Thursday, 30 July 2009

Unlucky for some

Superstition seems objectionable by its very nature, to be rejected simply on the grounds that it is irrational.

Some superstitions, however, are less unreasonable than others. For example, take unlucky numbers. In Japan, one word for ‘four’ is ‘shi’ which can also mean death, so there’s a preference for the alternative word ‘yon’. The connotations of ‘shi’ have, however, contaminated the number itself, so four is regarded as inauspicious. If, for instance, you are giving money as a wedding present, you can give 30,000 yen or 50,000 yen, but never 40,000 yen as that might bring bad luck.

Can I just put it on record that though, after 25 years, it’s a little late to offer me wedding presents, I share none of the Japanese numerical qualms? Someone giving me 40,000 yen is in no danger of offending me at all. Even less if they give me $40,000 or £40,000.

Even if I don’t share this concern over the number four, it seems perfectly understandable. A deadly number: of course it seems unlucky.

But what about our problems, in the West, with the number thirteen?

As I’ve been driving hundreds of miles around the country recently, I’ve listened to a lot of radio. Lately, that’s meant hearing several celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing. Deep in the roots of our culture, since pre-Hellenic Greece where women held power, woman has been identified with the moon, whose cycle mirrors hers.

There are thirteen lunar months in the year. Thirteen is the woman’s number.

Hellenic Greece broke matriarchal power, replacing it by male domination. The breach was reflected in fundamental beliefs. Instead of giving precedence to the moon goddess they focused on twelve Olympian gods, evenly split at first between male and female. Then they went further: Plato, for example, replaced one goddess, Hestia, by a god, Hades, giving the males a majority. He also identified the twelve gods with the months of the new twelve-month calendar.

So here’s the sequence. Man usurps power from women. The gods get revised in favour of males. The number thirteen gets replaced by twelve. Doesn’t this sound like spin to justify a power grab? And isn’t the dislike of the number thirteen just part of it? The superstition about thirteen may not be that irrational. It may simply be self-serving and ideological.

Over the last hundred years the authority of man has begun to be eroded too. At last, you might say. I remember a friend at college who said to me, ‘What went wrong, David? For 3000 years we ran the show, and we had to be born now?’

Of course, the truth is that he and I would never have run the show. Sure, it was men who were in charge. But not us. The men who hold power in Britain didn’t study at the Cockney University, in London where we were. They studied at Oxford. We thought a great evening was a couple of glasses of wine and conversation, which we regarded as brilliant and anyone listening would have found stultifying, about whether Giotto did the Assisi frescoes (on balance, I think he did) and whether the obscurity in modern French philosophy reflects its profundity or its pretentiousness (I incline to the latter view).

The people who run the show thought a great evening was when they booked a whole restaurant, through their Bullingdon club, got totally plastered, bullied those members who had gone to second-tier schools rather than the absolutely most privileged, and trashed the place, leaving it to one or other of the Daddies to pay for the damage the next day. That’s the kind of training that qualifies you to be today’s Mayor of London or next year’s Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer respectively (George Osborne, next year’s Chancellor, a former pupil of St Paul’s School, was one of those picked on by, among others, the old Etonian David Cameron, next year’s Prime Minister).

To be a part of that charmed circle was not an honour that any of my friends at college would have sought, let alone been offered.

No, we belong to the circles that have to put up with the antics of the old Bullingdonians. We are among the victims of that seizure of power 3000 years ago by the self-proclaimed male elite that threw the number thirteen down off its pedestal.

Maybe rather than reject the superstition about thirteen, we need to turn it on its head. View it as a token of promise not of misfortune. Wear the number thirteen, in fact, as a badge.

Against the crass. The arrogant. The powerful.

1 comment:

Mark Reynolds said...

Interesting about the Hellenic gods. Not for nothing, but the new Reynolds is supposed to arrive on 13/12. Covering her bases I guess (and choosing her timeing well, as it also happens to be a major religious celebration for Amynah).