The Three-ish Wise Men

Most of what we think we know about the three wise men comes from art and folk tradition … and is wrong.

Part of the Christmas narrative is that the Holy Family was visited by three wise men shortly after the birth of Jesus. Similar to how we aren’t exactly sure when Jesus was born, we also aren’t exactly sure how many wise men there were. We say three because there were three gifts given but the Bible doesn’t specify. Maybe a few wise men went in on a gift together.

Some people say three because the names of the wise men are said to be Gaspar/Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar/Balthazar (kings of India, Persia, and Arabia or Ethiopia respectively), but this is just a folk tradition – there is no evidence to support any of this.

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How we think of the wise men has been influenced by centuries of art. Liberal artistic license places the shepherds, the wise men, farm animals, and the Holy Family all in the manger shortly after the birth of Jesus. That said the Bible doesn’t actually give a specific date for the arrival of the wise men and it’s more likely they arrived much later – having them all in the manger together is just more convenient for a painting. Matthew 2:11 states that the wise men visited the Holy Family in a house, not the manger.

While many Christians celebrate the arrival of the three wise men on January 6th (the Epiphany) this seems to be more a date to celebrate the event than when it actually occurred. It is speculated that the arrival of the wise men could have been as late as two years after Jesus’s birth. This is “supported” by Herod’s command to have all boys 2 years of age and younger slaughtered in an attempt to kill the newly born King of the Jews – the idea being that perhaps the wise men relayed news of Jesus to Herod some time after Jesus’s birth and Herod cast a wide net of ages. That said this Massacre of the Innocents is also something that probably never happened.

The three wise men have been the subject of art for centuries, which has influenced how we think of them.

Kings, Wise men, Zoroastrian priests

So aside from not knowing how many wise men there were, or when they arrived, do we at least know what sort of men they were? By the 3rd century CE people were referring to these travelers as kings. As good as the song We Three Kings is, there is no evidence that these travelers were kings. In fact it is highly unlikely (and a little silly) that the crowned heads of multiple kingdoms would have been traveling in such a fashion. Isaiah 60:1–6 and Psalm 72:11 are mostly to blame for this idea, as both passages allude to kings showing deference and worshipping the Messiah – but kings in general. Neither of these passages say anything about specifically these individuals in the Christmas narrative being kings.

The wise men are also known as the “magi”. The term “magi” comes from Latin, by way of Greek, from the Old Persian “maguŝ” who were priests. It’s unclear if the magi were originally priests of just Zoroastrianism or a mix of regional Persian religions. That said over time the magi of Persia became esteemed for their knowledge, but the magi of nearby Babylonia were thought of as frauds/imposters.

From this “magi” came to be a general term for practitioners in esoteric/mystical fields of study: astrology, alchemy, etc. Incidentally “maguŝ” is the same etymological root for the word “magic” for this reason. So rather than wandering kings, the wise men (of some unknown number) were more likely Zoroastrian priests / practitioners of mystical arts from the East, following the movements of the stars.

Added info: much is made of the gifts brought by the wise men. Using the three supposed names of the wise men: Gaspar brought frankincense, Melchior brought gold, and Balthasar myrrh. What does one do with these gifts?

Gold has the most obvious purpose. Then and now gold was valuable. It is also symbolic of Jesus’s kingship. 

Frankincense is a resin that comes from the Boswellia sacra tree. It was blended with other ingredients and used as an incense burned in religious ceremonies. In Judaism in particular it was used by priests as a literal smoke screen because to see God was to die, and the smoke of the incense could diffuse actually seeing God (should God appear). The symbolism of frankincense is that Jesus is the high priest.

Myrrh is a resin taken from the very thorny Commiphora myrrha tree. It was used as an embalming oil and, as a gift of the magi, alludes to Jesus’s mortality and eventual crucifixion.

Finally, the three kings who gave the gift of music were the three kings of the blues. Albert King, B.B. King, and Freddie King make up the three kings of the blues and were massively influential musicians who shaped blues music and thereby shaped rock & roll.

(Tangentially related) One of the three kings of the blues, B.B. King’s cover of Merry Christmas Baby.

