The Death card is so firmly associated with the number 13 in the Tarot that most people simply assume that the superstition that “13 means death” was well established in medieval Italy. Surprisingly however, no literary documentation of this association has been found dating from this era or before, and not until the 19th century in Italy. The Tarot is itself the earliest evidence for it.
All writers on Tarot, who have taken notice of it, have taken the association of 13 with misfortune, and by extension death, for granted - except for Etteilla, who explicitly rejects it, for dogmatic reasons that may be connected to the number 17 (see below):
"The false savants have said that the number or sign of death was 13, and in consequence they assigned Death 13. But this Book takes man in his creation, and it is recognized that Adam was in no way subject to death at the number 13 but at that of 17."
(from the Deuxième Cahier, quoted by Jacques Halbronn in "Etteilla: L'astrologie du livre de Thot (1785), suivie de Recherches sur l'histoire de l'astrologie et du Tarot", p. 31)
But in not a single case have any, whether esoteric moralizers or scientific historians, offered evidence external to the Tarot from the early 15th century or earlier for it. This could be because there is none to be found. Some have added ad hoc explanations or evidence, while others have simply stated it without corroboration. In the following quotes, note the use of terms like “always”, “universally”, or “traditionally” – a rhetorical hand-wave in the direction of the reader’s prejudice, which in reality misdirects, away from the true obscurity of the “traditional” association. Everybody points to the traditional and well-known superstition, but nobody provides any evidence of it from the time and place of Tarot’s origin.
Antoine Court de Gébelin (1781, p. 375), on number XIII, Death: “It is hardly surprising that it should be placed under this number; the number thirteen was always regarded as unfortunate. It must be that long ago some great misfortune happened on such a day, and that the memory of it had influence on all the ancient Nations. Might it be as a result of this memory that the thirteen Tribes of the Hebrews were never counted as other than twelve?”
Comte de Mellet (1781, p. 398): “Thirteenth; this number, always unfortunate, is dedicated to Death, who is shown mowing down heads both crowned and common.”
John Shephard (1985, p. 105): “The number thirteen, following the perfection of twelve, has always been associated with death. It was a reminder of the Last Supper of Christ with his twelve apostles.”
Robert V. O’Neill (1986, p. 314): “The number thirteen is universally the number of death and disaster. Many large hotels have no thirteenth floor because the prejudice against thirteen is so common even in our society.”
Alessandra Uguccioni (writing in “L’iconografia degli arcani maggiori”, in Berti, G. And A. Vitali, eds., 1987, p. 175): “In the most recent examples a similar iconography is preserved, and the numeration also remains constant, being always the number 13, or the unlucky number.”
Paul Huson (2004, pp. 118-119): “... many decks designed specifically for cartomancy have kept this card in the traditionally unlucky thirteenth position in the trump sequence...”
Robert M. Place (2005, p. 150): “In all the known early orders of the trumps Death is always number thirteen. As thirteen is a number associated with bad luck and death, this suggests that Death was given this number for symbolic reasons.”
In books treating the symbolism of numbers through history, we do not in fact find that 13 was always, traditionally, or much less “universally”, considered unlucky. In fact the earliest symbolism gives it a positive connotation. Epiphany is the 13th day after Christ’s birth, the Golden Legend notes (“Epiphany”). Two particularly important discussions of the earliest evidence for the superstition are Hopper’s “Medieval Number Symbolism” (pp. 130ff.) and Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition (pp. 42-43). Lachenmeyer, writing in 2004, seems unaware of Hopper as a source, but like Hopper 80 years earlier, concludes that the superstition had its origins in the belief that Judas or Jesus was the 13th at the table in the Last Supper.
The earliest reference to a superstition about “13 at a table” yet known was found by Hopper 80 years ago, in the Essais of Montaigne (Bk. III, c. viii; ca. 1585). Montaigne writes:
“It seems to me excusable if I prefer the odd to the even number, a Thursday to a Friday, if I like more the twelfth or fourteenth than a thirteenth at the table...”
