Chances are good that you have one in your pocket. It might be small and it might be made of common elements, but there's something ubiquitous about the good old Penni. The very first large one cent coin produced by the American government was struck in 1793. And because only about 1000 of them were ever made, anyone who finds one should feel incredibly fortunate.
But luck has followed these little coins for a lot longer, and the folklore we have today is absolutely rich.
Some people believe that carrying a penny in their pockets will attract new wealth. Others believe it needs to be three pennies. Some old wives tales suggest keeping that penny in your shoe instead and recommend placing one in the crib of a newborn to help them grow up to be wealthy and wise. And then, of course, there are wishing wells where pennies become avatars of our deepest desires. Some people just toss them in as if they're dropping the pebble, while others believe you need to do it with your back to the well and toss the coin over your shoulder.
And honestly, the list could go on and on. We humans have collected a lot of fears over the many thousands of years we've been around fear of death or hunger or loneliness or illness, fear of poverty and pain and not fitting in.
So it's no wonder that along the way we've settled on some very unique ways of managing those fears. But while the folklore surrounding lucky coins is all about attracting good things, the vast majority of superstitions out there are different. They are beliefs designed to repel danger and suffering, either by watching for ominous signs or by actively tripping up the evil forces that might deliver the worst that life has to offer. Many of these superstitions have been with us for a very long time, and while they can be a bit divisive, splitting communities into those who believe and those who don't, it's undeniable that they hold a certain kind of power over us, a power that has driven some people to the very edge of madness.
And if history is any indication. There's a good reason why. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. Knock on wood, I think it's fair to say that just about everyone has heard that saying before, if you're worried about something bad happening, they say you just need to knock on something made of wood to ward it off. But few people realize just how old that superstition really is, one way to view this is to look at wood in various ancient cultures.
For example, the Egyptians revered Sycamore while old Germanic tribes held ash in a place of honor. And a lot of these cultures added to the uniqueness of these trees by suggesting that other worldly spirits actually lived inside them. When the ancient Greeks noticed how frequently lightning was attracted to OK, they assumed that it was because Jesus had blessed those trees soon enough, whenever they boasted about something they hoped would come true, the Greeks would knock on an oak tree to catch Xerces attention.
It was a tradition that would be passed on to the Romans and then onto the Briton's, which is why it's still present in most Western cultures today. Another common superstition is the warning to never walk beneath a ladder, especially if someone is using it at the time. There are a lot of theories about where it originated, including the ancient Egyptian obsession with pyramids. But that's a tricky culture to dive into. Yes, leaning a ladder up against a wall does create a pyramid shaped opening, but the ladder is also one of the sacred symbols of Newt, the Egyptian sky goddess.
Other historians believe that superstition regarding ladders comes from the early Christian church because in order to nail Jesus to the cross, it was assumed that a ladder was used, making them symbols of death. But the most common theory points to the use of ladders in the execution of criminals by way of hanging in many communities across Europe. There was no official gallows. Condemned criminals would simply climb to the top of a ladder where the noose would be fitted over their heads before stepping off into death.
As a result, walking beneath that ladder is viewed by many as a journey into the same death and tragedy to literally mingle with misery and sorrow. A risky thing to do for sure. Right up there with walking under ladders is the folklore surrounding broken mirrors. Now many people will tell you that this particular superstition has everything to do with the expensive nature of mirrors. In fact, up until just a couple of centuries ago, mirrors were expensive and rare, making the destruction of one a bad thing from a financial perspective.
But the idea might go back even further, you've probably heard that the cells in your body get replaced every few years, but that's only partially true. It turns out different cells in the human body die off at different rates or skin cells. It's about two to four weeks while liver cells regenerate every six to nine months. But it was the Romans who were the originators of this idea, and for them it was all about seven. Essentially, if your reflection was damaged in some way, perhaps by dropping the ball that a priest was using to scry your future, your current self would become damaged and that damage would need to cycle out.
