LEGEND HAS IT: If 13 people sit down to dinner together, one will die within the year. The Turks so disliked the number 13 that it was practically expunged from their vocabulary (Brewer, 1894). Many cities do not have a 13th Street or a 13th Avenue. Many buildings don't have a 13th floor. If you have 13 letters in your name, you will have the devil's luck (Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Albert De Salvo all have 13 letters in their names). There are 13 witches in a coven.
The Devil's Dozen
Although no one can say for sure when and why human beings first associated the number 13 with misfortune, the superstition is assumed to be quite old, and there exist any number of theories — many of which deserve to be treated with a healthy skepticism, please note — purporting to trace its origins to antiquity and beyond.
It has been proposed, for example, that fears surrounding the number 13 are as ancient as the act of counting. Primitive man had only his 10 fingers and two feet to represent units, this explanation goes, so he could count no higher than 12. What lay beyond that — 13 — was an impenetrable mystery to our prehistoric forebears, hence an object of superstition.
Which has an edifying ring to it, but one is left wondering: did primitive man not have toes?
Life and death
Despite whatever terrors the numerical unknown held for their hunter-gatherer ancestors, ancient civilizations weren't unanimous in their dread of 13. The Chinese regarded the number as lucky, some commentators note, as did the Egyptians in the time of the pharaohs.
To the ancient Egyptians, we're told, life was a quest for spiritual ascension which unfolded in stages — twelve in this life and a thirteenth beyond, thought to be the eternal afterlife. The number 13 therefore symbolized death, not in terms of dust and decay but as a glorious and desirable transformation. Though Egyptian civilization perished, the symbolism conferred on the number 13 by its priesthood survived, we may speculate, only to be corrupted by subsequent cultures who came to associate 13 with a fear of death instead of a reverence for the afterlife.
Still other sources speculate that the number 13 may have been purposely vilified by the founders of patriarchal religions in the early days of western civilization because it represented femininity. Thirteen had been revered in prehistoric goddess-worshiping cultures, we are told, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The "Earth Mother of Laussel," for example — a 27,000-year-old carving found near the Lascaux caves in France often cited as an icon of matriarchal spirituality — depicts a female figure holding a crescent-shaped horn bearing 13 notches. As the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar with the rise of male-dominated civilization, it is surmised, so did the "perfect" number 12 over the "imperfect" number 13, thereafter considered anathema.
On the other hand, one of the earliest concrete taboos associated with the number 13 — a taboo still observed by some superstitious folks today, apparently — is said to have originated in the East with the Hindus, who believed, for reasons I haven't been able to ascertain, that it is always unlucky for 13 people to gather in one place — say, at dinner. Interestingly enough, precisely the same superstition has been attributed to the ancient Vikings (though I have also been told, for what it's worth, that this and the accompanying mythographical explanation of it are apocryphal). That story has been laid down as follows:
And Loki makes thirteen
Twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the Evil One, god of mischief, had been left off the guest list but crashed the party, bringing the total number of attendees to 13. True to character, Loki raised hell by inciting Hod, the blind god of winter, to attack Balder the Good, who was a favorite of the gods. Hod took a spear of mistletoe offered by Loki and obediently hurled it at Balder, killing him instantly. All Valhalla grieved. And although one might take the moral of this story to be "Beware of uninvited guests bearing mistletoe," the Norse themselves apparently concluded that 13 people at a dinner party is just plain bad luck.
As if to prove the point, the Bible tells us there were exactly 13 present at the Last Supper. One of the dinner guests — er, disciples — betrayed Jesus Christ, setting the stage for the Crucifixion.
Did I mention the Crucifixion took place on a Friday?