[This is a bonus essay to my series on numerology in the Harry Potter books. I had originally intended to stop at seven essays, but some people have asked me to write about a couple additional numbers. The previous essay – “Harry Potter Numerology: Twelve (Abundance)" – was published on November 4, 2012.]
Since I began writing this series, several people have asked me if I thought J.K. Rowling intended for her numbers to have specific meanings? Or if it’s coincidence (e.g. coincidence that every time an Eleven pops up something transforms)? Or if I’m just seeing things where I want to see things? Well, there is no stronger case for Rowling’s intentional use of number symbolism (that I have found) than The Number Thirteen.
Thirteen was a significant number in many ancient cultures, possibly due to the number of lunar months which occur in a solar year: 12.41, that is, 12 full months plus a partial 13th. Because this 13th month was shorter, different, it was often set apart as special. Anthropologist Tok Thompson and scholar Ernst Böklen have separately noted that this 12+1 motif appears in numerous traditions (Thompson 148; and Schimmel, 204-5):
- 12 jury members plus a presiding judge
- 12 Norse gods plus Loki, the trickster
- the Biblical Jacob and his 12 sons,
- Jesus and his 12 apostles (or, Jesus and his 11 faithful apostles plus the traitor Judas Iscariot)
- Odysseus and his 12 men,
- The Irish hero Conchobar and the 12 heroes,
- King Arthur and his 12 knights,
- The 12 good fairies plus 1 evil fairy in the traditional tale of Sleeping Beauty
- Antonio Banderas as the Arab 13th Warrior who joins 12 Vikings to fight a monster
- Thorin Oakenshield and his company of 12 dwarves in The Hobbit
Some of these “plus ones” are particularly lucky (Odysseus survived while his men perished), while some are unlucky (e.g. Loki and Judas bring about calamity). The 13th person was, originally, not specifically “lucky” or “unlucky,” just different, set apart.
Some cultures regarded The Number Thirteen as an auspicious number: the Maya counted 13 heavenly spheres; the Cabala speaks of 13 heavenly fountains, 13 gates of mercy, and 13 rivers in Paradise; a Jewish boy celebrates manhood at the age of 13; the medieval Christians interpreted 13 as a combination of the 10 Commandments and the Trinity, and thus a combination of the Old and New Testaments (Schimmel, 207). For the ancient Egyptians, the 13th step on the ladder of Life led to immortality.
It wasn’t until later that The Number Thirteen began to take on a specifically negative connotation. According to Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, author of 13: The Story of the World’s Most Notorious Superstition, the “first record of it being a superstition was in the late 17th century, and the first incarnation of unlucky 13 was “13 at a table.” If you sit 13 people at a table, one will die within a year” (Hansen 2005). Another saying is “The first to rise will be the first to die.” This superstition is traced back to two separate traditions. In Norse mythology, Loki showed up uninvited to a dinner with twelve other gods. This was the first in a chain of events that led to Ragnarkok (the End). At the Christian Last Supper, Judas Iscariot was the thirteenth at the table, and he became the one who betrayed Jesus to the authorities. We’ll get back to the curse of “13 at a table,” but first let’s look at some appearances of The Number Thirteen in the Harry Potter books –
- Voldemort’s wand was 13-½” long (SS5)
- Harry is twice accused of violating Section 13 of the International Confederation of Warlocks’ Statute of Secrecy on the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery: when Dobby levitates a cake in the Dursely’s kitchen (CS2), and when Harry conjures a Patronus Charm to protect himself and Dudley from Dementors (OP1)
- June 13th was the day Tom Riddle got 13-year-old Hagrid expelled from Hogwarts…and the scene is recounted in Chapter 13 of Chamber of Secrets… (CS13, CS14)
- Harry is 13-years-old during Prisoner of Azkaban.
