Bad Luck and Broomsticks
Have you ever noticed how most buildings skip the 13th floor?
Though we might think of ourselves as living in a scientific society, it’s amazing how superstitions still shape our lives: in Scotland there are no gates thirteen in airports; many airplanes have no row thirteen. Some streets skip over the address entirely. And there are lots of historic examples of bad luck being associated with thirteen: there were thirteen people at the last supper; Loki was the thirteenth fellow invited to a disastrous dinner at Valhalla; on Friday the thirteenth the Knights of the Templar were arrested and killed.
But it wasn’t until organized religion swept over Europe that the number thirteen was denigrated and associated with bad luck. The Druids and Celts had twelve signs of their mundane zodiac, with a secret thirteenth called “the weaver,” or the cosmic spider in the center of life. There were also thirteen covens of Logres in Britain, and the number was prominent on the female side of occult work…there are most often thirteen women in a traditional witches’ coven.
Paganism is associated with thirteen with because it’s the number of lunar months in a year. In fact, there used to be a calendar called “Thirteen and a Day”: thirteen months of twenty-eight days, and an extra day at the end – until our current calendar was developed to avoid the dread number thirteen.
(One of the scariest things about these fears are their official names: Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number thirteen; Friggatriskaidekaphobia is the specific fear of Friday the thirteenth. But in the US, an estimated seventeen million people are true friggatriskaidekaphobics –try saying that five times fast!)
Black cats, broken mirrors, walking under ladders….all such fears, true or not, are based in ancient beliefs.
Cats are associated with witches; the color black with evil. The triangle formed by ladders was considered to form a possible portal to other dimensions; it also looked a lot like a gallows. And mirrors are said to contain a bit of our souls looking back at us; therefore to break one is to splinter the soul.
I got carried away with such research while writing Hexes and Hemlines, the third book in my Witchcraft Mystery series. My protagonist, Lily Ivory, is a natural-born witch who runs a vintage clothing store in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Though Lily is at home with her abilities to cast spells and brew potions, she finds herself out of her league when it comes to common superstitions: which are specious, and which are real? Lily knows that many so-called “mythological” creatures are real: fairies and goblins and unicorns. But when faced with a murder victim surrounded by bad luck symbols, Lily has to try to figure out which beliefs might hold clues to the crime.
When writing an alternate reality, an author gets the great fun of creating her own world. But there has to be consistency in that world, certain rules and limitations. I like to base these in our mythology and history. So while Lily knows that there’s nothing to fear about the number thirteen or a black cat, a sparrow in the house is a definite harbinger of death…and the broken mirror is definitely a bad sign.
Luckily, Lily has a thorough knowledge of spellcasting on her side, so she’s bound to come out okay.
Nationally bestselling author Juliet Blackwell writes the Witchcraft Mystery series (Secondhand Spirits, A Cast-off Coven, and the new Hexes and Hemlines). If Walls Could Talk launched the Haunted Home Renovation series in 2010; Dead Bolt, the second in the series, comes out in December. As one-half of the sister duo dubbed Hailey Lind, Blackwell wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery Series–including Agatha-nominated Feint of Art and the most recent, Arsenic and Old Paint. A former anthropologist and social worker, Juliet has worked in Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Italy, the Philippines, and France, and now paints and writes in Oakland, California. She served two terms as president of NorCal Sisters in Crime.
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