part of sports since people began hitting balls with sticks. For a good laugh read the ESPN article “Curses, superstitions and sports,” the Business Insider feature “The 30 Strangest Superstitions In Sports History,” and About.com’s piece “Why Do So Many Athletes, Have Superstitions and Rituals.”
If you’re feeling academically minded, read the scholarly paper titled “An Exploratory Investigation of Superstition, Personal Control, Optimism and Pessimism in NCAA Division I Intercollegiate Student Athletes.“
If only Tim Tebow wore the number 13 instead of 15, perhaps he could have provided additional inspiration for those who suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia. That would be especially helpful this year since, as the USA Today article also points out, “for the first time since 1984, those three Friday the 13ths — Jan. 13, April 13 and July 13 — are exactly 13 weeks apart.”
Update: Despite the above exploration into the absurdity of superstition, I wore my “lucky” Wes Welker jersey when my favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots, hosted the Denver Broncos for the AFC Divisional Game on Saturday, January 14, 2012 and they won! The following week, on Sunday, January 22, they beat the Baltimore Ravens in dramatic fashion at the AFC Championship Game, sending the Patriots to Super Bowl XLVI — while, again, I wore my “lucky” Welker jersey. Unfortunately, the Patriots faced and — in an almost exact replay to Super Bowl XLII — lost, yet again, to the New York Giants on Sunday, February 5, 2012. And, in true ironic form, one of the many reasons the Patriots lost was because Welker dropped a badly thrown pass from Tom Brady — negating the Patriots attempt at a very possible come back win. How’s that for luck and superstition? I admire Welker, but clearly I will need to wear a new jersey next year!