Columns

As Dec 31 passed, the clock struck 13

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, January 05, 2013    

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WELL, here we go again, starting another new year. As the days ticked by towards the end of 2012, we celebrated, wassailed, worshipped, overate, over-drank, exchanged gifts, and shared good times — all the usual things people do for the season. But there's something different about this year we've just embarked upon, isn't it? Or haven't you noticed — it's 1213! Be afraid! Be very afraid!!

Hold on a minute, what's there to be afraid of? Well, for many people, 13 is unlucky — a very unlucky number. For the rest us ordinary folk, not at all. No one is quite sure why, but the association of bad luck and 13 goes a long way back into the dim mists of history. In old Norse mythology, for instance, when Odin, chief of the gods in Valhalla, invited 11 close friends to dinner, Loki, the god of evil and turmoil, crashed the party, bringing the number to 13. One of the best-loved of the gods, Baldur, tried to throw him out, and in the ensuing scuffle was killed by an arrow tipped with mistletoe. For ancient Romans, the number 13 was a symbol of destruction, misfortune and death. Then there is the Last Supper, when Jesus sat down with his 12 disciples, only to be betrayed by Judas Iscariot considered by many number 13 on the list.

Nowadays, in our supposedly civilised and rational world, people are still spooked by the number. You will have to search very diligently to find a tall building with a 13th floor or the number 13 on a door. The owners and managers of those buildings will readily tell you that they are not superstitious, but business being business, they want to avoid having empty 13th floors or 13th suites on their hands because they can't find anybody who will rent them. Hotels all over the place have floors 12A or 14 and no suites numbered 13, and airlines avoid having a row 13. Again, the people who run these things will take great pains to assure you that they themselves aren't superstitious, but, you know, it's the customers.

Some building operators use a sneaky dodge to get around this. Toronto's financial district is anchored by a complex known as the Toronto-Dominion Centre, designed in the 1960s by the world-famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The 13th floors of the five distinctive black-framed steel-and-glass towers are occupied by machinery such as transformers and ventilation systems. The guest elevators breeze past the 13th floor without a second thought while the workers use the service elevators to tend to the machinery. In the United States, the Smithsonian magazine claims that fear of the 13th costs the country around a billion dollars a year because people cancel flights, train or bus trips, stay home from work or avoid doing business.

We have even invented a name for this fear of the number 13 — the cumbersome triskaidekaphobia, which — in Greek from which it is derived -- means, literally, fear of three plus 10. Additionally, we have linked the number 13 to the sixth day of the week, which is also reputed to be unlucky, and have coined an even more cumbersome name for fear of Friday the 13th — paraskevidekatriaphobia.

This goes back to the ancient days when many of the old gods met violent ends and was reinforced in the 14th century when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales. Some people point to the year 1307, when King Philip of France arrested the Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay and several Knights Templar on Friday, October 13. Most of them were tortured until they died. The fact that Jesus was crucified on a Friday also adds to the mythology. The average year contains about three Fridays the 13th, as did 2012. This year, though, we get by with only one — and we'll have to wait until September.

By comparison, the number 12 is considered by people in most religions and cultures around the world as lucky or auguring good fortune. There were 12 gods of Olympus, the zodiac has 12 signs, there are 12 months in the year, 12 hours on the clock, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles of Jesus, 12 successors of Muhammad in the Shia sect of Islam, and most consumer goods are sold by the dozen. Here, 13 is not unlucky, as in the baker's dozen, when the seller offers an extra bun or loaf as brawta.

But 13 is also neutral or actually lucky.

Remember Apollo 13? That was one of a series of missions the US space agency, NASA, sent to continue its exploration of the moon. The craft developed serious technical problems along the way and the crew had to abort the mission and jerry-rig a fix to allow it to return and land safely. So, while the mission failed, it turned out all right in the end.

In Jewish culture, a young person becomes an adult at 13, celebrating that transition with the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The moon is governed by 13s -- it moves 13 degrees around the earth every day and it takes 13 days to change from full moon to new moon. It also takes 13 days to change back, with one day of full moon and one day of new to equal 28 days of the lunar cycle. In a century, there will be about 37 years with 13 full moons and 63 years with 12 full moons. So every three or fours years we will see a year with 13 full moons. In the entertainment world, performers generally work on 13-week contracts, because that's the actual length of a quarter.

For me, 13 is a neutral number. I spent most of my formative years at a house numbered 13 in the east end of Kingston. Those of us who lived there experienced the normal vicissitudes of life, and for the most part weren't even conscious of any influence either way because of the number on our front gate.

Superstition is a peculiar thing — even otherwise quite intelligent people believe in all sorts of mumbo-jumbo, including that 13 is unlucky. The legendary US President Franklin Roosevelt is reputed to have been very wary of the number 13. He went to great lengths to avoid having a meal at which that number of people were present. If he arranged a luncheon and someone cancelled, he would invite his secretary to join in to avoid seating 13. True to form, the French have a description of the fix for this. A host who has only 13 people for dinner can hire a "quatorzième" or 14th, to sit in and make up a safe number.

I witnessed a similar instance many years ago when I worked at RJR. The British High Commissioner, a finicky and prickly little man, invited a group of reporters to lunch at the residence on Trafalgar Road to bid farewell to a popular information attaché who was being re-assigned. Someone didn't show up and the diplomat was put out because there were 13 people at the table. As we finished the meal, he asked the steward who had been serving us to sit and bring the assembly to 14. Then we all rose and went about our business!

So, as 2013 moves on, ignore the nonsense and have the best time you can.

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