Devil’s Advocate

Using the Socratic Method, the Devil’s Advocate was the person who argued against the canonization of someone, preventing them from becoming a saint.

In the Catholic Church the “Advocatus Diaboli”, aka the “Devil’s Advocate”, was the person whose job it was to test the veracity of candidates for canonization. Created in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V, the official name of the job was the “Promoter of the Faith”. Essentially their job was to argue against sainthood and force their opponent, the “Promoter of Justice”, to bring a stronger case and better demonstrate the merits of a candidate.

The intention was that the Promoter of the Faith was to take a critical / skeptical approach to help weed out unworthy candidates for sainthood. The “Devil’s Advocate” lasted until 1983 when Pope John Paul II drastically changed the responsibilities of the Promoter of the Faith in the canonization process. Interestingly after this change the Church saw an explosion of new saints. Pope John Paul II canonized 482 people which is more saints than the previous 500 years of popes combined. Curiously nobody seems sure exactly how many saints there are but it’s frequently said to be around 11,000 and counting.

Created by Pope Sixtus V the role of the Devil’s Advocate was to use the Socratic Method and argue against sainthood for canonization candidates.

the Socratic Method

Having someone play the role of Devil’s advocate, someone who takes a counter position to help both sides better arrive at the truth, existed before the Catholic Church. The philosopher Socrates is credited with inventing (or at least popularizing) this method of debate in the 5th century BCE.

In the Socratic Method someone (the interlocutor) puts forth a claim/idea to which someone else (essentially the Devil’s Advocate) challenges this assertion through a series of questions. By questioning the premises of someone’s position the Socratic Method helps to bring out the inadequacies, limits, & faults in their logic. Like tempering steel in fire, should the the initial premise survive the debate it will be stronger than it started because the problems of its logic will be corrected. Through success or failure both sides learn from the process. The rigorous analysis of the Socratic Method brings both sides closer to the truth and potentially gives us only the best Catholic saints.

A nice crash-course of the Socratic Method.

Homer plays “Devil’s Advocate”.

Sphinxes

The mythical sphinx spans thousands of years around the ancient world. Also, technically, the Great Sphinx of Giza isn’t a “sphinx”.

The sphinx is a human-animal hybrid chimera (except not a literal chimera). At its most basic it is part human part lion with other design options available depending on the culture.

Egypt, the protector sphinx

The first human-lion hybrids come from Egypt. While most Egyptian human-animal hybrids are animal heads on human bodies, the sphinx is the other way around. To borrow from Spinal Tap, “No one knows who they were or what they were doing”no one knows what these creatures were called in Egyptian culture nor is anyone exactly sure what they were meant to do. It’s thought they were created as protectors, defending royal tombs, but nobody is certain. They were frequently carved with the face of whichever pharaoh’s tomb they were beside and as such most Egyptian sphinxes are male.

Egyptian sphinxes are generally male and thought to be protectors of royal tombs but nobody is certain.

As for the largest, oldest, and most famous sphinx of them all, while it was built somewhere between 2600 BCE and 2500 BCE, no one is exactly sure who built the Great Sphinx of Giza or why. It’s thought to have been commissioned by (and is thought to have the face of) the pharaoh Khafre. It’s positioned facing East near the Great Pyramid of Khufu (the tomb of Khafre’s father). Khafre also built himself a pyramid caddy corner to his father’s, just 10 feet shorter. 

The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest, oldest, and most famous sphinx. He used to have a nose and a beard and was possibly painted, but all three features have been lost over time.

It’s hard to appreciate just how old the Great Sphinx is (and how long sphinxes have been a part of Egyptian culture). The pyramid complex had been built and subsequently abandoned so long ago that the Sphinx was buried in sand up to its shoulders by the time the first excavation attempt took place in 1400 BCE. That means the first excavation was around a 1000 years after the Sphinx was built and that was still around 3400 years ago. Trying to rescue the Great Sphinx from the desert sands has been going on for thousands of years.

The Greek sphinx is one particular sphinx. She is famous for her riddle and her role in the story of Oedipus.

