We have met the enemy and he is triskaidekaphobia

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One of my favorite cartoon characters was Pogo, the title and central character of a long-running daily American comic strip created by cartoonist Walt Kelly. Set in the Okenfenokee Swamp of the southeastern United States, the strip often engaged in social and political satire through the adventures of its anthropromorphic funny characters.

Pogo mouthed some of my favorite comic strip lines. In one strip, Pogo and Porkypine are walking through the swamp, and Porkypine says, “Ah, Pogo. The beauty of the forest primeval gets me in the heart.” To which Pogo responds, “It gets me in the feet, Porkypine.” In the next panel we see that the swamp is full of litter and junk, and Porkypine says, “It is hard walkin’ on this stuff.” And here’s the line I love: Pogo says, “Yep, son. We have met the enemy and he is us.”

In another strip, Pogo announces, “Friday the 13th came on Tuesday this month.”

Our son Chris was born on Friday the 13th, and he had his 13th birthday on Friday the 13th. Bad luck? I don’t think so. But there are many people who have a superstitious fear of Friday the 13th, and in fact, of just the number 13. There’s even a name for it: triskaidekaphobia derived from treiskaideka, the Greek word for 13 + phobia, fear of = a fear of 13.

So why would people fear the number 13? Or of Friday the 13th? Which by the way has its own name: paraskevidekatriaphobia, Some people believe that there are roots in religious beliefs. Some scholars think that there were 13 people at the Last Supper and the last to be seated was Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Some scholars also believe that the crucifixion took place on the 13th.

Traditionally there were 13 steps on the gallows. Not a lucky number for those being executed. A witches coven has 13 members.

Mathematicians and scientists often considered 12 to be a “perfect” number in the ancient world. The ancient Sumerians developed a numeral system based on the use of 12 that is still used for measuring time today; most calendars have 12 months; a single day is comprised of two 12-hour half days, there are 12 inches in a foot, etc. So coming so closely after a “perfect” number, some argue, poor 13 was sure to be found lacking and unusual.

According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, more than 80 percent of high-rise buildings in the United States do not have a 13th floor, and the vast majority of hotels, hospitals and airports avoid using the number for rooms and gates as well.

Dr. Caroline Watt of the University of Edinburgh says the belief in the Friday 13th superstition could, in fact, prove the greatest risk to the average person: “If people believe in the superstition of Friday the 13th, then they believe they are in greater danger on that day.

“As a result they may be more anxious and distracted and this could lead to accidents. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It is like telling someone they are cursed. If they believe they are, then they will worry, their blood pressure will go up, and they put themselves at risk.”

To counter all of this undue hatred of the poor number 13, here’s one reason to love it: a baker’s dozen. Mmm, extra doughnut.

Roger VanHaren can be reached at rjmavh@gmail.com.