Last weekend one of my good friends and I went to the Bata Shoe Museum. All I could think of before going was that hilarious YouTube video clip "Shoooooooooes!" But when we got there we were amazed at all the implications of a simple shoe. Issues of social standing, religion, occupation, culture, time of life could all be inferred from shoes! I was (am) fascinated. The best part of this museum was a Chinese exhibit that showed dozens of animals that were featured not only on children's shoes but on their hats and jackets as well. Each animal symbolized character traits and of course, good luck. After marvelling at all of this, my friend turned to me and commented on how our western culture seems meaningless compared to the Chinese, so rich in symbolism. With a plethora of evidence in front of me, I had to agree.
However in the days following, I have noticed that my culture (Anglo/Caucasian) does have beliefs that are still surprisingly apparent in our modern world. Watching the scrolling numbers in my apartment's elevator display, I noticed it skipped from 12 to 14. Suddenly my imagination started wondering about this mysterious 13th floor. Perhaps it is sort of a special 1/2 floor, like in the movie Being John Malkovich. Maybe if I hit the emergency stop on the elevator and pry open the door with a crowbar, I'll be able to uncover the mystery (I'll let you know how it goes!). My partner asked me why there was no 13th floor and I automatically responded that it was an unlucky number. But when he asked me why, I was stumped! I had actually never thought about it before!
In Korea, most buildings lack a 4th floor. Or if they have one, it is marked "F" for the English number four. The reason for this is that Koreans use Chinese numbers for floors and the word for four in Chinese (si in Chinese/sah in Korean) for the Chinese word meaning death. And since death is clearly unlucky, people in Asia go to great lengths to avoid it.
But why is the number 13 so unlucky for us that some even have a phobia of it? There are several theories but nothing so clear cut as the Chinese explanation. Some Christian traditions say that at the Last Supper Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th to sit at the table, and that for this reason 13 is considered to cursed. Fear of 13 has also been linked to that fact that a lunisolar calendar (the calendar Asians have traditionally used) must have 13 months in some years, while the solar Gregorian calendar and lunar Islamic calendar always have 12 months in a year. It is believed that Loki in the Norse pantheon was the 13th god. This was later Christianized in some traditions into saying that Satan was the 13th angel. Thirteen may be considered a "bad" number simply because it is one more than 12, which is a popularly used number in many cultures. When a group of 13 objects is divided into two, three, four or six equal groups, there is always one leftover object. Looking for 13 everywhere can get so ridiculous it can turn into the plot of the recent film 23 so I'm not even going to get into Friday the 13th!
I was half-watching Just My Luck the other day while I was at a friend's house and was amused by all the lucky/unlucky things portrayed in the movie. I will admit to not walking under ladders but choose to believe this is a matter of safety and just plain common sense. With St. Patrick's Day rapidly approaching, there will be the requisite lucky four-leaf clovers and wearing green to capture the "luck of the Irish."
Getting back to numerology, today's New York Times takes a look at the incredible number of weddings coming up July 7th (07/07/2007) just because seven is considered a "lucky" number in our culture! Couples are paying ridiculous amounts of money *just* to have this date! Understandably not much was planned last year on June 6th (06/06/2006) as that would be 666- traditionally considered the Number of the Beast, ie Satan!)
So perhaps my friend and I were mistaken to think the Chinese "have a corner" on meaningful symbolism. Maybe over years of immigration and scientific emphasis, we have lost the meaning behind our symbols. Our culture may be richer in terms of all the symbolism than we have even imagined!