- Sirius Black was accused of murdering 13 people with a single curse (PA3)
- Sirius Black gave Harry a Firebolt broom for his 13th birthday (PA22)
- Voldemort returned after 13 years (GF1)
- Rita Skeeter’s interview on her new book, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, appeared in the Daily Prophet on page 13 (DH2)
Except for Harry’s 13th birthday present, the appearance of The Number Thirteen signals misfortune, frequently the misfortune of false accusations. Harry, Hagrid, Sirius and Dumbledore are all falsely accused of something in the presence of 13s.
Now let’s look at three situations when 13 people get together. Is there a “13 at a table” curse? –
1. Christmas Dinner. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry, Ron and Hermione join Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall, Snape, Sprout, and Flitwick, as well as Filch and three other students for Christmas dinner in the Great Hall. When Dumbledore invites Professor Trelawney to join them, she softly screams, “I dare not, Headmaster! If I join the table, we shall be thirteen! Nothing could be more unlucky! Never forget that when thirteen dine together, the first to rise will be the first to die!” (PA11). The text tells us that later, “Harry and Ron got up first from the table and she shrieked loudly. ‘My dears! Which of you left his seat first? Which?’”
Well, if you haven’t finished reading the series yet – SPOILERS – neither Harry nor Ron dies. So it seems the curse is proven false. BUT, as a keen-eyed reader on the Harry Potter Wiki noticed that Ron had his pet rat, Scabbers, in his pocket, so “if Peter Pettigrew in his Scabbers disguise is counted as a person, there were thirteen people before Trelawney arrived. Since Dumbledore rose from his seat to greet Professor Trelawney, and Derek and the two unnamed students can be assumed not to have died before Dumbledore’s death, Trelawney’s prediction was correct” (“Thirteen”). “‘Sibyll, this is a pleasant surprise!’ said Dumbledore, standing up” (PA11).
2. Dinner with the Order. There are 13 people at Harry’s first meal at Number 12 Grimmauld Place in Order of the Phoenix: Harry, Ron and Hermione, Mr. and Mrs. Weasely, Bill, Fred, George and Ginny, Sirius, Lupin, Tonks and Mundungus Fletcher. Although Ginny is the first to leave the room, the text tells us that slightly earlier, “Sirius started to rise from his chair” (OP5)
3. A Toast to Mad-Eye Moody. After Alastor Moody’s death in Deathly Hallows, 13 people gathered in the living room of the Weasleys to toast his memory (Harry, Ron and Hermione, Mr. and Mrs. Weasely, Fred, George and Ginny, Bill and Fleur, Lupin and Tonks, and finally Hagrid). Bill poured some fire-whiskey, and “sent twelve full glasses soaring through the room to each of them, holding the thirteenth aloft. ‘Mad-Eye’” (DH5). A little later, “Lupin and Bill said good bye and left” . We can see that order means everything. If Rowling had written instead, “Bill and Lupin” the battle of Hogwarts might have ended differently, at least for a couple characters.
So that’s Curse: 3; First Person to Move: 0. Pretty convincing evidence that Rowling intentionally uses numbers as signals, at least she uses The Number Thirteen fairly consistently. Another case where we can tell the critics who dismissed Harry Potter as juvenile, or light reading, that they simply weren’t paying attention to the levels of depth and complexity woven into the stories. But we can forgive them. In fact, to show there are no hard feelings, let’s invite them to dinner with 12 close friends and see how eager they are to be the first to rise…
Hansen, Liane. “The Unlucky ‘13’.” Interview with Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. Weekend Edition Sunday. National Public Radio. 13 November 2005. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5010960
“Thirteen.” Harry Potter Wiki. 05 July 2011, last updated 19 July 2012. harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Thirteen
Schimmel, Annemarie. The Mystery of Numbers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Thompson, Tok. “The Thirteenth Number: then, there/ here and now.” Studia Mythologica Slavica 5 (2002): 145-160. sms.zrc-sazu.si/En/SMS5/Thompson5.html