Superstition, Triskaidekaphobia, And Halloween

Why we knock on wood and avoid walking under ladders


Very superstitious, writing's on the wall

Very superstitious, ladders ‘bout to fall

Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin' glass

Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

Superstition” by Stevie Wonder topped the charts in the United States the week of January 27, 1973. Yes, the song’s funky groove is irresistible. But perhaps the 22-year-old pop genius had also tapped into something else: our fascination with superstitions.

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Do you avoid walking under ladders? That perpetuates an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represented the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the trinity – not a good thing to do on the road to heaven.

Do you knock on wood in order to avoid jinxing yourself? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood when you say something hopeful, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Athletes are especially superstitious. Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander eats Taco Bell the night before every start. When I played basketball in high school, I always wore the same socks for games.

Superstition confounds the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because we believe saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13. The word derives from the Greek: tris (three) + kai (and) + deka (ten) + phobia (fear of). Many cultures believe the number 13 to be bad luck, with some citing Judas as the 13th apostle. As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. We didn’t make the playoffs that year. I switched to number 30 the following season. We went 19-4.

I wish George Carlin could come back to us on Halloween, superstition's high holday, just so I could hear him say one word: friggartriskaidekaphobia. It means fear of Friday the 13th.

On October 31, 1921, Vincent Pantalone married Antonia (Etta) Caione in Providence. I always thought it was cool that my grandparents chose Halloween for their wedding day. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

Lucky us.

With thanks to my cousin, Lorri Mainelli, for including me in her recent research into our shared family history.

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John Walsh October 31, 2012 at 03:56 PM
Happy anniversary to your parents!
John Walsh October 31, 2012 at 04:32 PM
Lucky numbers – now there's a topic deserving a blog post of its own. Tales of how my aunts went about picking the numbers that they played… In doing the research for this post, I saw where 13 is considered lucky in certain cultures, i.e., Italian and Tibetan. So you are not alone in your belief! As always, Martha, thanks for reading and commenting.
John Walsh October 31, 2012 at 06:22 PM
Thanks, Andrew. Whatever superstitions are at work for the EG football team, stick to them!
Leave RI October 31, 2012 at 07:16 PM
Always great stuff. Good on ya John.
John Walsh October 31, 2012 at 07:43 PM
Thanks for reading and commenting.


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