In a volume containing a great variety of ancient charms and magical cures, collected by Marcellus Empiricus, a Latin writer of the fourth century A. D., in which volume various remedial measures are described with great minuteness, the even numbers seldom appear. Thus, for the removal of a foreign substance from the eye, one should rub the affected organ with the five fingers of the hand of the same side, and repeat thrice a charm of words. Again, for the cure of a sty on the eyelid, take nine grains of barley and poke the sty with each one separately, meanwhile repeating a magic formula in Greek. Then throw away the nine and do the same with seven, throw away the seven and do the same with five, and so with three and one.
The early Saxon physicians in England seem also to have had faith in the peculiar virtues of the number nine, as is evident from many of their prescriptions, of which the following prefix to a lengthy Latin charm is a fair specimen:--
For flying venom and every venomous swelling, on a Friday churn butter which has been milked from a neat or hind all of one colour, and let it not be mingled with water. Sing over it nine times a litany and nine times the Paternoster, and nine times this incantation.
In an ancient English manuscript (Harleian Collection, No. 585), frequent examples are given of the employment of odd numbers in therapeutics. Thus, for dropsical affections, a beverage containing alexander betony, and fennel is to be drunk daily for seven days. "To expel venom," centaury is to be taken for fifteen days, and a potion prepared from the seed of cress is extolled for its curative qualities if taken faithfully during three days.
Indeed, the odd numbers are prominent in the annals of folk-medicine throughout Great Britain. The three chief duties of a physician were declared to be as follows: the restoration of health when lost, its amelioration when weak, and its preservation when recovered. So also three qualities were requisite in a surgeon; namely, an eagle's eye, a lion's heart, and a lady's hand, attributes equally essential to the skillful operator of the present day.
The natives of the Hebrides inherit the old Scandinavian and Celtic partiality for certain odd numbers. Thus in Tiree a favorite cure for jaundice consists in wearing a shirt previously dipped in water taken from the tops of nine waves, and in which nine stones have been boiled. These same people formerly employed a peculiar method of treating sick cattle. The veterinary, holding in his hands a cup of cream and an oat-cake, takes his seat upon the animal, and repeats a Celtic charm of words "nine times nine times," taking "a bit and a sip" before each repetition.
In Cornwall, for the cure of inflammatory affections, the invocation of three angels is thrice repeated to each one of nine bramble leaves; and a popular remedy for whooping cough is to pass a child nine times under and over a three-year-old donkey. In the south of England, for intermittent fever, the patient is recommended to eat seven sage leaves on seven successive mornings, fasting meanwhile; and in northern Scotland scrofulous affections are thought to yield to the touch of a seventh son, when accompanied by an invocation of the Trinity.
The belief in the magical curative qualities of the number nine was not limited to the northern nations. Thus the inhabitant of ancient Apulia, when bitten by a scorpion, proceeded to walk nine times around the walls of his native town.
Dr. D. G. Brinton, in his "Nagualism, a Study of Native American Folk-Lore and History," remarks that the number nine recurs very often in the conjurations of Mexican magicians.
The women of Canton, China, attribute magical properties for the cure of cutaneous affections to water drawn after midnight of the seventh day of the seventh month.
When a gypsy child bumps its head, a knife-blade is first pressed upon the swelling, after which an incantation is pronounced three, seven, or nine times, and the knife is stuck into the earth a like number of times. Many charms employed by gypsies could be mentioned in illustration of the avoidance of even numbers in all their mystic rites.
In regard to the luck of odd numbers, the exception, which is commonly supposed to prove the rule, is the much maligned thirteen.
In the Scandinavian mythology Loki, the Principle of Evil and the chief author of human misfortunes, accompanied the twelve AEsir, or Demigods, and was reckoned the thirteenth among them. Moreover, the Valkyrs, or Virgins, who waited upon the heroes in Valhalla, were thirteen in number, and from these sources is believed to have sprung the very common superstition concerning the ill luck and fatality of the number thirteen, especially in connection with a party of guests at table.