Until that happened, they believe the person would face misfortune and bad health. Thus, seven years bad luck. One last superstition for thousands of years. One of the most valuable substances on Earth wasn't gold basalt. It was essential in preserving food through long winters. It was a key ingredient in the medicine of many ancient cultures, and it had a prominent place in religious ceremonies as well. No matter what slice of life you might explore, salt would be right there in the middle of it all.
Not only that, but Romans paid their soldiers, at least in parts with salt. And the word for that salt money salary is still with us today as our sayings like someone being worth their salt. Salt was a highly prized object. And there were thousands of places all across Europe in the Mediterranean where it was produced fun. Interesting side note, the Anglo-Saxon referred to saltworks as a which WIC. So any time you bump into an Englishtown with that suffix, there's a high probability that it was once home to a saltworks.
My goal here is to help you understand how valuable salt was in the ancient world, so it's understandable that superstitions would pop up around that idea.
Spilling salt would have been an expensive error and came with some very real world consequences. Maybe you would no longer have enough salt to preserve your food to survive the winter, or perhaps it would mean less medicine would be available. Salt was precious and losing it could be tragic. And then, of course, religion comes into play. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the devil was always waiting just behind a person's left shoulder for a chance to tempt them or lead them astray.
So if a person accidentally spilled salt, it was recommended that they immediately toss a pinch of it over their left shoulder to stop the devil from making his move. Oh, and that famous Leonardo Da Vinci painting The Last Supper. It's an elaborate story told in a single image. And one of the clues that hints at the betrayal Judas was plotting against Jesus is right there on the table in front of him. His salt has been spilled. That painting, though, also employed another type of superstition that has been common for centuries, while the meaning behind it is complex and multilayered.
It was the sort of superstition that just about anyone could remember. As long as a person was able to count, they would be able to watch for the signs danger, some believed. Could be found in numbers. Most people have a favorite number. Maybe it represents a cherished birthday from their childhood or a number they always use when playing the lottery numbers are everywhere in school and at home and all throughout our workplaces. So I can see why some people might pick a favorite.
But some numbers have the opposite effect. There are a lot of people out there who have certain numbers that fill them with dread. They see them as omens of ill fortune or symbols of chaos and avoid them at all costs. And a good example is the number four. Fear of the number four is most prominent in East Asia. It's thought to be bad luck to give presents to a friend or loved one in groups of four. It's even left out of phone numbers and addresses.
Well, it turns out that in many East Asian countries, the words for four and death sound exactly alike. And that's an association many people would like to avoid.
There are others to the number nine is considered unlucky in Japan for similar reasons, but hands down across centuries and cultures, the most feared number of them all is 13, and it starts a lot farther back in time than you might have guessed. Long before Christianity arrived in northern Europe, the Norse mythology was the driving force behind many beliefs and practices in that universe of story. There is a tale of a banquet held for the various Norse gods, 12 of them, in fact, all by invitation.
But Loki, ever the rule breaker showed up anyway, despite not being invited, making him the 13th guest. His arrival triggered a series of events that led to the death of Baldor, son of Odin and Frigg, which in turn sparked Ragnarok and the end of the world. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, though, it added new layers to the belief system of millions of people. One of those iconic stories was the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples.
I mentioned The Da Vinci painting earlier for its inclusion of spilt salt. But another message hidden in plain sight is the number of guests at the table 13. And not only that, but just like the Norse tale, one guest would break the rules and another would die.
Interestingly, prior to Henry the eighth break from the Catholic Church, English Christians believe that gatherings of 13 were a great way to emulate the Last Supper.
But once the Anglican Church took over, those gatherings were outlawed because they were deemed too superstitious, which ironically is an observation only a superstitious person could make.
Which leads us to the 13 clubs. These social gatherings were the brainchild of a man named William Fowler, who founded the group in New York in 1880.
Their goal was to debunk those old fears of the number 13 with 13 guests, 13 Tostes 13 courses and so on and so on. And they were pleased to report that no one died as a result. And as if that weren't enough, the members also broke mirrors, spilled salt, walked under ladders and generally taunted every single superstition they can think of, all in an effort to prove that none of it was true and it turned out to be immensely popular to within seven years, they'd grown to be over 400 members.