Greece, the monster sphinx

Sphinxes spread counterclockwise around the Mediterranean from Egypt to the Middle East, to Mesopotamia, and into Greece around 1600 BCE – the visual design and meaning changing along the way. In Greek mythology there was a single sphinx (not numerous sphinxes like in Egypt) who was also a human-lion hybrid but was female and she had wings.

The Greek sphinx comes to us through the story of Oedipus. This sphinx is more of a monster than her Egyptian counterparts (she is inline with other Greek female monsters, like the gorgons). As Oedipus is traveling to Thebes he encounters the sphinx. The city of Thebes is at her mercy as she offers a challenge to all who want to enter the city: she will grant safe passage if you can successfully answer a riddle. If you fail she kills you. Oedipus correctly solves the riddle and the sphinx (dramatically) kills herself … and this isn’t even the craziest part of the Oedipus story (paging Dr. Freud).

The word “sphinx” was both the specific name of the sole Greek sphinx as well as a general term the Greeks used for these kinds of creatures (like what we do today). That said, the word “sphinx” is of Greek origin and so technically outside of Greece these creatures aren’t “sphinxes”. While the Greeks may have called the Egyptian creatures “sphinxes” the Egyptians did not. The word “sphinx” didn’t even exist until over 2000 years after the Great Sphinx of Giza, so again what the Egyptians called these things is something else unknown.

The Greek sphinx also influenced South and Southeast Asian cultures where sphinxes are seen as holy guardians at temples and other religious sites. In these places the sphinxes are meant to ward away evil and cleanse the sins of religions devotees.

Sphinxes have appeared in art around world over the centuries but especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Egyptomania

Sphinxes (both the male Egyptian kind and the winged female Greek kind) made appearances in European art from the 15th century onward but their greatest surge in popularity was during the 19th century Egyptology and Egyptomania craze. After Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt from 1798-1801 the French brought treasures to France which led to an interest in all things ancient Egypt. Bits of this can still be found in Egyptian Revival architecture which features pyramids, sphinxes, and other Egyptian motifs.

Also, on the topic of the French in Egypt, Napoleon’s troops did not shoot off the Great Sphinx of Giza’s nose. One story is that around 1378 CE a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr destroyed the nose in an attempt to stop a cult that was making religious offerings to the Great Sphinx. Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr was supposedly executed for defacing the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx also had a beard but it most likely fell off from erosion of sitting in the desert for thousands of years.

Added info: Egyptian culture had yet another resurgence in western popularity with the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Two years later in 1924 H.P. Lovecraft was the ghostwriter of Harry Houdini’s Under the Pyramids, an adventurous tale of Houdini’s kidnapping and imprisonment under the pyramids. The Great Sphinx plays a pivotal role in this supposedly true tale.

Also, the hairless Sphynx cat breed is not from Egypt, but rather is from Toronto, Canada.

the Number of the Beast

Depending on your translation (and your agenda), the number associated with the “beast” changes.

In the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, John the Evangelist (or possibly someone else) describes an apocalyptic vision of the end times culminating in the second coming of Jesus. There are trumpets, fire mixed with blood being hurled to earth, the four horsemen, the Whore of Babylon drinking from a golden cup, piles of corpses, a seven-headed dragon – the stuff of nightmares and/or a metal album. However, in a book of memorable ideas one stands out: the beast.

As is typical in the Book of Revelation it isn’t exactly clear who or what the beast is. There is the beast with ten horns that rises from the sea, but there is also the beast of two horns that speaks like a dragon (known as the “false prophet”) which comes out of the earth. At some point in the future the two beasts as well as the seven-headed dragon join forces to to fight the armies of heaven, a battle that they lose, and as punishment are thrown into the lake of fire for eternity. Before this happens though John tells us that we will know the beast when it arrives because it will be identified by a number.

666 … or 616, it depends

Most early copies of the Book of Revelation say the number of the beast is 666, but because of different translations and discrepancies the number 616 has been a viable alternative since as early as the 2nd century CE. Today most Bibles have the number of the beast as 666. That said in 2005 Papyrus 115 was discovered in Egypt which is the oldest known copied portion of the Book of Revelation. This torn fragment of papyrus has the number of the beast as 616.

