Triskaidekaphobia: Executed Today’s 13th Annual Report

Did you ever see a hangman tie a slipknot?
I’ve seen it many a time and he winds, and he winds,
After thirteen times he’s got a slipknot.

It’s not actually the case that hangman’s knots have 13 loops as a general rule but of course we all know why it’s in the lyric. And Halloween 2020 marks the unluckiest anniversary to date for Executed Today, 13 years since we were born howling.

Although it says here that irrational avoidance of the 13th day of the calendar, and Friday the 13th in particular, costs hundreds of millions per year, I can’t but feel skepticism that anyone in our disenchanted world retains a truly heartfelt phobia about this jagged figure. Certainly the number has achieved an enduring place in the western conscience that you might be reminded of every time you step into a North American elevator.

The origin story of triskaidekaphobia seems as murky and arbitrary as you’d suppose. One oft-cited hypothesis is that it traces to a Norse legend in which Loki crashes a party as the 13th guest; the parallels to the Last Supper and its treacherous 13th attendee are obvious. That’s as may be but as usual with numerology it answers the wrong question; one could conjure ample retrospective rationale to anathemize any number you’d like and 13 is far from the only unlucky number situationally reviled here or there. (Four is unlucky in China; 17 in Italy; 39 in Afghanistan — all of these numbers holding associations with death in their respective contexts. Perhaps in the age of coronavirus we’ll find ourselves headed for superstitious avoidance of 19.) And it is probably no more than modern retconning that makes the Friday the 13th arrest of the Knights Templar in 1307 the wellspring of our Jason Voorhees slasher franchise.

But this gnarly prime surely clangs against the balanced and mystically satisfactory twelve, that essential component of the ancient sexagesimal that still smiles at us from clock faces and horoscopes. Is the dissonant remainder transgressive, even sexually subversive?

The first specific mention of the unlucky 13 which I have been able to find occurs in Montaigne:

And me seemesth I may well be excused if I rather except an odd number than an even … if I had rather make a twelfth or fourteenth at a table, than a thirteenth … All such fond conceits, now in credit about us, deserve at least to be listned unto.

The fact that the number was associated with Epiphany by the Church, and appears not to have been considered other than holy by any of the medieval number theorists leads to the inference that the unlucky 13 was a popular superstition entirely disconnected from the “science of numbers.” Petrus Bungus is the first arithmologist to recognize any evil inherent in the number. He records that the Jews murmured 13 times against God in the exodus from Egypt, that the thirteenth psalm concerns wickedness and corruption, that the circumcision of Israel occurred in the thirteenth year, thus not reaching the satisfaction of the law and the evangelists, which are figured by 10 and 4. As 11 is a number of transgression, because it goes beyond the 10 Commandments, so 13 goes beyond the 12 apostles. Therefore hic numerus Judaeorum taxat impietatem. The previous absence of any such explanation in the arithmologies gives the impression that popular belief had forced upon the priest this painful and rather unconvincing interpretation of the Commandments + the Trinity. Montaigne’s intimation that the superstition was widely in vogue would tend to push its origin back at least to the Middle Ages. To find a 13 which might popularly achieve baleful connotations is so easy that I should rather assign the superstition to a confluence of factors, rather than to a single source.

With nearly every traditional 12, a 13 is somehow associated. Earliest in time is the intercalated thirteenth month, which Böklen asserts was regarded as discordant and unlucky. Webster agrees that such was sometimes the case. There is a slender chance that a tradition, even as uncertain as this, might have been orally transmitted to the Middle Ages. There is a much better chance that the omnipresent 13 of the lunar and menstruation cycle made the number fearsome, or at least unpopular.

At the same time, the number may have become popularly associated with the diabolical arts. In Faust’s Miraculous Art and Book of Marvels, or the Black Raven, 13 are said to compose the Infernal Hierarchy. This must be the same astrological 13, since the Raven is the thirteenth symbol in the intercalary month year, as well as the effigy for the moon. Simultaneously, cabalistic lore may have introduced the 13 Conformations of the Holy Beard, also astrological in origin and magical in common belief. In Britain, 13 became associated with witchcraft. Whether for the same reason or because the inclusion of a leader with any group of 12 makes a thirteenth, as seems to have been the case in Druidic ceremony, a witches’ koven was ordinarily composed of 13, or a multiple.

It will be noted, however, that the specific superstition mentioned by Montaigne is that of 13 at table. Here the connection is indisputably with the Last Supper. One wonders how much the legend fo the Siege Perilous had to do with drawing attention to the thirteenth unlucky chair. True enough, the Siege Perilous was sanctified, but it was also Perilous and distinctly unlucky for the wrong person — “wherein never knight sat that he met not death thereby.” This is something more than a guess, because, although the thirteenth chair is ordinarily reserved for the leader — Charlemagne in the Pelerinage and the All-Father in the temple of the Gods at Gladsheim — Boron’s Joseph assigns the vacant seat to Judas, and the Modena Perceval to “Nostre Sire” in one place but to Judas in another. It is also possible that “Nostre Sire” might have been the author’s intention but that the copyist and public opinion altered it to Judas.

-Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought

While it might have its seat — ha, ha — in the table arrangements, once its stigma achieved sufficient circulation 13 got bootstrapped into all manner of ad hoc sinisterisms, which of course makes it perfect grist for the executioner: after all, when your tarot reading turns over the XIII card, you’re looking at Death. So it’s not only 13 loops in the hangman’s noose but 13 steps to the gallows that are endorsed in casual folklore, and more than likely some latter-day scaffolds have actually been outfitted intentionally with these ill omens in misbegotten tribute to the superstition. (I’m not aware of, but would be delighted to discover, this figure being insinuated into the mechanics of the death-dealing inventions of modern industry like the electric chair or gas chamber.)

In our case, the foreboding 13th anniversary marks the nice round 4,750th consecutive day of posting even if (as we have regrettably noted in other recent annual reports) the “daily” schedule increasingly demands an indulgence of the deadline on the part of readers. Now that we’ve stuffed the Siege Perilous and every other chair besides with cadavers, the portends are surely grim.

On this day..

1904: Wang Weiqin, by lingchi

On this date in 1904, Wang Weiqin, an official who killed two families, was put to death in Beijing by lingchi (slow slicing, or death by a thousand cuts).

This execution is distinguished by its late date and, consequently, the photographs taken of it; needless to say, it is Mature Content below.

Several equally ghastly photographs of this event can be browsed here.

On this day..