Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Why the Number 13 is Unlucky

The unluckiness of the number 13 is one of those minor puzzles that spawns theories by the dozen, a "nobody knows so everyone is entitled to his opinion" sort of poser. Which is completely wrong; the reason why 13 is unlucky is known and, when you think about it, perfectly obvious. Yet the nonsense spews on. Surfing around the web this evening I have found dozens of incorrect answers and lots of fluff like "It's unknown exactly why the number 13 is considered unlucky but there are many theories." Mental Floss has 13 Reasons People Think the Number 13 is Unlucky, none of which is correct. StraightDope comes close to the right answer but then goes astray with nonsense about 13 menstrual periods per year.

One of the most widespread theories is that 13 is unlucky because it was the number of people at the Last Supper. But this can hardly explain why the number was unlucky for at least 2500 years before Jesus was born. It is possible that the story of the Last Supper helped spread the fear of 13 in Christian Europe, but it can't be the original explanation.

The real explanation is the human discomfort with the discrepancy between the solar and lunar calendars. Ancient peoples had two main ways of keeping track of time, beyond days: solar years and lunar months. Humans like things to work out, so we very much want years and months to work together. There are about twelve months in the year, so most cultures have some version of the twelve month calendar. But since this is not quite right, your months get more and more out of whack each year, until your harvest moon falls at planting season. Ancient astronomers figured out that you have to insert an extra month every so often to keep the two calendars aligned. Because this month represented the bad connection between the two great celestial calendars, it was considered unlucky. This is not a guess; the Babylonian astronomers who invented this 12/13 month calendar explained it at great length in their treatises. I read about this in a wonderful book by French Assyriologist Jean Bottero, best known for asserting that since the study of ancient languages is the most useless of all human activities it is therefore the highest and most important.

Wikipedia, incidentally, has the correct answer, although they phrase it as if it were uncertain:
one theory is that this is due to the cultures employing lunar-solar calendars (there are approximately 12.41 lunations per solar year, and hence 12 "true months" plus a smaller, and often portentous, thirteenth month).
And there you have it. This is not a mystery, or a subject open to discussion, or which everybody gets to have his or her say. It is a question of fact with one and only one correct answer.

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