Friday, February 13, 2009

Superstitions

As I am getting ready to fly in a small 40 passenger plane from Toronto, Ontario to Albany, NY, I am more aware that today is Friday the 13th than I normally would be. This has led me to reflect on how superstitions are part of the commons, and a part that is generally not privatized. Of course, superstitions are used for private profit, as in the number and variety of horror movies built around Friday the 13th, or the sale of lucky charms, blessed water and the like that still can be found all over the world.

The superstition around Friday 13th has its roots in ancient Christianity. Friday is the day Jesus was crucified and is commonly known as Good Friday. The term “Good Friday” is actually a variation on the original which was “God’s Friday,” much like ‘goodbye’ is a shortened version of ‘God be with you.’ Friday is also supposed to be the day Eve gave Adam the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In theology this is referred to as “the fall” although as feminist and liberation theologians often point out, it allowed us to “fall” into adulthood and assume responsibility for our actions by having the knowledge to understand their consequences.

The superstition around the number thirteen also has roots in Christianity, since Judas Iscariot was supposedly the 13th person to sit down at the Last Supper before he betrayed Jesus to the authorities. The number of hotels and office buildings that skip the 13th floor and go from 12 to 14 speaks volumes to how this superstition is still in play. According to SNOPES, there are people who are actually very afraid of the #13, and particularly of Friday 13th. These conditions have names: triskaidekaphobia is fear the number 13, and paraskevidekatriaphobia is fear of Friday the 13th.

Superstitions don’t start out that way: they start out as ideas people hold to be true. People who originally believed that putting a hat on the bed could cause someone to die were probably taking precautions against the spread of disease. It is harder to find a logical root in the belief that breaking a mirror causes seven years of bad luck or that blowing out all your candles at once on your birthday cake grants you a wish, but there probably is some experience that gave rise to these beliefs. Later these truths fade into superstitions, which are sort like half beliefs. We don’t think it is true, but maybe it is, so observe the custom. Later even the custom is forgotten.

I wonder what beliefs we have now which in years to come will be seen as superstitions. Belief that the market will regulate itself is fading fast. We can only hope the superstition that a powerful nation must have a large military will fade altogether. Or perhaps even the belief that America must be a powerful nation.

In this current economic turmoil, while we still fight a war in two countries and supply arms to mercenaries all over the world, perhaps Friday the 13th is a good day, a Good Friday, to think about what we truths we actually hold to be self-evident and what truths should fade to superstition and fade away altogether.

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