The number of the beast is frequently associated with the antichrist but nowhere in Revelation is “antichrist” written. The term antichrist typically means “heretic” or “false prophet”, but is also sometimes used as a more general term for an especially evil person (which the beast would certainly would qualify as). It’s through this general idea that the number of the beast enters pop culture as the spooky number of evil.

666 in pop culture
As 666 became associated with the antichrist or the devil it spread across pop culture as the spooky number of evil (and led to loads of crazy conspiracy theories).

So it’s a number … or a person

The Book of Revelation is perhaps the most unusual book of the Bible, and not just because of the end of world visions. Unlike the rest of the Bible it offers no moral lesson and is the only book that values wealth and possessions. But most importantly the Book of Revelation is written in metaphors and symbolism – very little should be taken at face value. As such the number of the beast isn’t a number at all.

the Book of Revelation in art
The Book of Revelation has been a popular source material for artists over the centuries.
Albrecht Dürer's Apocalypse series
Albrecht Dürer’s 1498 series Apocalypse is one of the best collections of art focused on the Book of Revelation.

In ancient Greek and Hebrew every letter had a corresponding number. The letters used to write 666 as well as 616 could both (through some generous math) be used to write variations of the name Nero Caesar – the first Roman emperor to persecute the Christians and the most likely candidate at the time to be associated with evil. Like any book, the Book of Revelation was a product of its time. It would have been dangerous to write Nero’s name outright so writing it in code to an audience who would have understood how to read these numbers would have been safer for both the author and the reader.

Past, Present, Future

Typically the Book of Revelation is thought of as a vision of things to come, of future destruction, but it wasn’t always that way. For hundreds of years Revelation was interpreted as a book about the recent past with words of encouragement for the near future. John lived through the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE which decimated the Jews (as well as early Christians, who still saw themselves as Jews). In 1st century CE the return of Jesus to save the Jews from the enemy would have been a very relevant message. The Book of Revelation was read as confirmation to an early Christian reader that they were on the side of good, that punishment was coming to those who deserved it, and that there would be a new Jerusalem. Instead of doom & gloom the Book of Revelation was a message of hope.

If the evil John wrote about was Nero and the Roman Empire, and as the Romans eventually became Catholics, then John’s vision failed to play out as foretold. Christians had to reconcile this failure and so they looked to the future. The Book of Revelation was reinterpreted to represent things still to come. Therefore, various historical figures over the millennia have been said to be “the beast” including the pope, Muhammad, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, etc – forever moving the beast goal posts as society’s enemies change with the times.

Added info: The numbers on a roulette wheel add up to 666. Because of his association with the roulette wheel, gambling / entertainment impresario François Blanc was said to have made a deal with the devil. Also, the combination to the briefcase in Pulp Fiction is 666.

Courting controversy, Iron Maiden’s third album was 1982’s The Number of the Beast, from which the title track is one of the band’s most popular songs. The song The Number of the Beast opens with a spoken word reading from the Book of Revelation. The band wanted Vincent Price to do the reading but he wouldn’t do it for less than £25,000 so they hired English actor Barry Clayton instead.

A demonstration of how 666 corresponds to letters in Greek and Hebrew, and how to turn Nero Caesar into 666.

A more lighthearted use of 666 by Jeremy Messersmith.

Iron Maiden’s classic The Number of the Beast.

Nkisi Nkondi

Religious power sculptures that have nails driven into them to call upon protective spirits.

The Kongo people of central Africa believe that Nzambi Mpungu is the creator of all things. To help us bridge the gap between the spirit world and our physical world a nganga (plural being “banganga”) can serve as a mediator. A nganga is a person who’s a combination of shaman, healer, mediator, and a sort of spiritual notary public.

One of the more remarkable things about a nganga is that, in order to fulfill their role, they do so with the assistance of a nkisi. A nkisi is both a spirit as well as the name of an object that can house the spirit. The physical nkisi object can be any manner of vessels from vases to horns to gourds. Into these vessels the nganga places medicinal substances (bilongo) that, with the aid of the spirits, are intended to help cure both societal as well as physical ills. The nganga will summon the nkisi spirit to go forth from the vessel into our physical world and help someone in need. One particularly aggressive kind of nkisi is the nkisi nkondi, the hunter.

