“Um… Crys… I think you mean Friday the 13th” I can already hear many of you whispering under your breath. Funnily enough no, I don’t mean Friday the 13th. I am aware that in the vast majority of Western countries 13 is the unlucky number, and Friday the 13th is an “unlucky” day. In a bizarre twist on the usual superstition, however, Italians believe that 17 is an unlucky number, and therefore Friday the 17th is the day to watch out for. It is also the 17th row that is missing from old Alitalia planes, the number 17 that no one will have on their jerseys, and the number 17 that was retired from Formula 1 after Jules Bianchi crashed his number 17 car and died on… Friday the 17th of July 2015.
Last Friday was a Friday the 17th, and the various Italians I work with mentioned it in some passing, humorous way. This made me think about why, exactly, 17 is “unlucky” in Italian culture. Why 13 is supposedly unlucky is relatively easy, as it stems from Christian mythology. The story goes that there were 13 people at the last supper, and the “13th” person was Judas, who went on to betray Christ. It is also supposed that Jesus died on a Friday, and so Friday the 13th is an especially unlucky day.
Given the origin of this superstition you would think that Italy, a deeply Catholic country and home of the Vatican, would also hold to a superstition of Christian origin. So, I asked myself, is it a Mediterranean thing that predates Christianity? A few questions to my Greek and Spanish colleagues revealed that their cultures too have 13 as the unlucky number. As far as I can tell, Italy is the only country in which 17 takes this special position. So, why is that?
Google here I come.
A brief web search led me to a well-referenced Wikipedia page. Based on what I can gather, the fear of the number 17 comes from Roman times, and Christian post-hoc justifications were tacked onto it in order to keep an old superstition around.
While no one can really say for sure, most people seem to agree that the fear of the number 17 came from the Roman tradition of carving VIXI onto tombstones. VIXI is Latin for vissi, which means “I lived” or “I have lived”. It is a word that recalls our mortality, and thus considered bad luck. An anagram of VIXI is XVII, which is the Roman numeral for 17.
Other, unsubstantiated stories exist around the origins of this superstition, including that the 17th legion was one of the 3 Roman legions that was entirely destroyed during the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, and that the followers of Pythagoras found 17 to be a distasteful number lying between the perfect 16 and 18.
As for the Biblical justification for this superstition, it is even more of a stretch. According to Genesis 7-11:
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month–on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.
So, the great flood happened on the 17th… OK that’s pretty bad luck. Still, I think most small numbers must be mentioned in the Bible at one point or another, so finding the Biblical reason to cling to your old superstitions is relatively easy. One way or another, the origin of the superstition almost certainly predates Christianity.
Regardless of the origin, the result is that Italy is quite unique for a Christian-majority nation, at least in this particular superstition.
To my knowledge, other numbers that are unlucky around the world are the number 4 in China, the number 666 because it is the number of Satan, and the number 13 in all the other Christian-majority nations.
Are there any other unlucky numbers that I am not aware of? If so, do you know why they are considered unlucky? If so, let me know in the comments!