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Fear of Numbers

Today is the 13th of the month, which got me thinking about numeric superstitions. In the west, we commonly think of 13 as unlucky. I’ve seen speculation that this was because of the Biblical Last Supper, with Jesus plus the disciples making 13. Somehow that made Judas unlucky number 13. As a consequence, many multi-story buildings lack a 13th floor. Though if the universe was cognizant of the numeric sequence of things, I don’t think renumbering the actual 13th floor as 14 would help.

Norse mythology has a similar story about 12 gods being present at dinner, when a 13th, Loki the Trickster, showed up with disastrous results. I’m not sure how this applies to numbering things, but perhaps having exactly 13 for dinner is a bad idea.

In East Asia, thirteen is fine, but four is an unlucky number a very interesting reason. In both Japan and China, the number four is considered unlucky because their word for four sounds exactly like the word for “death.” Japanese and Chinese are quite different languages, but because they share the same writing system, they have occasional words in common. Hotels in Asia commonly omit the 4th floor. Once again, I don’t think the universe is fooled by such trickery. If you’ve ever read the manga Death Note, you may have noticed that many of the rules of the magic notebook involve the number four, such as specifying time limits of 40 or 400 seconds.

There’s a similar reasoning for the number 17 being unlucky in Italy. The Roman numeral for 17 is XVII. Rearranged that spells “vixi,” which translates as “my life is over,” a phrase that is supposedly inscribed on many tombstones.

Numerology, the idea that numbers have mystical properties, is another source of numeric superstitions. Though it doesn’t have any more convincing rationale than the less formal number beliefs, at least it’s more of a consistent system. Typically numerology involves assigning numeric values to letters to gain knowledge about someone or something by their name. The ancient Hebrews and Greeks both did this, which explains the significance of the number 666 in the book of Revelations. Supposedly it specifies the name of the Antichrist, though what language we should use is open to interpretation. Some folks have interpreted it as being the Roman Emperor Nero. In any case, the urban legends surrounding 666 led Arizona and New Mexico to rename the US highway which formerly had this designation.

Numerology can also be tied to astrology. The number 26 is considered unlucky in India because the digits 2 and 6 correspond to the moon and Venus, which are considered to be a bad combination. Coincidentally (or perhaps by design) several notorious terrorist attacks have occurred on the 26th of the month. So perhaps we should be as wary of the 26th as of the 13th.

Sources; wikipedia.org, nationalgeographic.com, smosh.com, dailyinfographic.com, dnaindia.com, “666” sign image from ebay.com

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