While nkisi nkondi vary in design their being riddled with nails is consistent.

The Hunter

Typically, but not always, nkisi nkondi are carved to look like humans. The medicinal bilongo is frequently placed in the stomach of the figure, like an anthropomorphic monstrance, with glass or a mirror covering the hole (the glass/mirror representing a window into the spirit world). To “charge” the sculpture with a spirit it is typically placed in a graveyard (or other location known to be haunted by spirits) before being brought into the village by the nganga. The most remarkable aspect of the nkisi nkondi however are the nails.

Nkisi Nkondi are riddled with nails. Nails are driven into the figure by the nganga to affirm oaths, to serve as witness to agreements, to stop witches and evil spirits, etc. Before hammering a nail into the figure the nail is licked by all parties involved. If a promise is broken or an injury is inflicted the spirit inside is activated and sets out to hunt down the guilty party and punish them. Nkisi nkondi statues frequently have dozens of nails driven into their torsos, indicating a lifetime of service to the community.

Originally these wooden figures were struck struck together to awaken the spirit inside. When nails became available the figures changed into the form we know today. As enslaved Kongo people were brought to North America nkisi culture and the practice of making nkisi nkondi came with them (albeit hidden from the slaveholders). A human shaped figure with nails in it certainly could have influenced the Western idea of voodoo dolls but it’s more likely that voodoo dolls are a result of thousands of years of poppets in sympathetic magic found in cultures around the world.

Smart History discusses nkisi nkondi.

When is Christmas?

Jesus’s birthday wasn’t December 25th – it was more likely sometime in September.

Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. He wasn’t even born in the year 1 AD (AD, Anno Domini, a calendar system created entirely on the idea of the year of Jesus’s birth). There are competing theories as to why December 25th was chosen.

Christmas: meh ¯_(ツ)_/¯

To start, early Christians weren’t particularly focused on the date of Jesus’s birth – they were much more interested in Jesus’s ministry and Easter resurrection. The first recorded mention of Jesus’s birthday was around 200 CE by Clement of Alexandria who offered several possible dates, none of which were December 25th.

By around 300 CE two dates became associated with Jesus’s birth: December 25th and January 6th. December 25th became Jesus’s birthday for most western churches while January 6th became Christmas in a few others (January 6th also became the Feast of the Epiphany in western churches).

Despite what the internet might tell you, it is unlikely that December 25th was selected to usurp the pagan holidays of Sol Invictus, Saturnalia, or winter solstice festivals in general. Early Christians were strongly focused on distancing themselves and their beliefs from pagan religions. By the time Christians were co-opting pagan festivities to increase adoption of the faith the December 25th date for Christmas had already been established for over a hundred years.

From John the Baptist to Jesus

One of the best theories as to why we associate December 25th with Jesus’s birth has to do with the date of his crucifixion. There was a theory that great figures would be born and die in the same month (and even on the same date). The crucifixion has been calculated to have taken place on March 25th (but even that is debatable). Early Christians seem to have replaced his birth with his divine conception for this theory, and believing Jesus was conceived on March 25 (and counting 9 months later) brings us to his birth on December 25th.

So Jesus was born in December … except it could have been September. In Luke 1.26–27 we’re told that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel in the 6th month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist and, if we calculate his birth based on his father Zechariah’s priestly duties at the temple, John was most likely born in late March. If Jesus was conceived 6 months after John, and adding 9 months, then Jesus’s birth took place sometime in September. That said, this math could also work with Zechariah’s second time serving in the temple, which would then place Jesus’s birth around March.

Either spring or fall, these dates make more sense with the idea that shepherds would be out tending their flock (which the Christmas narrative tells us) – there aren’t a lot of shepherds out tending their flock in the cold of December. Further, it’s unlikely the census that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for would have been in the winter, when the roads were in poor condition.

