Today is Halloween–supposedly the scariest night of the year. Ghouls, goblins, specters, and wisps rise from their graves to haunt the living. Very chilling stuff. Have you ever stepped back and wondered why October 31 is considered the hub of all things scary? Why not August 11th, or September 27th? What is it about October 31st that makes it so special? Well, perhaps that the number 31 backwards is…gasp…13. The number thirteen is widely considered to be a cursed number; it is so feared that there is even a name for the fear of it: Paraskevideka. What about the number 13 is so scary though? Why do some people refuse to get out of bed on Friday the 13th? Is it mere superstition or somehow based in fact? Well, as it turns out—both.
People’s fear of 13 begins with the uncontrollable cosmos. In a solar year there are exactly 12.41 cycles of the moon. That makes for 12 complete, perfect months, with a .41 excess—the hidden 13th month. There are also 13 constellations that cross the ecliptic path; the 13th is Ophiuchus—the serpent holder. I’m confident you don’t need to be told why a superstitious person would fear that. So perhaps the fear of 13 originates in space.
On Earth the fear’s deepest roots begin with Jesus’ last supper. According to the story, Jesus assembled his 12 Disciples (12 being perfect, again) along with himself, making 13. It is said that Judas was the 13th person to be seated at the table, and he was the one responsible for Jesus’ capture and ultimate death.
The fear of 13 people seated at a table does not end with Christianity, however. In Norse Mythology it is said that 12 gods (12, perfect) were dining in Valhalla when Loki the mischievous walked in, offsetting the balance. The sly Loki fooled Hoder into shooting Balder with a mistletoe arrow, killing him. Because of this, 13 is further associated with death.
Despite the stories of Jesus and Loki, 13 was not really a feared number until 1307–the year that changed the course of superstition forever. On Friday, October 13th, 1307 King Phillip IV of France ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Knights Templar—a volunteer armed force dedicated to maintaining the sovereignty of God’s land. Despite never actually performing any wrongdoing the Knights Templar were accused of (at the time) horrendous crimes such as homosexuality, and sacrilege. Par medieval methods these men were tortured into confession and burned at the stake. Sympathizers (and there were many) of the Knights Templar cursed Friday the 13th as an evil day.
As you can see, a partial theme in all these stories is that 12 is a perfect number, but when 13 is added, things become imbalanced. Perhaps 13’s evil is a result of 12’s perfection. Twelve is even, a dozen, divisible by 1, 2, 3, and yes, 4—all considered to be good, strong numbers. 13 is odd, prime, aloof, sullen, and awkward.
All of these reasons combine to help explain why people are afraid of 13. But the reason that scares me most? Tupac Shakur, considered by many to be the greatest rapper ever, died on Friday, September 13th, 1996. Rest in peace, pac.
Happy Halloween, all.