The Martin Pollins Blog

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Numbers &  Superstitions

Black cat

Do you believe in superstitions? If so, why are some numbers lucky while others should be avoided at all costs? For example, take number 13. It’s a number long associated with bad luck, at least in our culture. Some buildings have no 13th floor, some aircraft have no 13th row, and some hotels have no room with that number. Also, some racing car drivers reject the number 13 to identify their cars, and some street numbers are altered to avoid the use of the number 13. Witches are said to gather in covens of 13, a belief found in the Teutonic mythology of Scandinavian folklore, and it was widespread in the Middle Ages.

An explanation of why the number 13 is unlucky is given here. It’s often seen as an ill omen representing hostility, rebellion, apostasy, defection, corruption. Number 13 is the 6th prime number, and, of course, number 6 is itself regarded as being unlucky.

In the Bible, Judas is the 13th person (Jesus, number 1 plus the 12 holy Apostles); Judas is always named last in the list of Apostles. The Israelites marched around the city of Jericho 13 times before the city collapsed. Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham, was 13 years old when he was circumcised. The Virgin Mary often appears on the 13th day of the month.

The Phobia of Friday, the 13th
In scientific jargon, the fear of number 13th is called Triskaidekaphobia, and of ‘Friday, the 13th’ is called Paraskevidekatriaphobia. Another name for the phobia is Friggatriskaidekaphobia, which originates from Norse mythology, where Frigg is the goddess for Friday.[1] The myth says when a 13th guest shows up to a party attended by 12 gods, one of the gods would die followed by tremendous destruction.

The Bible
The Bible is full of numbers — how many rivers flowed out of the Garden of Eden (four), the length, in cubits, of the walls of Solomon’s temple (60), and so on. But what are we to make of all of those numbers? Do we take them at face value or invest them with mystical significance? These and many other issues are covered in an article by Dave Roos on HowStuffWorks[2].

Numbers were esoteric symbols with divine significance. Both Jewish and later Christian readers of the Bible took inspiration from Pythagoras and tried to get mystical meaning from numbers using all manner of creative methods. For example, in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, letters and words also have numerical values. Since there were no Arabic numerals back then (1, 2, 3, etc.), numbers were written out with letters. In Greek, alpha is 1, beta is 2 and so on. What this means is that you can take any word from the original Greek New Testament and turn it into a number or the other way round – take any number and turn it into a word.

In Hebrew, the practice of assigning symbolic meaning to the numerical values of words is called gematria and was popular with kabbalists and Jewish mystics. In Greek, it’s called isopsephy and was a favourite technique used by Christian gnostics searching for deeper meaning in the New Testament.

The Bible has several examples of the use of numbers with luck or bad luck ascribed to them, as the following examples show.

Unlucky Number 6

  • 666 is the number of the Beast.
  • The sixth of the Ten Commandments is the sin of murder [Exodus 20:13]
  • All six of the letters which represent the number system of the Roman Empire added together produce the number 666: I = 1; V= 5; X= 10; L= 50; C = 100; D= 500 [there is no letter/number M.  1000 was two Ds back-to-back which resembled an M].

Lucky Number 7

  • In Hebrew, seven is shevah (shebah) from the root shava (shaba or sheba), meaning “to be full.”
  • To swear an oath in Hebrew is “to seven oneself.”
  • The sacred Menorah has seven branches (six on each side of a central shaft) and seven cup-shaped lamps for olive oil
  • It took Solomon seven years to build the Temple in Jerusalem. [1 Kings 6:37-38]
  • There are seven annual holy feast days observed under the Law of the Sinai Covenant [Leviticus 23:1-44]

What is a Superstition?
In an article published on HBR[3], titled ‘Bad-Luck Numbers that Scare Off Customers’, the author says that while superstitions exist in many parts of the world, the numbers associated with bad luck — or good — tend to vary from one place to another.

In China, the pronunciation of the word for the number four is like that of the Chinese word for death – many buildings in China omit the fourth floor. In Japan, number nine is feared because it sounds like the Japanese word for torture or suffering. Some Italians are superstitious about Friday the 17th because rearranging the Roman numeral XVII can create the word “VIXI”—translated from Latin to mean “my life is over.”

