[Paleopsych] Telegraph: The number that comes after 12

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Mon Jan 31 16:09:00 UTC 2005

Telegraph: The number that comes after 12

    (Filed: 19/12/2004)
    Tom Payne reviews 13: the World's Most Popular Superstition by
    Nathaniel Lachenmeyer

    It turns out that there are growing numbers of people who love the
    number 13. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer quotes a 23-year-old massage
    therapist from Dallas, whose birthday is on February 13. "I find it a
    liberating number, one that goes against the grain. I always feel
    special and unique when I tell someone my favourite number is 13." A
    young convert to paganism confesses, "I look forward to when the 13th
    falls upon a Friday. I look upon it as a great love spell day."

    Where does Lachenmeyer find them? He finds them on the internet. He
    encounters conspiracy theorists who believe that the Church and/or the
    government have done their best to promote the idea that the number 13
    is unlucky: that Pope Clement V and Philip IV of France colluded to
    begin executing the Knights Templar on Friday 13, 1307; that when
    witches confessed to meeting in covens of 13, they were showing the
    vestiges of a religion that predated Christianity, and which priests
    were keen to destroy.

    As he points out, the reasoning that produced the latter theory was
    rigged and ropey. Although he produces some vintage examples of
    13-fearing, the superstition about the number is relatively recent. It
    flourished at the end of the 19th century, and attached only to
    seating 13. If 13 sit at a table, the tradition has it, then, by the
    end of the year, one of them will buy the farm.

    Most folklorists agree that the superstition goes back to the Last
    Supper, where 13 people gathered and two fatalities followed within 24
    hours. Worries that this might make a rule appeared in the late 17th
    century and, 200 years later, dining clubs emerged to show there was
    no hex. Diners would spill salt, crack mirrors and cross their knives
    and forks.

    There were casualties: a Thirteen Club in New Jersey was bombed.
    Matthew Arnold died within a year of eating with 12 others.

    Really, that's all the book has to go on. The number itself was never
    so unlucky, except that it comes after 12, and is the beginning of the
    unknown. The author does examine the history of Friday 13th as an
    unfortunate day - Christ died on a Friday (unlucky enough) and in 1907
    Thomas W Lawson published a book, Friday, the Thirteenth, in which a
    broker picks that day on which to bring down Wall Street.

    Then there's some discussion of the film of the same name, a list of
    the sequels, a few more anecdotes, a list of songs with the number 13
    in them, and some other stuff, such as that Estonians don't like to
    place their beds over underground streams.

    I believe all this, but there's enough misinformation in the book to
    make me wary. Even when Lachenmeyer is making a sound point, he muffs
    it. When he observes that Christ and his disciples must have sat 13 at
    a table often, he says: "The Last Supper was only one of any number of
    sabbaths that Christ and his 12 disciples spent together." They may
    have enjoyed many sabbath suppers together, but their final meal was
    on a Thursday.

    He dismisses an early psychoanalyst as being "not much of an authority
    on etymology", but has already repeatedly garbled a Latin title, while
    his own etymologies aren't convincing. And he swallows the idea that
    the Church devised the solar calendar.

    He also spends a while finding out what people do if they want a cure
    for triskaidekaphobia. True to form, he goes online. Admittedly, he
    finds some interesting types who say they can cure most phobias in
    three hours and then, after running a disclaimer saying they're not
    doctors and can't cure anything, add, "If you really need a
    disclaimer, this stuff is not for you." But he doesn't show us anyone
    who's asked anyone, "I fear 13, sort me out."

    I assume Lachenmeyer likes 13. His book costs £13. But it's quite a
    lot to charge for cuttings from the New York Times, e-mails from
    mystics and any length of time spent on Google. That's the problem
    with the internet. Suddenly, everyone's a scholar.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list