Hopper finds the first negative connotations of the number given by Pietro Bongo in “Mysticae Numerorum” (editions of 1584 and following years):
“Petrus Bungus is the first arithmologist to recognize any evil inherent in the number. He records that the Jews murmured 13 times against God in the exodus from Egypt, that the thirteenth psalm concerns wickedness and corruption, that the circumcision of Israel occurred in the thirteenth year, thus not reaching the satisfaction of the Law and the Evangelists, which are figured by 10 and 4. As 11 is a number of transgression, because it goes beyond the 10 Commandments, so 13 goes beyond the 12 Apostles. Therefore, hic numerous Judaeorum taxat impietatem. The previous absence of any such explanation in the arithmologies gives the impression that popular belief had forced upon the priest this painful and rather unconvincing interpretation of the Commandments and the Trinity. Montaigne’s intimation that the superstition was widely in vogue would tend to push its origin back at least to the Middle Ages.”
Montaigne’s allusion to it, among a list of other superstitions, implies, as Hopper notes, that it was a popular belief (as opposed to a forced and learned speculation), which would be very difficult to trace in written literature. The Tarot therefore seems to be the earliest witness that a baneful association with the number existed at all.
The relevant passages from Hopper and Lachenmeyer follow.
Vincent Foster Hopper, “Medieval Number Symbolism” (1938; various reprints) pp. 130ff.:
“The famous ‘unlucky 13’ and especially the ’13 at table’ is, I believe, somehow connected with this tradition [of 12 previously discussed]. Böklen [Die unglückszabl Dreizebn und ihre mythische Bedeutung] has attempted to prove the prevalence of the superstition as early as Homeric times, but his evidence is drawn from his own discovery of instances where a misfortune is said to have occurred to one of 13 individuals. I cannot believe this type of evidence to be valid, since the number is never asserted to be the cause of the misfortune nor is it ever directly labeled as ‘unlucky’ in any discussion of significant numbers or elsewhere. The first specific mention of the unlucky 13 which I have been able to find occurs in Montaigne: ‘And me seemeth I may well be excused if I rather except an odd number than an even... If I had rather make a twelfth or fourteenth at a table, then a thirteenth... All such fond conceits, now in credit about us, deserve at least to be listened unto.’ [Essais, Bk. III, Essay VIII, ‘Of the Art of Conferring’ (Florio translation)].
“The fact that the number was associated with Epiphany by the Church, and appears not have been considered other than holy by any of the medieval number theorists leads to the inference that the unlucky 13 was a popular superstition entirely disconnected from the ‘science of numbers.’ Petrus Bungus is the first arithmologist to recognize any evil inherent in the number. He records that the Jews murmured 13 times against God in the exodus from Egypt, that the thirteenth psalm concerns wickedness and corruption, that the circumcision of Israel occurred in the thirteenth year, thus not reaching the satisfaction of the Law and the Evangelists, which are figured by 10 and 4. As 11 is a number of transgression, because it goes beyond the 10 Commandments, so 13 goes beyond the 12 Apostles. Therefore, hic numerous Judaeorum taxat impietatem. The previous absence of any such explanation in the arithmologies gives the impression that popular belief had forced upon the priest this painful and rather unconvincing interpretation of the Commandments and the Trinity. Montaigne’s intimation that the superstition was widely in vogue would tend to push its origin back at least to the Middle Ages. To find a 13 which might popularly achieve baleful connotations is so easy that I should rather assign the superstition to a confluence of factors, rather than to a single source.
“With nearly every traditional 12, a 13 is somehow associated. Earliest in time is the intercalated thirteenth month, which Böklen asserts was regarded as discordant and unlucky [Op. cit. pp. 8-9]. Webster agrees that such was sometimes the case [Rest Days, p. 276]. There is a slender chance that a tradition, even as uncertain as this, might have been orally transmitted to the Middle Ages. There is a much better chance that the omnipresent 13 of the lunar and menstruation cycle made the number fearsome, or at least unpopular.