The most generally received explanation of the origin of this popular belief refers it to the Last Supper of our Lord, where Judas is sometimes represented as the thirteenth guest. But why Judas rather than John, the beloved disciple? However, this is the generally accepted starting-point of this notable superstition. As with the Jews the thirteenth month, and with the Christians the thirteenth day of the year, which began with Christmas, were accounted ominous, so, with the inhabitants of India, the thirteenth year was considered to be of evil import. It is evident, therefore, that the source of this nearly world-wide belief cannot be attributed wholly either to the mythology of the north or to the Paschal Supper.
When the year was reckoned as thirteen lunar months of twenty-eight days each, the number thirteen, according to one view, was considered auspicious; but when, under the present method of solar time, the number of months was reduced to twelve, thirteen's reputation was changed for the worse.
In early times the Feast of the Epiphany, which is the thirteenth day after Christmas Eve, was feared because at that time the three goddesses, Berchta, Holle, and Befana, with their ghostly companions, were especially active; and, as a guard against their machinations, the initial letters of the names of the three kings, or wise men, were written on many a door.
Of the former trio, Berchta was represented as a shaggy monster, whose name was used as a bugbear with which to frighten children. She was intrusted with the oversight of spinning, and on the eve of Epiphany she visited the homes of the countryfolk, distributing empty reels, which she required to be filled within a specified time; if her demands were not complied with, she retaliated by tangling and befouling the flax.
Holle, or Holda, was a benignant and merciful goddess, of an obliging disposition, who was usually most lenient, except when she noticed disorder in the affairs of a household. Her favorite resorts were the lakes and fountains, but she had also an oversight over domestic concerns, and shared with Berchta the supervision of spinning. Sometimes, however, she appeared as an old hag, with bristling, matted hair and long teeth.
Befana, the third goddess, was of Italian origin, and her name signifies Epiphany. On that day the women and children used to place a rag doll in the window in her honor. In personal appearance she was black and ugly, but her disposition was not unfriendly.
So universal has been the superstition regarding the number thirteen at table, that it has long been a matter of etiquette in France to avoid having exactly that number of guests at dinner-parties. The Parisian pique-assiette, a person whose title corresponds to the English "trencher friend" or "sponger," is also known as a quatorziême, his chief mission being to occupy the fourteenth seat at a banquet.
The ancients, we learn, had ideas of their own regarding the proper size of festive gatherings, their favorite number of convives being between three and nine, the number of the Graces and Muses respectively.
Opinions have differed as to whether misfortune were likely to befall the whole company of thirteen persons rash enough to dine together, or only the one leaving the room first after the repast. All evil, however, was supposed to be averted by the entire company rising to their feet together. It has been wittily remarked that the only occasion when thirteen plates at table should cause disquietude is when the food is only sufficient for twelve persons.
At the thirteenth annual dinner of that unique organization, the Thirteen Club, held in New York city, January 13, 1895, at 7:13 o'clock, P.M., the custodian delivered an address in which were recounted the circumstances of the club's formation. So prevalent was the apprehension of evil likely to result from the assembling together of thirteen persons that, when at length the requisite number were seated at table, it was found desirable to lock the doors of the banquet-room, lest some faint soul should retire abruptly.
Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, in his "Forty-One Years in India" (vol. i. p. 24), mentions a circumstance occurring in his own experience, which affords evidence, were any needed, of the falsity of the superstition in question. On New Year's Day, A. D. 1853, Lord Roberts was one of a party of thirteen who dined together at a staff-officers' mess at Peshawer, on the Afghan frontier. Eleven years later all these officers were alive, the greater number having participated in the suppression of the great Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, during which several of them were wounded.
In Italy shrewd theatrical managers have found it expedient to change the number of Box 13 to 12A, and in many streets of Rome and Florence one may search in vain for house-numbers between 12-1/2 and 14. A gentleman of the writer's acquaintance, living in Washington, D. C., sent a formal petition to the authorities asking leave to change the number of his house, for the sole reason that it contained the ominous figures.
As an illustration of the popular distrust of the number thirteen among the villagers of the Department of Ille-et-Villaine, France, may be cited the following custom, which is in vogue in that district. Children are there usually taught the art of knitting by devout elderly women. The little ones are first seated in a circle, and, to facilitate the work, on the completion of the first round of knitting they are made to repeat the following words: One, the Father;" at the close of the second round, "Two, the Son;" and so on, as follows: "Three, the Holy Spirit; the four Evangelists; the five wounds of our Lord; the six commandments of the church; seven sacraments; eight beatitudes; nine choirs of angels; ten commandments of God; eleven thousand virgins twelve apostles;" and at the close of the thirteenth round, the children mention the name of Judas.
