I wrote the following article for The Airscoop, the official installation newspaper of Vance Air Force Base, in February 1998, when I was stationed there as a public affairs journeyman.
VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – For the superstitious, 1998 could be a very unlucky year, as Feb. 13 is the first of three Friday the 13ths in 1998.
Many of the superstitions modern western people hold dear – including the beliefs that 13 is an unlucky number, our human fates are tied to the patterns of the stars and black cats are evil – originated more than 5,000 years ago in the Middle East, specifically, in Mesopotamia, according to Dr. Michael Seth, professor of history at Phillips University in Enid, Okla.
“The fact that everything is sevens, 12s and 40s in the Old Testament, of course, is because those were considered good or lucky numbers in Mesopotamia,” Seth said, “and so you see them over and over and over in the Bible.”
Because 13 came after lucky number 12, it was associated with evil. “There are a lot of legends going on about the twelve apostles of Christ, and that the 13th member at the last supper was bad,” Seth said, “but these would be much later ideas, after the number 13 was already established as bad.”
In addition to continuing the belief that 13 is unlucky, Seth pointed out that people still believe in “lucky number seven,” especially in games of chance.
“Although these are really ancient Middle Eastern superstitions and beliefs, we still kind of like them,” he said.
According to Capt. Wendi L. Betz, behavioral health chief here, superstitions are formed when people erroneously draw connections between neutral phenomena and good or bad events in their lives that immediately follow those phenomena.
“Who knows how our superstitions got started in the beginning, but maybe somebody had a black cat cross their path, and then something bad happened to them, so they connected the two,” she said.
For the most part, Betz said, superstitions are a normal response to our often-random world. She added that even animals have been shown to display superstitious learning, citing pigeons that developed elaborate “rituals” designed to elicit a food reward during a controlled experiment.
Betz said humans invent their own rituals to create a desired result or to stave off an undesired result.
“I’ve seen some guys on the softball team that have a certain warm-up routine they do every time, or there are the people who play bingo, who bring all their lucky dolls and stuff with them,” Betz said.
Superstitions in a culture’s collective consciousness can be self-perpetuating, because people look for anything that can support their belief in the superstition, she added.
“If you have a superstition about Friday the 13th, you’re going to look for something bad to happen to you that day, and you’re going to pay attention to it (if it does occur),” Betz said. “Bad things can happen on other days than Friday the 13th, but that doesn’t count, because it doesn’t reinforce any belief,” Betz said.
“Then again, maybe black cats and Friday the 13th are bad, and they’re actually causing bad things to happen to people,” Betz added.
“But I have my doubts.”
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