“At the same time, the number may have become popularly associated with the diabolical arts. In Faust’s Miraculous Art and Book of Marvels, or the Black Raven, 13 are said to compose the Infernal Hierarchy [Conway, Demonology, p. 229]. This must be the same astrological 13, since the Raven is the thirteenth symbol in the intercalary month year, as well as the effigy for the moon [Böklen, op. cit., pp. 8-9]. Simultaneously, cabalistic lore may have introduced the 13 Conformations of the Holy Beard, also astrological in origin and magical in common belief. In Britain, 13 became associated with witchcraft. Whether for the same reason or because the inclusion of a leader with any group of 12 makes a thirteenth, as seems to have been the case in Druidic ceremony, a witches’ koven was ordinarily composed of 13, or a multiple [Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, pp. 16, 50, 191].
“It will be noted, however, that the specific superstition mentioned by Montaigne is that of 13 at table. Here the connection is indisputably with the Last Supper. One wonders how much the legend fo the Siege Perilous had to do with drawing attention to the thirteenth unlucky chair. True enough, the Siege Perilous was sanctified, but it was also Perilous and distinctly unlucky for the wrong person – ‘wherein never knight sat that he met not death thereby.’ [Le livre de Lancelot del Lac, XXXIX] This is something more than a guess, because, although the thirteenth chair is ordinarily reserved for the leader – Charlemagne in the Pelerinage [line 118]and the All-Father in the temple of the Gods at Gladsheim [MacCulloch, Mythology of All Races, III, 327] – Boron’s Joseph assigns the vacant seat to Judas, and the Modena Perceval to ‘Nostre Sire’ in one place but to Judas in another [Weston, The Legend of Sir Perceval, II, 132]. It is also possible that ‘Nostre Sire’ might have been the author’s intention but that the copyist and public opinion altered it to Judas.”
From Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, “13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition” (Running Press, 2004) pp. 42-43:
“In lists of lucky and unlucky days prior to the nineteenth century, there is no pattern of Friday the 13th or the 13th day of the month being viewed as significant. In fact, I was unable to turn up a single nineteenth-century reference to Friday the 13th, which is consistent with the idea that the superstition did not emerge until the twentieth century. As for the general belief that 13 was an unlucky number, an extensive search of Western writing turned up no consistent references to unlucky 13 prior to the seventeenth century, when the earliest references to 13 at a table appear. Even in book about superstition, 13 is conspicuously absent. Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), for example, lists more than thirty contemporary superstitions like spilling salt, putting a shirt on inside out, stumbling, and a cat crossing one’s path. Yet there is no mention of 13 being unlucky. What significant references there are before then to 13 – e.g. the 13th man in Beowulf , and the 13 seats Merlin constructed for King Arthur’s Round Table – do not constitute superstitions, and, furthermore, seem, like 13 at a table, to be evocations of the Last Supper.
“There is, however, one possible precursor to unlucky 13 at a table that does not have any obvious connection to the Last Supper: since its invention in Italy in the fifteenth century, the Death card in Tarot has consistently been the 13th card. According to Sir Michael Dummett, one of the preeminent philosophers of the twentieth century and an authority on the history of Tarot, the association of 13 with Death ‘occurs more frequently than the association of a particular number with any other card... It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the cardmakers, or those for whose tastes they were catering, regarded this association as particularly appropriate, and strove to arrange it.’ This implies that there may have been a symbolic link between 13 and death in fifteenth-century Italy (which may or may not have also been inspired by the events of the Last Supper). However, an association is not the same thing as a superstition, and in the absence of any evidence that an unlucky 13 superstition existed in Western Europe prior to the seventeenth century, independent of its association with the Last Supper, it is safe to conclude that 13 at a table was the original 13 superstition.”