This remarkable and unreasonable prejudice against an innocent number seems to pervade all classes and communities. The possession of intelligence and culture is no effective barrier against it. Arguments and reasoning are alike vain. Even at this writing, an evening journal records that at a recent meeting of a newly elected board of aldermen in an enlightened city of eastern Massachusetts, one of the members objected to casting lots for seats because he did not relish the idea of drawing number thirteen. However, his scruples having been in a measure overcome, he was much relieved to find that the number eleven, which is both uneven and lucky, had fallen to his share.
Brand quotes as follows from Fuller's "Mixt Contemplations" (1660) in reference to this subject:--
A covetous Courtier complained to King Edward the sixt of Christ Colledge in Cambridge, that it was a superstitious foundation, consisting of a Master and twelve Fellowes, in imitation of Christ and His twelve Apostles. He advised the King also to take away one or two Fellowships, so as to discompose that superstitious number. "Oh, no!" said the King, "I have a better way than that to mar their conceit; I will add a thirteenth Fellowship unto them;" which he did accordingly, and so it remaineth unto this day.
Persians regard the number thirteen as so unlucky that they refrain from naming it. When they wish to allude to this number, instead of mentioning the proper term, they use words meaning "much more" or "nothing."
The Moors, or Arabs, of northern Africa have similar prejudices, whereas the American negro, ordinarily a most credulous being, appears to be quite indifferent to the evil influences of the fateful number; but in Turkey, so great is the popular dislike of it that the word for thirteen is seldom used.
In Scotland this number is known as the "Deil's Dozen," a phrase which has been supposed to have some connection with card-playing, there being thirteen cards in each suit of the "Deil's Books." John Jamieson, in his Scottish Dictionary, avows his inability to trace the superstition to its source, but believes that it includes the idea of the thirteenth being the Devil's lot. The number thirteen is also sometimes known as a "baker's dozen," because it was formerly a common practice to give thirteen loaves for twelve, the extra piece being called the in-bread or to-bread. This custom is supposed to have originated at a time when heavy fines were imposed for short weights, the additional bread being given by bakers as a precautionary measure.
In certain cases, contrary to the general rule, thirteen is accounted a fortunate numeral, or even as one possessing extraordinary virtues.
Dr. Daniel G. Brinton, in "A Primer of Mayan Hieroglyphics" (p. 25), says that in the old language of the Mayas, an aboriginal tribe of Yucatan, the numbers nine and thirteen were used to denote indefinite greatness and supreme excellence. Thus a very fortunate man was possessed of nine souls, and the phrase, "thirteen generations old," conveyed the idea of perpetuity. The "Demon with thirteen powers" was a prominent figure in the mythology of the Tzentals, a Mayan tribe.
According to a widely prevalent popular impression, a brood is usually odd in number, and therefore it is folly to set an even number of eggs under a hen. In spite of the falsity of this idea, it is still quite customary to set thirteen eggs, an even number in this case being accounted unlucky.
Gerald Massey, in "The Natural Genesis," remarks that "there were thirteen kinds of spices set out in the Jewish religious service, along with the zodiacal number of twelve loaves of shew-bread. There are thirteen articles to the Hebrew faith, and the Cabalists have thirteen rules by which they are enabled to penetrate the mysteries of the Hebrew Scriptures. Thirteen are the dialectical canons of the Talmudical doctors for determining the sense of the law in all civil and ecelesiastieal cases."
In England the day of twenty-four hours was formerly divided into thirteen parts, as follows:
1. After midnight.
3. Between the first cock-crow and daybreak.
4. The Dawn.
13. Dead of night.
Recurring now to the prevalent notions regarding the sinister and portentous character of this number, one may well inquire in all seriousness whether the harboring of this and other firmly rooted superstitious fancies is compatible with a deep and abiding Christian faith. The answer is plainly in the negative. Therefore it is doubtless true--and the truth should make us free--that the greater our indifference to the various alleged omens and auguries which so easily beset us, the more readily shall we acquire and retain a firm and enduring dependence on Divine Providence.