Stevie Wonder used to sing: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, than you suffer” suggesting that superstition ain’t the way. What would Stevie have written if he had lived in Italy? He might not have believed that black cats bring bad luck or that breaking a mirror brings seven years of misfortune, but surely and unconsciously, he would have dreaded number 17.
Being Italians, we should quote Eduardo De Filippo instead, whose opinion was that “essere superstiziosi è da ignoranti, ma non esserlo porta male” (literaly: “Being superstitious is a sign of ignorance, but not being superstitious brings bad luck”).
For Italians and all the latin-greek countries, number 17 is the equivalent of number 13 for the anglo-saxons. This custom dates back to the Romans. On that matter it is said that 17, in the Roman numerals XVII, is the anagram of VIXI, which means “I have lived”, and therefore takes the meaning of “I am dead”. Historians might relate this custom to the famous Teotoburg Forest battle in 9 a.C., in which the seventeenth Roman legion was destroyed by the Germans. For Christians, instead, are 17 days passed between the proclamation by God to Noah and the advent of the Doomsday.
Moving on to modern ages, it must be quoted the neapolitan “Smorfia”, a tipical Christmas game in which number 17 symbolizes “la disgrazia”.
Superstitious people do not like number 17 individually, and that is a fact, let alone if it is combined with “friday” – specifically, that Holy cursed Friday when Jusus Christ was crucified.
Superstitions about number 13 are not to be outdone. A specific reference to this number has been found in the scandivian mithology: Loki, the God of deception and chaos, was the thirteenth god of the nordic panteon and temperamentally inclined to betrayal and wickdness. Some people say that Friday 13 is an inauspicious day too. It was on friday 13th, back in 1307, that the King of France, Philip the Fair (Filippo il Bello for us Italians), succeeded in arresting 546 Templars and their last grand master Jacques de Molay. The conspiracy conducted by the King and Pope Clemens V started persecutions against the Order all over Europe. There are many negative references to this number in the Bible: just think of the Ultima Cena (or Last Supper) where Judas the traitor was the thirteenth person to sit at the table with Jesus and apostles.
According to italian people number 13 has both positive and negative aspects. Remembering what happened to Jesus, for example, in Italy we don’t really like to go out for a dinner being a group of 13 people. Nevertheless, 13 is in general considered a lucky number since 13 corresponds to the pools to win a lottery!
It is to fare 13 al Totocalcio that we owe numerous figures of speech in other contexts for expressing delight or that we have been lucky with someone or something. And here we should open another front of discussion, about the weight of football in Italian popular culture and speech…
Anyway, not just 13 and 17 are so devalued. There is also a phenomenon called Tetrafobia – a phobia of number 4, widespread in East Asia. Countries like China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan build skyscrapers without numbering the floors 40-49; the reason is that in the chinese language the word for “four” (四,pinyin: sì) sounds like the word “death” (死, pinyin: sǐ).