Ahead of Friday the 13th, Dave Kenny breaks as many superstitions as he can in one week — and reveals the pagan origins of them all.
I WAS queuing in Dublin last week when something “lucky” happened to me. A bird crapped on my head.
“That’s good luck,” a woman beside me cooed, as I tissued pigeon plop out of my hair.
I did not share her believe in the supernatural power of avian gick. I was queuing to audition for work as an extra on Vikings. Did Vikings walk around with poo in their hair, I asked through gritted teeth?
“Probably. You’ll definitely get picked.” I grunted, dabbed my face and flung the tissue at a passing traffic warden.
I don’t believe it’s good luck to get crapped on. Would you tell a bride, dripping with seagull crap, that “it’s good luck” as she prepares for her wedding photos? No.
I am superstitious though. When I see a solitary magpie, I scan the garden for another and whisper ‘one for sorrow, two for joy’… I won’t walk under a ladder. Especially if a magpie is sitting on it.
I wasn’t happy about writing this piece. The brief was ‘Break as many superstitions as you can in the run up to Friday the 13th’. That’s next Friday. Would I be tempting fate?
Stop sneering. Many people will remain in bed next Friday avoiding their daily routine for fear of The Worst. In America, 17- to 21-million people suffer from friggatriskaidekaphobia — the terror of Friday the 13th — according to the North Carolina Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute.
They estimate that between $800-$900m is lost annually due to shoppers staying at home. Many US cities don’t have 13th Streets or Avenues and many hotels, high-rises and hospitals avoid the number.
Fear of the number 13 dates back to around 1700BC. In the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, 13 is omitted from the list of laws. (Go on, check it.) You may have heard the myth that if 13 people eat together, one will die within a year. This comes from the Last Supper — Judas was the 13th guest. In Norse mythology, Odin’s 12-person dinner party was crashed by Loki, the god of mischief, and a guest died.
Jesus died on Good Friday. The combination of the date and the number is, therefore, potentially lethal.
There is some evidence to back up friggatriskadekaiphobia. In 1993, the British Medical Journal reported that the chance of hospitalisation due to a transport accident is increased by 52% on Friday the 13th. Stay at home, they recommended.
Not me. It may not have been Friday the 13th (it was May 23rd), but I was determined to put several superstitions to the test despite my misgivings.
Firstly, I decided to get out the wrong side of bed. ‘If you do this, you’ll be in a bad mood for the rest of the day’. I climbed over my sleeping wife and ended up on the floor with her foot on my neck. Both of us were in a bad mood for the rest of the day, so that worked well.
I made a list of superstitions, with the fingers of my left hand crossed. (Early Christians used to do it as a sign of peace and to ward off bad omens.)
The first myth was ‘breaking mirrors means seven years of bad luck’. This is based on the ancient belief that your reflection holds part of your soul.
I could foresee the unlucky marital outcome of breaking household mirrors, so I attacked the one on my bike. The result was that I nearly got run over by a lorry trying to overtake me on the way down to the village. Seven years of unlucky cycling ahead.
The next entry in my notebook was ‘black cats in your path’. This superstition comes from feline association with witchcraft, and their use as ‘familiars’. “Never cross a witch”, etc. The neighbours have a black moggie. I aimed my bike at it in an attempt to make it cross my path. Two little girls started crying and threatened to tell their parents so I legged it.
Horse shoes is next. Some believe that if you hang a horseshoe upside down the luck will drain away. Horse shoes have seven nail-holes. Seven is a biblical number and can ward off evil spirits. I didn’t have a horseshoe so I walked backwards past the door of Paddy Power’s in the village. I got some odd looks, but the sky didn’t fall in. So far so good.
Spilling salt was next. The fear of this dates back to Roman times. Salt was a valuable commodity and wasting it was bad news. It’s also a symbol of sanctity (Jesus referred to “the salt of the earth”). In Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Judas has knocked over the salt cellar. The little bollix. I ordered a full Irish in my favourite café and spilled salt onto the table cloth. I took a pinch and threw it over my left shoulder. This tradition originated with the belief that the devil is lurking there.
“Hello.” Someone was speaking to me over my left shoulder. My bowels leapt with fright.
“Stop throwing salt at my baby.” The woman at the table behind me was fit to kill me.
‘Walking on cracks in the pavement’. 25% of us avoid doing this, according to research from ‘Racing for Change’. (Especially if the cracks appear during an earthquake.)
I walked down the street avoiding them and tripped outside McDonagh’s pub. The village drunk tried to help me up. We lurched about for a bit. My mother-in-law drove by and I later had to spend an hour convincing her that I hadn’t spent the morning on the batter.
I got home in one piece and set up my last three tests. One third of us think opening an umbrella in the house is unlucky. This may date from Egyptian times when umbrellas were used to shade pharaohs from the sun. Opening one in the shade would offend the solar deity.
It may also come from the fact that opening one indoors can lead to breakages and rows. Take my word for it. I left one up in the hall and the cat clawed it (she’s odd like that). Her Nibs was not impressed.
Shoes on the table mean DEATH. I placed a pair of mucky hiking boots on the garden table (I didn’t dare do it indoors). This superstition probably started among North of England coal miners. When one died, his boots were put on the table as a sign of respect. A pigeon shat into one of mine. More bad luck. Or good luck?
WALKING under ladders. This seems obvious. If you walk under a ladder, something may fall on your head. Christian wisdom has it that when a ladder is leaning against a wall it forms a triangle, representing the trinity. Messing with this is sacrilegious.
I sat under one for this article. I felt like a complete twat, but no immediate bad luck befell me. It did later though. I had left the ladder in the hall and tripped over it on my way to the loo. I landed on the open umbrella.
That aside, I appear to have survived all my myth ‘debunking’. Being superstitious, I’m thanking God for my deliverance. If you’re friggatriskaidekaphobic, then reflect on this: it’s not always a bad luck day. In 2012, cash-strapped single mum, Julie Styles, won £1.6m in the UK lottery with a ticket bought on Friday 13th. Do the Euromillions next week.
I’ve just remembered something. My wife and I went on our first date in November 1992… on Friday the 13th.
The lucky thing.
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