And while their membership included a number of future American presidents, interest fizzled out by the 1920s. But the fear of the number 13 didn't fade away. In fact, as America moved into the modern era through the midnight hundreds, it did so with a cautious eye on that number. For a long while, it was uncommon to find planes with the 13th row of seats or a building with a 13th floor. But if there's one representative of our ancient fear of 13, that's still as strong as ever.
It's that infamous date Friday the 13th. The origins of Friday the 13th are a lot more complex than Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code would like us to believe tradition holds that because the Knights Templar were rounded up and arrested on Friday, October 13th of 13, 07, the Western world has never forgotten and still considers any Friday the 13th as a bad omen.
But there's no evidence to suggest that it was that specific event that kicked it all off. In fact, it's probably a lot older.
Remember Odin's wife, Riggo, who I mentioned earlier? It's actually her name that gives us the English word for Friday. And when Christianity overtook the ancient Norse belief system, it was said that Phrygia was branded a witch and then banished to the top of a tall mountain, literally one religion pushing another out of the way. But according to the folklore, Frager wasn't quite finished. Once a week, she and 11 other witches would meet along with the devil himself to plan out ways to bring chaos and disaster to the rest of the world.
Those gatherings of 13 individuals would become known as witches Sabbath, Friday 13, The Devil and his witches. I hope you can see how those pieces of folklore all sort of snowballed and turned into something larger than life. It's a classic example of what happens when we take a common fear and give it a lot of time to evolve and expand. But all that complexity also hides the true origins. Today, all we can do is make an educated guess.
But whatever the true roots are for the fear of the number 13, it's clear that for centuries people believed it to be a dark omen that needed to be avoided. Ignoring the signs could invite all manner of misfortune, suffering and tragedy into a person's life.
But few took that warning as seriously as one man in particular, and judging by the events of his life, the accuracy of the folklore is terrifying. Arnold was born to play music, maybe he inherited that from his mother, who worked as a piano teacher, or perhaps it was his father's work making shoes that instilled him with a desire to create things of his own. Either way, Arnold was practically born to rise above. That birth happened in 1874 in the Austrian city of Vienna.
It was the city of Mozart and Beethoven and century upon century of the European love for the arts. So it should really be no surprise that Arnold started down the path towards music all through the late 90s. He supported himself by writing the music for local operas. Like a lot of people trying to break into a crowded scene, he supplemented his income with other related jobs, like teaching music to younger students. And then in 1981, he got married and started a family.
That was an unusual time in his life, although he'd been born Jewish, he sensed a rising anti-Semitism all around him, and so he converted to Christianity. He and his wife had two children together, but they spent a few months apart in 1948 when she left him to live with her lover, the painter Richard Gurstelle, who lived in the same building as them. When his wife returned, Castille took his own life. Honestly, it can't have been an easy place to live.
Like a lot of Europeans in 1916, though, he served in World War One and managed to survive. And then life got busy all over again. In 1922, he published a book of music theory and then a year later, his wife passed away. A year after that, he married again and then settled in as an instructor at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. But during his time there between 1926 and 1933, he watched as the political landscape slowly shifted in a terrifying direction.
Adolf Hitler, a failed Austrian painter and the man behind an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government, had somehow managed to tap into a seething undercurrent of racism and hatred and then used it to rise to power. By 1933, Hitler was chancellor. As a man born into a Jewish family, but hiding under the label of Christianity, the world around Arnold had suddenly become too hostile. It took a year, but in 1934, he and his family finally moved out of the country, first landing in the U.K. before following employment opportunities to the United States.
By 1935, he was living in California, where he took a job teaching music at UCLA. But Arnold also had a secret, he suffered from a lifelong fear of the number 13, he believed that his birthdate the 13th of September hinted at dark consequences for his life and he set out avoiding that number for as long as he lived. If he traveled and stayed in a hotel, he would refuse any room on the 13th floor and the same if it was a meeting inside a tall building.
But don't think of this as a superficial thing, though. Arnold was all in with his fear of 13 once when looking for a house to rent. He flat out refused to even step inside the place because its address was Thirteen Pine Streets. And we can even see this lifelong fear show up in his creative work. Between 1933 and 1934, Arnold composed an opera that he called Moses and Aaron. But if you add up the number of letters in the proper spelling of that title, you get 13 characters.