On the other hand, it seems that the number 17 is the unlucky number, explicitly the number of death, in Italy. It seems that 17 has a long history of being associated directly with death, because according to Bongo
"in the dream books (Oneirocritica), if you hear seventeen, or see it written, in numbers it is XVII, which for us (i.e. Italians) can signify nothing else but VIXI ("I have lived"=I am dead), and therefore the presence of the number means death."
Simply typing "vixi", "xvii", and "la morte" or "death" into Google will bring up hundreds of pages showing how prevalent this still is in Italian culture. E.g. from wikipedia -
"In Italian culture, the number 17 is considered unlucky. When viewed as the Roman numeral, XVII, it is then changed anagramtically to VIXI, which in the Latin language it translates to "I have lived", the perfect tense implying "My life is over." (c.f. "Vixerunt", Cicero's famous announcement of an execution.) The Italian airline carrier, Alitalia, does not have a seat 17. Renault sold its "R17" model in Italy as "R177."
The trouble with numbers
Until quite recently, 13 was considered a lucky number in Italy—or was thought to be as harmless as other digits. According to Catholic tradition, however, there were 13 people at the table during the Last Supper, and Jesus was crucified on Friday the 13th. Thus, Italy has adopted the popular European belief that 13 invites as much misfortune as the country’s traditionally unlucky number—17. The reasoning behind 17’s stigma is twofold. If you re-arrange the Roman numeral XVII, it spells the Latin word vixi, a phrase often inscribed on tombs and gravestones. It translates as ‘he lived’ and is considered a sure-fire way to tempt death to come to your doorstep. The digits 1 and 7 also evoke fatal imagery—the one represents a hanged man, while the seven recalls the gallows.
Given its prominence in Italy, it would seem that if the Tarot designer wanted to have a card associated with death, it should have been at 17.
Yet even for the number 17, I cannot find a source that goes back beyond Pietro Bongo in 1584 which gives the "xvii=vixi" forumula, or considers XVII unlucky. I am not sure which "Onirocritas" he is referring to either. But like Montaigne's allusion to the 13-at-a-table superstition, Bongo's usage implies that an older popular tradition existed.
All of this raises an interesting question though. Is it possible that the Tarot itself is the origin of the superstition? Here is a scenario:
When people began numbering the trumps, they saw the Death card predictably as the most unsavoury subject, unlucky. Although the explicit notion of 13=death did not yet exist, the idea of it being unlucky to have thirteen at table did – this was already an indirect reading of some of the symbolism of the Last Supper and the mythology of the Siege Perilous, and that pushed the numberers to make Death number 13. Thus the Tarot became the standard-bearer for this link. Tarot was immensely popular in Italy and France for much of the sixteenth century, and into the seventeenth. It is from the later 16th century that we get the first indications of unease with the number 13, both in France (Montaigne, directly) and in Italy (Bongo, indirectly). The popularity of Tarot, with millions of players during that time, could easily have been the source of what became an easily-accommodated superstition, which, detached from its source, required ad hoc explanations on the part of people like Pietro Bongo. The popularity of the superstition on the Continent, developing in the course of the 16th century, gives plenty of time for it to be adopted in England, where we find it in sources from the 17th century.
The ease with which people have adopted the “Friday the 13th” superstition, although it was invented almost within living memory, is an example of how insidiously easy some superstitions can be.
(Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447) was also extremely superstitious about Friday, the Dies Infaustus (unlucky day); “And for him it was considered an impiety on Fridays, to meet someone who were shaved, or captured flying birds by hand, especially quail, in the field...”
Cfr. also the account of the composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868): “Rossini’s superstition caused him to dread Fridays and the number thirteen. He died on Friday, the thirteenth day of November, 1868!” (Nathan Haskell Dole, Famous Composers (1891) p. 258).
Again, Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, 1869, p. 340: “[Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring and affectionate friends; and if it be true that, like so many other Italians, he regarded Friday as an unlucky day, and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday, the 13th of November, he died.”)