2013: The Year of Triskaidekaphobia

Happy New Year! Most of us have waved our goodbyes to 2012 by now: said a fond farewell to the year of unsubstantiated allegedly Mayan prophecies that the Mayans denied having anything to do with, based upon an Olmec calendar and generally posted with a photo of an Aztec stone carving on the internet. We’ve said goodbye to the year that made John Cusack an action adventure hero in the movie of it’s very name.

But now, everyone is over making their end of the world playlists and hosting apocalyptic-themed parties, and we are on to making our New Years Resolutions. Or as Mark Twain would say:

“This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.”

– Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, famous triskaidekaphobes.

While most of us are looking forward to leaving 2012 behind and launching into a fresh start with 2013, but if you were like Mark Twain, you’d be entering the year of two-thousand and thirteen with a sense of unease… for he, like many others, suffered from triskaidekaphobia.

Triskaidekaphobia is a fear of the number thirteen. Thirteen wasn’t always considered an unlucky number – indeed, it is not always considered unlucky now. However, our famous writer Samuel Clemens lived in a time where fear of the number thirteen was so prevalent that as a new invention took root during his life time – that is, the elevator – in part, making the skyscrapers of today possible by offering an alternative method of inter-floor transportation to the staircase – it carried with it a superstition that is still with us in this modern age, a prohibition against including a thirteenth floor.

Just so you don’t think John Cusack’s appearances in movies with superstition-driven plots are limited to 2012, he also started in 1408 – a personal favorite of mine. The movie was based on a Stephen King story of the same name, and deals of course with the habit of calling the “unlucky” thirteenth floor by the name of fourteenth floor in the taller buildings: as apparently, the forces of evil are quite literal minded and will be deceived by such a device.

But is thirteen really unlucky?

Lucky 13

American and European fear of the number thirteen is part of why some feared that December 22, 2012 would be the end of the world: it marked the end of the 13th Baktun (or long count calendar – the Mayans, like the Olmec before them used a series of circular calendars that ended and restarted) and the start of the 14th Baktun. But the fear of the number thirteen wasn’t part of Mayan culture: it’s a European thinking that accompanied the European settlers when they came to America.

The idea of thirteen as an unlucky number is a fairly modern one. Most religions have auspicious associations with thirteen. In fact, some believe that the strong presence of positive associations with thirteen in Judaism, where thirteen is the number of the mercies of God and the age at which a boy or girl becomes a man or woman and full-fledged member of the church, may also have something to do with the reason thirteen became considered unlucky, during a time of antisemitism in Europe.

In fact, a lot of this has already been covered in an article I wrote about Friday the Thirteenth some time ago… last year.

Thirteen Moons


A lovely photo of the moon by Nonya Justagirl

There are also thirteen moons every year. The Gregorian Solar calendar we use has been divided into twelve months, and months are moon-based cycles dating back to Mesopotamia, however, our modern calendar is a sun-based or solar calendar, based upon the year which is the period of time it takes the earth to traverse the sun.  Lunar cycles do not fit neatly into this solar calendar, which  is why we use a “leap year” every four years to make a correction. Actual lunar months are about 27.5 days, and thirteen of them will occur during one of the 365.25 day years on the Gregorian calendar we use. Some thought the “unlucky” thirteen came from the messiness associated with the partial lunar month that divided half into each of our calendar years.

Not everyone used this type of time keeping. The Mesoamerican calendars used a trecena – a thirteen day cycle, in a series of twenty, for a 260 day calendar – further evidence that they did not consider thirteen as particularly unlucky. The Tongan calendar contains thirteen months. The Hebrew calendar includes a sort of “leap” month called Adar Bet, or Adar 2,  which occurs seven out of every nineteen years. The Roman calendar used prior to our current Gregorian variant actually included a thirteenth month during leap years – called Mercedonius.

All of this of course is a consequence of the decision to use the solar calendar as the primary basis, cramming and trimming months in any number of ways to get them to fit into a year. The moon has strong associations with the feminine, as our cycles of menstruation are connected to the timing of lunar cycles, and so the moon is associated with all that is womanly. A tension between the dominance of the masculine associated sun and the feminine associated moon in mythologies and the actual thirteen months in lunar-count years could be another reason thirteen came to be seen as unlucky.

~ by Sumiko Saulson on January 1, 2013.

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