Humans are a superstitious bunch. As a child, you may have avoided sidewalk cracks (so as not to break your mother’s back), or searched out lucky pennies. Good or bad, these irrational beliefs — like in a lucky rabbit’s foot or a seven-year curse stemmed from breaking a mirror — have been passed down for centuries.
Among the many sources of superstition are numbers. From ancient Pythagorean number cults to more general numerology, people have tried to make sense of the world through numbers. Whether you consider 13 to be unlucky or not, various numbers can be either good or ill fortune, depending on the culture.
While the educational masterminds at Schoolhouse Rock taught us that three is a magic number, they didn’t mention if they meant dark or light magic. In Sweden and Korea, three is considered very lucky. Universally, the number three pops up in various religious and cultural contexts. Some pagan religions believe in the unity of land, sky, and sea, for example, while Hinduism and other Eastern religions have trinities as well. In Christian tradition, the number three is associated with the Holy Trinity, and Western cultures often use the saying that “good things come in threes,” or “the third time’s the charm.”
However, those same sayings can be flipped — some believe that bad things can also occur in threes (think: celebrity deaths). This particular superstition or fear of triple tragedies is called triaphilia.
Have you ever found a four-leaf clover? In many European and Western cultures, four-leaf clovers (not to be confused with the Irish shamrock) are considered a sign of good luck. Finding a four-leaf clover has been said to mean anything from representing faith, to blessing you with good luck, to even being able to see fairies. (Plus, Beyoncé considers four to be especially lucky, and who are we to argue with the Queen B?) However, in many East and Southeast Asian cultures, the number four means anything but good luck.
China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam are some of the Asian countries who consider four a very unlucky number. Across these languages, the word for four sounds very similar to the word for death. Some Asian buildings, such as hospitals, skip the fourth floor on buildings, leaving elevator options going from floor three straight to floor five. Other businesses have changed names or avoided the number four in other ways, such as Japanese camera company Fuji skipping the number four model of their camera series. The number four is serious business in that it can halt all business — due to people’s superstition around the number four, businessmen in East and Southeast Asian countries with these beliefs have to be careful of how they use this number when marketing various products and locations.
Seven covers a wide variety of symbolism and is featured prominently in many cultures — Christian faiths believe God created the world in seven days, Islam believes in seven heavens. There are both the majestic seven wonders of the world as well as the seven deadly sins. Isaac Newton believed so strongly in the power of seven that some believe he forced the color indigo (whose range of wavelengths is extremely close to both blue and violet) into his visible color spectrum in order to maintain the age-old pattern of sevens.
Seven features prominently in folklore and mythology as well — European and American mythology often refers to the seventh son of a seventh son, a lucky birth order that gives the person mystical or supernatural abilities (unless you’re Romanian, in which case you’re fated to become a vampire). If you’re a metalhead, this superstition might sound familiar — the British band Iron Maiden’s hit seventh album was named Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.
Nine is another number with similarly mixed superstitions. In India, the number nine is considered auspicious; not only is it a symbol of continuity, but it also represents navagraha, or the nine planets in Hindu astrology believed to closely influence human lives. Many Indians pay close attention to the use of the number nine when shopping for property and vehicles.
The number nine also plays into popular culture in the Western world, with many people using the sayings “on cloud nine” and “dressed to the nines” to respectively describe being in a happy state, or to be dressed exceptionally well. Cats have been thought to have nine lives due to their uncanny ability to land on their feet and find their way out of various harrowing situations.
However, not all is divine with the number nine: Some Japanese people consider the number bad luck since it sounds like their word for “suffering.”
Here’s a familiar number that’s plagued many over the years — the infamous number 13. From the belief that if 13 people eat at a table, one will die before the end of the year, to many buildings faithfully choosing to only build 12 stories, this number is certainly controversial. Some believe that 13 became a symbol of bad luck due to the Last Supper, at which Judas Iscariot was the thirteenth guest to arrive and then proceeded to betray Jesus to the Romans. Others speculate that the number is peculiar or ominous compared to the even number 12, which is used for the zodiac, the months of the year, and the Christian apostles, to name a few.
Despite the unease around the number, not everyone buys into the idea of 13 being bad luck; in Italy, for example, it is considered an auspicious number due to its association with Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. However, for many people, Friday the 13th will always be a lot more serious than a campy slasher franchise from the '80s; even horror master Stephen King avoids putting aside a book if he is on a page whose numbers add up to 13.
When you think of the number 17, what comes to mind? Probably not bad luck! However, for many Italians, 17 is their number 13. This possibly originated from the fact that the Roman numeral for 17, XVII, can be rearranged to be VIXI, a Latin word that means “my life is over” or “I have died.” Yikes!
For this reason, some Italian airplanes have no seventeenth row; the number is skipped over on buildings, seating, and cars; and during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, the seventeenth curve on the bobsled track was called senza nome — “without a name.”
If you must use a number when in Italy, try using 13 instead — while many Americans may get the shudders from 13, many Italians consider the number lucky!
The number 39 might seem like an odd one to be worried about in a Western context, but in Afghanistan, this number is very unlucky. While the original reason Afghans dislike the number is unclear, some people point to the fact that 39 translates to the words “dead cow” (morda-gow) as a reason why the number is considered taboo. When it comes to Afghani license plates, building numbers, and phone numbers, 39 is to be avoided. According to a local of Herat, Afghanistan, when the vehicle registration number hit 39,000, people waited weeks for the number to pass before registering their vehicles.