QI discusses the notion that Joseph & Mary traveled to Bethlehem to be a part of a Roman survey … which isn’t true.

the Dharmapalas

The scary wrathful Buddhist deities that are, contrary to their appearance, forces for good who are on your side.

Before Buddhism spread to Tibet, Bon was the area’s dominant shamanistic religion. As Buddhism moved in during the 7th to 10th centuries, elements of Bon were incorporated into the religion making Tibetan Buddhism different than other forms.

Part of what makes Tibetan Buddhism different is the story of how Padmasambhava, the 8th century Indian Buddhist mystic who helped bring Buddhism to to Tibet, tamed the local evil spirits & demons. While the exact number of spirits he tamed varies depending on the kind of Buddhism and regional differences, there are at least eight generally agreed upon divine creatures he turned into protectors of Buddhism. These are the Dharmapalas.

the Hateful Eight

Like things out of a horror movie, or a heavy metal album cover, the dharmapalas are typically horrific, fanged, wild-eyed, monstrous creatures. With black, blue or sometimes red skin they are frequently adorned with human skulls. In Tibetan art they are seen in flaming aureoles, visualizations of the energy they emanate. However, despite their appearances, the “Eight Terrible Ones” are on your side. Like monsters with hearts of gold (more or less), the dharmapalas are compassionate defenders of Buddhism and the dharma. Their hideous looks are to drive away evil spirits (not to drive us away).

While each dharmapala is different they all tend to look fearsome and terrifying.
a detail of a Palden Lhamo illustration
A close-up detail of Palden Lhamo, looking more than a little unhappy, with her crown of skulls and a cape of human skin.

Buddhism teaches us that we can’t solve other people’s spiritual problems for them, nor is someone about to solve our problems for us. There is no omnipotent being that’s going to deus ex machina-style swoop in and “save” people. That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t give help or get help. To overcome fear & suffering each one of us must look within ourselves, we must cultivate the potential within ourselves, but external help can show us the way. The dharmapalas remove inner & external obstacles that may be preventing us from achieving spiritual realizations. They don’t walk the path for us, but they help clear the way and help us from ourselves – they have your back in your quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Added info: in general the origins of the dharmapalas vary, as do their personal backstories, but one particularly interesting story is that of Palden Lhamo. The only female dharmapala, Palden Lhamo (“Glorious Goddess”) is the wrathful manifestation of the more peaceful Saraswati / Tara. She was a female demigod married to an evil king. After her attempts to reform her husband failed, and her realization that their son would be the destroyer of Buddhism, she killed her son. What followed is one of the most metal stories ever told.

She ate her son’s flesh, drank his blood using his skull as a cup, and made a horse saddle from his skin. She rides her mule side-saddle across an ocean of blood. After she died she was reborn in the hellish region of Naraka which she fought her way out of, stealing a sword and a bag of diseases along the way. Eventually she was convinced to protect the dharma, and to protect wisdom, which she does to this day. She’s the protector of Buddhist governments including the Tibetan government in exile.

The Elegant Skull

The political cartoon that became a Mexican memento mori.

In 1910, towards the end of General Porfirio Díaz’s rule of Mexico, the country was unknowingly on the verge of civil war. The Porfiriato period enriched a minority elite ruling class (as well as foreign investors), while the majority of Mexicans remained poor rural laborers. In this time of social and economic unrest José Guadalupe Posada used satire for political change.

Calaveras & Memento Mori

José Guadalupe Posada was a 19th and 20th century pro-revolutionary Mexican illustrator & political cartoonist. He produced historical, religious, and satirical illustrations but he’s best remembered for his calaveras (“skulls”) work.

Posada’s calaveras work used skeletons to satirize Mexican society.

Posada’s calaveras are illustrations of Mexican life featuring skeletons in place of living people. They are frequently lively, smiling, skeletons engaged in normal activities. By using skeletons Posada used the idea of memento mori (as well as to some degree Danse Macabre) to remind his audience that, rich or poor, people from all walks of life will die and that there’s a comedic futility to many of the preoccupations of daily life. His most memorable calaveras were his satirizations of the wealthy class, the most famous of which is La Calavera Catrina (“the Elegant Skull”).

