Have you ever wondered why we think of certain numbers as lucky or unlucky? Why do we attach so much importance to them, to the point where architects omit the thirteenth floors of high rises? We’ve developed a habit of attaching meaning to numbers, from many different sources—like the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Jewish Kabbalists, to name just a few. We’ve held on to some of these traditions and created a kind of modern numerology, ascribing importance to certain numbers, but not always knowing why.
What makes a number lucky? On a personal level, it may be a relationship to a milestone like a birthday or anniversary. But when a number takes on cultural significance, like the number seven has, it’s not always clear why.
One explanation for seven’s lucky status may be that it’s a prime number; it cannot be divided by anything other than itself and one, which makes it unique. Seven is also a combination of three and four. Three is an important number in the Christian Bible because it represents the trinity. Four is important to many cultures because of the four seasons of the year, the four directions of the compass, and the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire.
Nearly all world religions place great importance on the number seven, too. To cite just a few examples: in the Old Testament, God rests on the seventh day after creating the world; the New Testament lists Seven Virtues and Seven Deadly Sins; in Islam, the earth has seven layers; and in Hinduism, there are seven chakras.
So when you roll a seven at the craps table and consider it lucky, know that there is a rich background to your belief.
Have you ever stayed home on Friday the thirteenth? Triscadekaphobia is the superstitious fear of the number thirteen because of a cultural belief that it’s unlucky. Legend has it that thirteen got its bad rap because the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi omits the thirteenth law, but in fact, the original Code has no enumeration.
Some cultures have linked the number thirteen to chaos. The Viking god Loki, who brought mischief and disorder with him, was the thirteenth member of the Norse pantheon. Iranians have a tradition called Sizdah Bedar, during which they leave their houses to avoid bad luck on the thirteenth day of the first month of the year because of an ancient Persian belief that the thirteenth constellation of the Zodiac would bring a kind of Armageddon.
In Christian tradition, Judas, Jesus’s betrayer, was the thirteenth person to sit at the table at the Last Supper. There’s a particular superstition that arose from this tale, which is that no group of thirteen people should ever sit at a table together. If they do, the last person to sit or the first person to rise will meet a bad fate.
In reaction to this superstition, “Thirteen” clubs were popular during the late 19th century. The first, in 1881, was an influential group of New Yorkers led by U.S. Civil War veteran Captain William Fowler who gathered on Friday the thirteenth at 8:13 p.m. The guests walked under a ladder to enter room thirteen, where they dined at a table of thirteen gentlemen.
Considering how many people throughout history have been convinced that the number thirteen will bring doom and destruction, I’d say those were some pretty brave men.
666, The Number of the Beast
The Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible gives the number 666 as the figure of the Beast, although some theologians claim that because of a scribal error, the number should properly be 616. There are actually two Beasts in the Book of Revelation: one from the sea, with seven heads and ten horns, and one from the land, who looks like a lamb and speaks like a dragon. These two Beasts, plus Satan, make up the unholy trinity.
Why 666 (or 616)? Some theologians and historians believe that the number encodes the name of a Roman emperor whom early Christians identified as the Antichrist. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther noted that “Benediktos” added up to 666 in Greek gematria, the system of ascribing numerical value to letters or words, and he thought it might refer to a Pope named Benedict or to Benedictine monks.
Like all the other significant numbers, no one seems quite sure what 666 means, only that it means something.
Superstitions and Their Sources
Because our culture is such a mutt, descended from so many others, we often carry relics of these other traditions without recognizing their sources. The next time you roll a seven or skip from twelve to fourteen on an elevator-button panel, you’ll know a little more about the origins of these collective beliefs.