Friday, Superstitions, Stone Sleepers and Gullability

Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 9 comments

Yesterday was Friday the 13th of January 2012. Just like most Fridays, I woke up and went to work, finished work and came home. The only difference between Friday the 13th and Thursday the 12th was one rotation of the earth, and the fact that following Friday is Saturday, as is the convention of the seven day calendar we adhere to. Most people I know hold Friday the 13th with no more credence than a slight sense of amusement, knowing that it is a completely arbitrary number falling on another completely arbitrary number (i.e. 13th falling on the fifth day of the week), and dismiss it as such. But we still have this underlying tendency to blame the superstition if something unfortunate were to happen on this date. Take this example.

Imagine you wake up one morning, and make toast. While distracted by news of a plane crash in the paper, your toast burns, you stand on the cat trying to rescue your food, you trip and fall, hurting your ankle. In the shower after breakfast, you get shampoo in your eyes, and there is no soap left, save a micro-thin filament. The only clean shirt you can find has a grease stain on it, but you have to wear it as all the others are soiled. You brush your teeth, and realising you are running late, you run for the car, only to find that you have a flat tyre. Friday the 13th has hit you with vengeance!

Sounds like a very bad start to the day, and if it happened on a Tuesday, you would just write it off as a series of unfortunate events. But if it happens on Friday the 13th, you correlate those 2 things, and the superstition is reinforced. And this is how cultural superstitions work, with nothing untoward happening meaning you were lucky, and something bad happening meaning you fell victim to the cursed date.

Of course it is completely arbitrary, and we choose to uphold these traditions culturally. There is nothing about Friday 13th that differentiates if from any other day; no special full moon, no super low tide, no alignment of the planets (unless of course one of these things happens to fall on Friday 13th). It is completely devoid of meaning, except in a cultural sense. Different cultures see other dates as unlucky, but of course they are all just as arbitrary as the date of Easter or Christmas, in that they are no different in a physical sense from any other day (Christmas is based around the 21st of December as the solstice date and is not Jesus’ birthday at all, and Easter  comes after the first full moon after the vernal or autumnal equinox depending on your location on earth.)

We who know this guffaw when we see people acting differently due to the date-based superstition of Friday 13th, but there are those who are not so wise in the ways of the world, and it is far too common that people will believe just about anything they are told, if told often enough.

Recently in India, in the province of Lucknow, news spread that on a certain night, if you were to go to sleep, bad spirits would turn you to stone. Yes, stone. It is not known where this rumour started, but thousands of people across the province took to the street convinced that they would die, replaced with stone likenesses, if the slept on the night of January 4th or 5th. You and I laugh at such gullible people, but only in this case because the lack of sleep for one night is unlikely to cause any widespread harm. What is incredible though is that these people believed this rumour based on no evidence, and still chose to treat it as fact.

You may also remember this story, also from India in 2008, where it was reported that up to 50 people lost their sight by staring into the sun, hoping to catch a glimpse of The Virgin Mary. These consequences are much more real an permanent, and the people who were gullible enough to fall for it now face a life without sight.

If the rumour were a little more sinister, for instance, “Kill your firstborn or the others in your family will be stricken with disease”, and people acted upon this, we would be absolutely horrified. What sort of people would believe an unsubstantiated claim like this one? I just made it up now, but if enough people say it, and claim it as truth, then you may well see people acting on it. It is much like the Harold Camping failed doomsday prophecies from last year, all it takes is for one sufficiently charismatic person to make a claim and suddenly it becomes accepted as “fact”.

The Mayan calendar, biblical prophecies, conspiracies, rumours and superstitions, to me, are all the same thing; baseless beliefs, perpetuated by the gullible to the ignorant, and vice-versa. The only thing we as a society can do to combat this propagating of misinformation is to educate our people. If someone tells you something is true, but it seems either too bad or too good to be true, then it probably isn’t. If you are unsure, do some research. A great place to start is Snopes, then move on from there. This is 2012, we should be smart enough these days to spot falsehoods when they arise.

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9 Comments

  1. Great post, M. I find it absolutely astonishing that buildings/hotels still actually miss out the 13th floor or room 13. It makes no sense whatsoever and is a totally baseless superstition in modern society. Recently a woman in front of me in the Ikea customer services queue refused to take a ticket because it was number 13, it took a lot for me to bite my tongue. Sigh.

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    • The hotels may leave it out not because they believe in it themselves but that it may hurt their income/profits because some people may refuse to rent a room with that number/on that floor. Which ofcourse then somewhat reeinforces the whole thing.

      Just like the IKEA thing.

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  2. Ah shucks, America ! Superstition ? Get rid of “In God We Trust” on your money to prove you’re no longer afraid of the Communists! Then start taxing your churches to get out of debt and save your health system.

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  3. Snopes.com is great for fact-checking those “amazing story” emails your friends forward to you.

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  4. Superstition, the worst invention of humankind!

    Our moon is currently moving away from earth and it would only take a slight alteration in our own orbit to change the number of days in our year……..we then might have to remove or even add another day to the week to balance the books, so to speak!! Maybe an 8 day week in the future…..there again our sun is due to explode in circa 5 billion years and we seem to be on a collision course with our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda……..so bollocks to superstition, might go and find a ladder to walk under or some stand on a few cracks in the pavements! See if I can tempt fate?

    Enjoyed the post…..like the site….will be back as they say. :)

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    • Its actually a very good ‘invention’. Superstition is nothing but a ‘side-effect’ of pattern recognition and we are also wired to quickly learn from each other. In general the benefits of quick pattern recoginition and group learning are much higher than the disadvantages of the ‘side-effects’. Of course the next step once realizing it is to take a second look at your pattern matching mechanism ;)

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  5. Confirmation bias. Blah. Interestingly, in Spanish-speaking countries, it is Tuesday the 13th that brings bad luck. “Martes Trece”. And people say: “En Martes 13, not te cases ni te embarques”. Do not marry and do not travel on Tuesday the 13th.

    In the building where I live, in NYC, there is no 13 floor! It goes from 12th to 14th, LOLZ! So the people on the 14th floor are not fooled by this? I guess what matter is the actual number, not the sequence.

    Does anyone know where the legend comes from, that the number 13 is bad luck?

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  6. I live 90 minutes away from the place where those people lost their eye sight after looking for sign of Jesus’s mummy. My home state of Kerala has a sizable Christian population and some of them can be as crazy as a Bible thumping evangelist from the Deep South of the US. I remember that story well.
    I hope you have also heard of the milk drinking magical acts of Hindu dieies that was a huge hue & cry back in 1995! Not wanting to be left out my grandmother also claimed to have seen it for herself.
    Ofcourse that led to me creating a story of a deity drinking beer from my offerings :)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_milk_miracle

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