La Catrina is Posada’s most famous calavera.

La Catrina is a female skeleton in an elaborate flowery hat. She’s Posada’s commentary on the upper class women of the time who turned their backs on their Mexican heritage in favor of European fashions. She is also reminiscent of Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”), the pre-Catholic deity of death who has a long tradition in Mexican culture.

Over the years La Catrina has become an iconic part of Mexican culture. She is the central figure in Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Central Park”). Today she is seen in the art and costumes of Día de Muertos festivities.

Trader Joe's taco sauce
Posada’s work can be found in a variety of places today, in this case on spicy taco sauce from Trader Joe’s.

Friday the 13th

The superstition that’s the combination of two separate superstitions (and a lot of magical thinking).

Superstitions are ideas that unrelated things are connected in some supernatural way. They’re frequently practices that are thought to bring about good or bad luck. Knocking on wood, walking under ladders, black cats, four leaf clovers, etc. are all classic western superstitions. Astrology and other fortune telling methods have a similar kind of magical thinking. The superstition of Friday the 13th is a combination of two separate superstitions: Fridays + the number 13.

From the Norse gods, to the Last Supper, thirteen people at a table has made 13 an unlucky number.

The unlucky number

One of the earliest examples of 13 being an unlucky number comes from Norse mythology. Loki was the uninvited 13th god to attend a feast following the recent slaying of the god Baldr (who died because Loki had tricked the blind god Höðr into inadvertently killing him). Another unlucky dinner with 13 members was the Last Supper where Judas betrayed Jesus. This spurred a related number 13 superstition that dinners with 13 members are unlucky. The first person to rise from the table will be in store for ill fortune (akin to how Judas was the first to rise from the Last Supper and was met with ill fortune). However various workarounds include dividing the guests across two tables or just having everyone rise at the same time (which seem like pretty simple hacks).

Another reason 13 is considered unlucky is that it throws off the satisfying “completeness” of 12. There are 12 months in the year, 12 signs of the western zodiac, there were 12 gods of Olympus, the 12 labors of Hercules, the aforementioned 12 Nordic gods in attendance at the the meal following Baldr’s death, 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, etc.

Over time western culture’s fear of 13 has spread to a wide variety of outlets. Over 80% of tall buildings skip counting the 13th floor and instead call it the 14th floor. Hotels sometimes skip having 13th rooms, the 13th card in the major arcana of the tarot deck is the card for death, the 13th loaf of bread in a baker’s dozen was sometimes said to be for the Devil, cruise ships tend to skip having a 13th floor, in Florence some houses which should have an address of 13 are given 12 1/2, etc.

The superstition that Friday is unlucky is largely because of the Good Friday crucifixion of Jesus as well as other Bible stories.

It’s Friday I’m in … trouble

The fear of Friday has mostly Judeo-Christian origins. Jesus was said to have been crucified on a Friday (or perhaps it was a Wednesday). The start of the Great Flood and the confusion at the Tower of Babel were both said to have taken place on a Friday. Eve supposedly tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit, and the resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden, took place on a Friday. Further Cain killed Abel on a Friday. Unfortunately the Bible is silent on what calendar system was in use in the Garden of Eden or how they had Fridays at all.

Eating meat on a Friday is considered unlucky because it’s reminiscent of death and the crucifixion (but eating fish is apparently exempt from this bad luck somehow). Cutting your nails on a Friday is also considered unlucky for similar severing of the body related reasons. Over time Fridays became an inauspicious day to begin or finish things. Starting a voyage, starting a new job, finishing the production of an article of clothing, moving house, getting married, giving birth, etc. on a Friday have all been considered unlucky.

That said if you die on a Good Friday there’s a superstition that you go right to Heaven.

The 1868 Friday the 13th death of Rossini is one of the first instances of Friday the 13th being unlucky but the superstition became popular during the 20th century.

Two great tastes that taste great together

Bringing these two superstitions together seemed inevitable, the super-superstition of bad luck on Friday the 13th, but it’s relatively new. Friday the 13th is first mentioned as unlucky in the 19th century with the most famous example being the Friday the 13th, November 1868 death of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini.