So instead he spelled Aaron with one A rather than two. And as a double hÉireann myself, I can't help but wince a little. As a lover of folklore, though, I can understand why. As he grew older, that fear only deepened, he was utterly convinced that his death would somehow be connected to 13 and did his best to avoid it whenever possible, which is why the year 1939 was so tough for him, because that was the year he would have turned 65 and 65.
If you do, the math is a multiple of 13. In a panic, he consulted an astrologer, but he was told not to worry. Yes, they told him 1939 would be dangerous, but it wouldn't be fatal. So he pushed his fears aside, focused on work, and even completed another symphony that year. I can't imagine he ever fully let it go, but at the very least, he refused to let it paralyze him. And he lived, however terrifying the number 13 might have seemed to Arnold Schoenberg.
He somehow slipped through its imaginary noose. Despite all the anxiety and stress, there had been nothing to be afraid of. It was, after all. Just folklore. For a very long time, people have struggled with fear whether that was a fear of the mysterious world all around them or fears about specific, highly personal events or failures, fear has always been with us. And because of that, it's become one of the driving forces behind much of what we do.
Interestingly, the ancient Greek word for superstition is Disha de Monia, the fear of demons for our ancestors. These weren't clever little sayings or harmless traditions. They were real and powerful.
Today, we might laugh about not walking under a ladder, but centuries ago it was viewed by many as a matter of life and death.
Or some of these ancient writers, those superstitions were more complex than simple fear, one of the earliest uses of the Latin word superstitious, was used by Plautus, a second century B.C. Roman playwright. To him, it was a word used to describe someone with a prophetic gift, an ability to see what's coming next.
And some scholars also see a connection to the Latin superstates, which means a survivor. The pieces all come together into an intriguing picture, superstitious people from one point of view are those who survive the dangers of life by paying attention to the signs of things to come. Over time, many superstitions have evolved to become preventative measures to, rather than pointing to what is about to happen. They are believed to alter the future in our favor. And through that lens, it's easier to view someone like Arnold Schoenberg with a bit more sympathy and understanding.
Yes, his fear of the number 13 might seem a bit irrational to most of us today, but if he truly believed that he was predicting his own future, all those choices look a bit more logical in retrospect. After all, wouldn't you try to avoid death if you knew when it was coming? Thankfully, Arnold survived 1939, two years later, he officially became a U.S. citizen. He would go on to publish more and continue to teach music theory for the rest of his life.
But if he was at peace during that time, all of that came crashing down in 1950 when a friend pointed something out to him. You see, on September 13th of that year, Arnold had turned 76 and seven plus six was 13.
Upon hearing this, it said that Arnold was stunned. He had only been looking for multiples of 13 and dreaded his quickly approaching seventy eighth birthday, but had completely missed this one. Once the reality of it sank in, he fell into a depression. At some point in his 76 year, he believed he was going to pass away. By the summer of 1951, with only a couple of months left in his 70s, sixth year, Arnold's health was failing, his breathing had become more labored and his eyesight had begun to leave him.
And over all of it, fear hovered like a cloud, driving him deeper and deeper into depression. What if death was truly on its way? According to his wife, Gertrude, one night in mid-July, Arnold was confined to bed and a physician was there to look in on him. She glanced at the clock and noticed that it was close to midnight and wondered if the worst was yet to come or somewhere behind them. And then the doctor stepped into the room and told her it was almost time.
Gertrude and the physician were there at Arnold's side when he took his last breath just minutes later and amazingly, he died just as he believed he would at the age of 76. But not only that, but that death arrived at eleven forty seven p.m., 13 minutes before midnight. And the dates. It was a Friday in July. Friday. The 13th. Superstitions have been around for a very long time, and I hope this brief tour through some of the more common ones on the list has left you feeling a bit more in control.
But as we all know, music and math go hand in hand. So it shouldn't be surprising to learn that Arnold wasn't the only composer with a numerical superstition. Stick around after this brief sponsor break and I'll introduce you to one more fearful musician. This episode of law was made possible by Stamps.com look, I think we're all still adjusting to whatever the new normal life might be right now, but as we do, we still need to be smart about how we do business.
