The modern word ‘superstition’ comes from the Latin superstitio. It was a term that the Romans applied to mysterious beliefs that lay outside the mainstream of their religious culture. These beliefs tapped into people’s insecurities and fears, with superstitious practices seeking to avert evil or attract good fortune. The Romans associated ideas deemed superstitio with foreign religions or traditions regarded as strange and suspect. Alternatively, superstitio represented old beliefs with lost origins. It is this latter term that is most applicable to superstitions today.
Even in our supposedly rational world, people still cling to superstition. A Gallup poll taken in 1996 stated that 1 in 4 Americans remains superstitious. This continued belief in averting evil and attracting good luck preserves these deep-rooted superstitions for posterity- even though the logic behind them is lost. However, with a little digging, it is possible to shed light on some of our most enduring superstitious beliefs. For superstitions such as the fear of specific numbers and animals, walking under ladders, spilling salt, breaking mirrors and the luck value of four-leaf clovers, wishing wells, touching wood and certain marriage customs are all rooted in past practices and beliefs.
According to US phobia doctor, Donald Dossey, a belief in the unluckiness of the number thirteen is the most widespread superstition today, with 8% of Americans believing in its negative power. The negative connotations of the number thirteen remain so deep-seated in the collective psyche that it is still common for planners to avoid it when numbering buildings or floors. Many people also retain a belief that starting projects on the thirteenth day of the month, and a fear Friday the thirteenth in particular. So what is the origin of our fear of the number thirteen?
The term for fear of thirteen, Triskaidekaphobia was first coined in 1911. However, superstitions regarding the number stretch back further. An article, ‘On Popular Superstitions’ in The Spectator of March 8, 1711, reports on the fear of parties of thirteen people. The article reported on a social gathering where someone suddenly noticed that there were thirteen people present As the company realized their number, a ‘panic terror’ struck the room and some people considered leaving to reduce the numbers, as they genuinely believed if they did not do so, one of their company would die.
Everyone calmed down when another guest observed that one of the ladies was pregnant- meaning that in fact, fourteen people were present. However, this belief in the deadly nature of a company of thirteen has ancient antecedents. Many people attributed it to the last supper, which proceeded the death of Jesus and his betrayal by Judas Iscariot. The story also finds its echo in Norse mythology. When the god Loki gatecrashed a dinner party in Valhalla, he took the number of guests up to thirteen-, which he promptly reduced by inciting Hod, the blind god of winter to kill Baldur the Good with a mistletoe spear.
Thirteen’s association with death is also reputedly linked to the ancient Egyptians. To them, it was the number of transition, the final stage in the spiritual ascension of the soul. However, while the first twelve stages referred to physical life, thirteen applied to the period after death. This thirteenth period marked a glorious and positive transition for the Egyptians but not so much for other cultures who did not view the end of physical life in such an enlightened way. Ultimately, however, thirteen’s reputation could have been degraded by a shift in beliefs that happened even earlier than the Egyptians.
Many archaeologists believe that early societies were lunar rather than solar based. Matriarchal in orientation, they were represented by obese ‘mother goddess’ figures, often depicted with lunar emblems. One such example is the Venus 27000-year-old carving from a cave in Laussel, France which depicts a woman holding a crescent-shaped object carved with thirteen notches. These notches are believed to represent the thirteen months of the lunar year. Archaeologists have speculated that to consolidate power; the solar cult discredited the cult of the moon by portraying all things lunar as suspect- including the number thirteen.
However, not all superstitions with roots in ancient religion are unlucky.