Friday the 13th didn’t become more widely unlucky in pop culture until the 20th century. Most people credit the 1907 Thomas Lawson novel Friday, the Thirteenth, about a stockbroker who chooses that date to manipulate (and crash) the stock market, as the popularization of the Friday the 13th superstition.

But like all superstitions, an unlucky day & date combination is inconsistent and culturally specific. While English speaking countries think of Friday the 13th as unlucky, in Spain and Greece it’s Tuesday the 13th that’s supposed to be unlucky, but in Italy it’s Friday the 17th.

It’s all in your mind

Ultimately the idea that Fridays, or the number 13, or the combination of Friday the 13th, are in any way unlucky, is nonsense. If they were real they’d be universally held beliefs (not to mention some objective proof). Instead these three superstitions are mostly just inconsistent western ideas – people in the rest of the world are going about their lives unaware of the danger they’re supposedly in (and somehow surviving).

There is no evidence that Friday the 13th brings about an increase in unfortunate incidents or accidents. A 2011 study in the The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reviewed hospital emergency admission rates and found no significant difference between Friday the 13th to other days. In fact a 2008 Dutch study demonstrated the opposite may be true, that people are more cautious on Friday the 13th and as a result there are fewer road accidents.

The Friday the 13th movie franchise capitalizes on the superstition. Interestingly in Spanish speaking countries the movies are sometimes called Martes 13 (Tuesday the 13th) in keeping with the Spanish superstition around Tuesday the 13th, instead of Friday the 13th. Finally, the most important metal band of all time Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

Black Sabbath, the most important metal band of all time, released their debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

There are highs & (many) lows to the Friday the 13th movie franchise, but the disco theme song for Part 3 is something else.

When is Easter?

Easter if a floating holy day whose date has been a moving target for millennia.

The modern confusion over when to celebrate Easter goes back to the earliest Christians. To start, it’s not entirely clear what day of the week the crucifixion of Jesus took place on. The Bible can be interpreted to say that the Sunday resurrection took place three full days after the crucifixion, meaning the crucifixion took place on a Wednesday. Or the resurrection was simply “on the third day” (not three full days) and as such the crucifixion took place on a Friday. As for celebrating the resurrection some early Christians chose to celebrate on the first day of Passover (the holiday during which Jesus was crucified) while others celebrated on the Sunday of Passover when the tomb was found empty.

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, established that the resurrection would be celebrated not just on a Sunday but on the Sunday following the full moon after the March (northern Spring) equinox. This kept the holiday near Passover, which is also around the Spring equinox, but not necessarily on Passover. This helped to standardize the observance of the resurrection … until the change of calendars confused things again.

East meets West

Introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, the Gregorian calendar was used by western churches to (among other things) calculate the annual observance of the resurrection. Orthodox churches however continued using the Julian calendar (which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar). The use of two different calendar systems is why there are usually two different dates for Easter each year – falling near one another but not usually on the same Sunday.

Another confusing detail is what to call the holiday. Given the holiday’s connection to Passover many languages and church denominations call the holiday some translated variation of the word Passover (which in Latin & Greek is “pascha” which also gives us the word “paschal” the term for things pertaining to Easter or Passover). In German and English however, the names “Ostern” and “Easter” are used which come from a pagan goddess.

Easter / Ēostre pagan goddess

The Germanic goddess Ēostre (aka Ôstara or Austra) was a Spring deity … probably. There is very little documentation of Ēostre. It is unknown how widespread the worship of her may have been or for how long. The primary source we have is The Reckoning of Time written by the English monk Saint Bede the Venerable in 725 CE. Bede writes about calculating the date of the resurrection and mentions that it took place around the Spring equinox, the same time of year that the Anglo-Saxons used to hold a feast in honor of Ēostre. From this timely reference to Ēostre the name “Easter” came to be the English name for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus (even though she had nothing to do with it).

Added info: Constantine not only helped to standardize when to celebrate Easter but he was also the reason the Chi Rho became the symbol of the Roman empire as well as the early Catholic church.