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Most people today are aware that 13 is in number with a lot of baggage, they might not be sure why, but they know it's a feared number and fewer still probably know the scientific term for that fear, triskaidekaphobia. But there's another fear that almost no one has heard of called a phobia. It, too, is a numerical fear. But this one is focused on the number nine. And while it has taken many shapes over the years, none are.
As amazing is what is known as the Curse of the Ninth. The basic idea is that for a composer, their ninth completed symphony is most likely to be their last. Granted, most composers have escaped this fate unharmed, but there's a not so insignificant list of those who didn't. Frantz Schubert's Jean Sibelius and Alexander Glue's Enough are all in the club. Oh, and some guy named Beethoven. But one man was determined to get around it. Maybe he didn't believe it and was eager to prove the superstition false.
Or perhaps he was so afraid of what might happen that he worked to avoid it. Either way, it was an idea that hung over him for most of his career. Gustav was born in Eastern Europe back in 1860, and right away people noticed his talent. It might have been a product of his tense and difficult household. After all, his parents hated each other, having had their marriage arranged years earlier. His mother, it seems, was the kindest woman in town while his father was known to be loud and abusive.
At the age of four, he was playing piano by the age of 10, he was performing arts in front of public audiences and by 15, he was composing music of his own. In fact, his first piece was an opera inspired by the death of one of his siblings. And he kept moving faster from there, graduating from the Vienna Conservatory at just 18. But after that, things slowed down rather than explode onto the scene like a classical rock star, he fizzled out.
Soon enough, he was spending most of his time conducting other composer's work in front of various orchestras and only managed to squeeze in a little composition of his own from time to time. If Gustav was one thing, though, it was persistent, he lost his parents and one of his sisters early on and had to take care of his four younger siblings. He suffered from constant health problems, career setbacks and struggles within his own marriage, including catching his wife, having an affair.
But through it all, he composed. Soon enough, he had a number of symphonies under his belt. Eight, in fact, but that meant that his next would be his ninth and if the superstitions were true, his last. So he decided to game the system, so to speak, and left the word ninth out of his next symphony. Instead, he simply called it the Song of the Earth. When he was finished with it in 1989, he must have held his breath waiting for the axe to fall.
But it didn't. Death didn't come knocking on his door and no tragedy swept him away. Somehow he had dodged the curse of the 9th and lived to talk about it. So he did what any composer would do with the gift of time. He started writing new music. A year later, he completed another symphony. Now, technically, it was his tenth, but he had it numbered his previous one and maybe he was feeling cocky or perhaps he had finally put the curse of the ninth out of his mind as nothing but bad fiction.
Either way, he did something courageous and named the new piece his Ninth Symphony. That was 1910, and with his superstitious fears seemingly erased, he pushed forward on a new composition. But at the same time, his health was rapidly failing, which meant the race was on, because if he died before finishing his 10th Symphony, all of that sneaky name changing work had been for nothing. The curse of the ninth, it seems, was still on his heels.
In February of 1911, while fighting a fever of 104, he conducted a concert at New York City's Carnegie Hall. Almost immediately after, he traveled back to Europe, where he sought out medical help in Vienna. Once there, though, he caught pneumonia, fell into a coma and then passed away. Now, some of the more superstitious among us might be interested to know that the dates of his death was May 18th. And 18, of course, is a multiple of nine.
It's also nine in another way by adding the one and the eight together. But honestly, those are no games that can be played with just about any dates and any historical figure, famous or not know. In the end, the only trace of unexplainable circumstances ultimately comes down to the curse of the ninth. Despite everything Gustav Mahler tried to do to avoid it, it seems that Faits had other plans for him. At least that's what we're supposed to believe.
After all, what good is folklore if it doesn't occasionally seem to work? This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Megan Drash and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast. There's a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video. Check them both out if you want more law in your life. I also make two other podcasts, Aaron Maliki's Cabinet of curiosities and unobscured, and I think you'd enjoy both.
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