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Quadruple The Taboo: Watch Out For "March Madness"

By Mara McGinnis

Release Date: March 4, 1998

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If you're spooked by superstitions, you'll probably want to stay home next weekend.

Not only does March have the second Friday the 13th of 1998, but next Friday will feature a full moon and a lunar eclipse. If that's not enough to send chills down your spine, consider that two days later will be the Ides of March!

"Most of the beliefs and practices we refer to as superstitions represent magical or spiritual beliefs that were, or in many cases are, very real for the people who hold them," says Phillips Stevens Jr., Ph.D., University at Buffalo associate professor of anthropology.

The ill-luck associated with the number 13, he explains, originated in contemporary minds from the fate of Jesus as the 13th guest among his 12 apostles in the Biblical account of the Last Supper. The next day, the crucifixion of Jesus, was a Friday.

Friday also is traditionally considered judgment day for the dead. It was, for many years, designated the day for capital punishment and informally referred to as "hangman's day."

Stevens, who studies religion, cults and cultural change, notes that "superstitions arise when people assume connections among things that happen in the past, present and future. They believe that if something resembles or has been in contact with another thing, that the two have a causal relationship.

"The taboo against 13 remains the most pervasive and powerful taboo in Western civilization," adds Stevens. "It is universal practice that in high society no one seats 13 at a table and buildings almost never have a 13th floor." When the 13th day of the month is a Friday, he adds, it makes for an extremely unlucky day for "many, many people."

Cultural historians attribute the origins of the ill-fated Friday the 13th to ancient Christian-pagan hostilities and conflicting calendars used through most of the early Christian era in Europe. They believe the church's patriarchal reverence and contempt for pagan symbolism may have been precursors for the unlucky association with Friday, the number 13 and the full moon for several reasons. Among them:

• Friday is the day of the Goddess Freya and because Christian monks considered everything associated with female divinity unlucky, Friday the 13th was especially unlucky since it combined Freya's sacred day with her sacred number. Her number, 13, was drawn from the 13 months of the pagan, lunar goddess-given menstrual calendar. When pagan votaries of Freya continued to celebrate her rites on Friday, the Church designated her day as the day of "devil worship."

• The Moon-goddess Luna, another female deity, is responsible for the association of odd occurrences with the full moon. Early Christians believed worshippers of Luna were crazy, hence the term 'lunatic,' a person moon-touched or moon-struck. Thus, today people believe lunacy is affected by the moon, proven by psychic disturbances when the moon is full.

Despite the unlucky associations of Friday the 13th and mysterious effects of the full moon, the lunar eclipse to take place next Friday signifies what astrologists refer to as a culmination phase, which could mean a time of new opportunity and resolution.

The "Ides of March" refer to March 15, which also was the day Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C. One of Shakespeare's best-known lines is that of the Soothsayer, who tells Caesar to "beware the Ides of March."

Donald McGuire, UB adjunct assistant professor of classics, notes that "when people hear 'beware the Ides of March,' it typically strikes a familiar and unsettling chord."

According to McGuire, the ancient solar Julian calendar was based around three fixed points in a month -- the Kalends, the Nones and the Ides. "The Ides, which divides the month in half and is supposed to coincide with the full moon, falls on the 15th day in March, May, July and October and on the 13th day of all other months," he explains.

McGuire notes that before Caesar's assassination, March 15 held significance as a day of fertility rituals in accordance with the festival of Anna Perenna, another Roman goddess, since it fell on the Ides and, according to their calendar, the first full moon of the year.

Caesar was assassinated and stabbed to death by senatorial conspirators led by his best friend, Marcus Brutus. The lesson learned is that people should beware of being "stabbed in the back" by friends and acquaintances, especially on the Ides of March.

According to Stevens, superstitious thinking is universal, as is magical thinking, and evolves from fundamental principles of human thinking to serve several purposes.

"Some superstitions can be useful to us as practical warnings or prohibitions of an earlier time," says Stevens. He explains that superstitions also can be seen as agents of "social control," enforcing socio-cultural norms and standards of behavior and morality.

"They also can give individuals a sense of personal control, hence comfort, in the impersonal confusion of life," adds Stevens.