Most superstitions arose over the course of centuries and are rooted in regional and historical circumstances, such as religious beliefs or the natural environment. For instance, geckos (small lizards) are believed to have medicinal value in many Asian countries. In China, Feng shui is a belief system that is said to have a negative effect on different places; for example: a room in the northwest corner of a house is “very bad”. Similarly, the number 8 is a ‘lucky number’ in China and is a more common number than any other number in the Chinese housing market.

Picture Credit: “4 leaf clovers” by merwing✿little dear is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although referring to something as a Superstition is often done in a pejorative way, there have been several attempts to define Superstition. Here are some of them:

  • Richard Webster’s The Encyclopedia of Superstitions summarises various dictionary definitions by saying that ‘superstitions are irrational fears of the unknown; or blindly accepted irrational beliefs or practices, which are not based on knowledge or facts but ignorance’.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines superstition as ‘unreasonable or irrational or groundless awe, fear, notion or belief about something unknown, mysterious, or imaginary, especially in regard of religion; religious belief or practice based upon fear or ignorance; in specific meaning: An irrational religious belief or practice; a tenet, scruple, habit, etc. based on fear or ignorance’.
  • According to OED, excessively credulous or a widely held but irrational belief in or reverence for the supernatural belief or supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such beliefs also constitutes superstition.
  • Oxford Learners Dictionaries defines superstition as: ‘the belief in view that particular events happen in ways that cannot be explained by reason or science; or that the belief that particular events bring good or bad luck for example breaking a mirror brings bad luck.’
  • According to Merriam Webster, a ‘false conception about causation or belief or practice emanating from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance’ amounts to superstition.
  • Cambridge Dictionary denotes superstition as ‘belief that is connected with old ideas about magic etc., without grounding in human reason or scientific knowledge.’
  • Diderot’s Encyclopédie defines superstition as ‘any excess of religion in general’ and links it specifically with paganism.

Number Phobias
Phobias are types of anxiety disorders, at least according some psychiatrists think so. Here are some ‘number’ phobias:

  • The fear of numbers is called Arithmophobia. It is sometimes called Numerophobia.
  • Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia means fear of the number 666.
  • Hexaphobia (from Greek hexa, meaning “six”) or Sexaphobia (from Latin sex, “six”) is the fear of the number six.
  • Triskaidekaphobia is fear or avoidance of the number 13.
  • The fear of Friday the 13th is called Paraskevidekatriaphobia or Friggatriskaidekaphobia.
  • Anginophobia (from the Greek ennea meaning “nine”) also known as Nomeaya (from Latin novem meaning “nine”), is the fear of number 9.
  • Decaphobia (from deca, Greek for “ten”) is the fear of the number 10.
  • Hendecaphobia (from hendeca, Greek for “eleven”) or Undecaphobia (from undeca, Latin for ‘”eleven”) is the fear of number 11.

Examples of Superstitions
Superstitions often focus on the idea that one thing causes another thing to happen, without any scientific evidence to prove or support it. Below are several examples. It is easy to dismiss superstition as absurd, but only those who can break a mirror without a second thought are entitled to do so:

  • Getting pooed on by a bird in Britain is deemed lucky, although as you make your way to the dry cleaners afterwards with your new suit, you might disagree.
  • Walking under ladders is a definite no-no if you want to avoid bad luck. In medieval times, people believed a ladder leaning against a wall resembled the gallows, where they used to hang people condemned to death.
  • If you spill salt, it’s best to throw a pinch over your left shoulder into the eyes of the Devil to ward off any bad luck.
  • In 19th century England, it was considered good luck to spill tea leaves. People at the time would scatter loose tea leaves in front of their home to protect the family from evil spirits.
  • Black cats are generally believed to bring bad luck because of their association with demons and witches, as they were often considered to be symbols of evil omens. In Britain, if a black cat walks towards you, it is thought to bring good luck, but if it walks away, it is thought to take your good luck with it.
  • If you have a new pair of shoes, it’s bad luck to put them on a table – this is thought to come from the North of England and is believed to relate to the coal mining industry.
  • Some housewives believed that food would be spoilt if it was stirred ‘widdershins’ – that is, in the opposite direction to that of the sun.
  • You can attract good luck by carrying a rabbit’s foot with you.
  • Walking backwards will bring bad luck if you come from Portugal or Italy.
  • Examples of regional superstitions abound – in Sussex, peony root necklaces were put on children to help with teething and to chase away evil spirits. In Humberside, a traditional rhyme recommends breaking the shell of a boiled egg to stop any witch from using it as they passed by to escape to sea. In Yorkshire, housewives used to believe that bread would not rise if there were a corpse in the vicinity, and to cut off both ends of the loaf would make the Devil fly over the house. The Devil throws his club over Northumberland’s blackberries in late autumn, rendering them poisonous. Whooping cough will never be caught by a Lancashire child who has ridden upon a bear. And to kill a beetle in the East Riding of Yorkshire will surely bring on the rain. Everyone knows that ‘a watched pot never boils’ and in Dorset, it’s common knowledge that a slow-boiling kettle is bewitched and may contain a toad.
  • To protect your house from witches, a rowan tree should be planted, and under no circumstances must hawthorn be brought into the house before May Day as it belonged to the Woodland God and will only bring bad luck.
  • According to Hungarian and Russian customs, sitting at the corner of the table is bad luck – the unlucky diner will allegedly never get married.
  • Crossed knives at the table signify a quarrel, while a white tablecloth left on a table overnight means the household will need a shroud in the near future.
  • Two women must not pour from the same teapot; otherwise, a quarrel will ensue.
  • An English superstition says that if two women are drinking tea together and one wants to have a baby, then she should do the pouring and will become a mother within a year – hence the saying: “shall I be mother?”.
  • Never stir anything using your knife (like soup or coffee) because that will bring bad luck. Remember: stir with a knife and stir up strife.
  • A Scottish superstition says it is bad luck to stir tea with anything other than a spoon, as using the handle of a fork or spoon will stir up trouble. Also, if two spoons are placed on the same saucer, it could mean the drinker will marry twice or, if a young girl, will go on to have twins.
  • It is a portent of bad luck if a knife falls and sticks into the floor.
  • If you make tea too weak, then you will fall out with a close friend. On the other hand, if the tea is too strong, you’ll make a new one.
  • It’s bad luck to pour hot water from a kettle if your palm faces the ceiling when finished.
  • It’s bad luck to cut your fingernails or toenails after dark, at least according to superstitions in Turkey, India and South Korea. In Japan, it could mean you will have a premature death.
  • Opening an umbrella inside the house is said to bring bad luck – this dates back to ancient Egypt when peacock feathers and papyrus was used to protect people from the sun. Opening them when indoors would be seen as an insult to the sun deity ‘Ra’ and means you would be cursed.
  • Touching wood is a widely-known superstition, said to bring good luck or ward off bad luck.
  • Many people believe that breaking a mirror will give you seven years of bad luck.
  • Whistling indoors and at the sun are both ill-advised actions according to Russian and Norwegian superstitions, respectively. Whistling indoors supposedly leads to financial problems in Russia. In Norway, whistling at the sun supposedly causes rain.
  • To pass on the stairs is unlucky, but to stumble going up foretells a wedding.
  • No modern bride will allow her bridegroom to see her on the wedding day before she gets to the church, as it would be unlucky to do so. To be kissed by a passing chimney sweep (if you can find one these days) is very good luck.
  • Carrying a new baby three times around the house will protect the child from colic. It was also believed that teething troubles could be eased if the gums were rubbed with the mother’s gold wedding ring.
  • Choosing the pram or pushchair before the baby is born is relatively safe, but it must not be delivered to or brought into the home until after the baby is born.
  • Six ravens must remain at the Tower of London at all times or the English crown will fall. And in Ireland and Scotland, seeing a single magpie is supposed to be unlucky, but two or more is fine.
  • Magpies can signify good, or bad luck depending on how many you see. Seeing a lone Magpie is said to bring sorrow to your life. Seeing two, however, is lucky.
  • The four-leafed clover is a symbol of luck and good fortune. A simple explanation for their lucky reputation is that they are extremely hard to find (it is thought there are 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every four-leafed one).

What superstitions are missing? Please email me to let me know at

Sourced/Excerpted from and for Further Reading

Black cat
Picture Credit: “Black cat” by @Doug88888 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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