Legend: Friday the 13th is a day fraught with peril.
Origins: Although most of us would probably affirm that superstition’s role in Western culture is now a much diminished one, more a source of amusement than anything else, there are still those who allow their trepidation over particular days or dates to prevent them from engaging in their choice of activities. We may make jokes about Friday the 13th and only kiddingly instruct loved ones to exercise greater care on that day, but those who suffer from a fear of the number thirteen (triskaidekaphobia) or a fear of Friday the 13th (paraskevidekatriaphobia) may genuinely feel limited by the rumored potential for ill luck connected with the date.
The reasons why Friday came to be regarded as a day of bad luck have been obscured by the mists of time — some of the more common theories link it to a significant event in Christian tradition said to have taken place on Friday, such as the Crucifixion, Eve’s offering the apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden, the beginning of the Great Flood, or the confusion at the Tower of Babel. Chaucer alluded to Friday as a day on which bad things seemed to happen in the Canterbury Tales as far back as the late 14th century ("And on a Friday fell all this mischance"), but references to Friday as a day connected with ill luck generally start to show up in Western literature around the mid-17th century:
- "Now Friday came, you old wives say, Of all the week’s the unluckiest day." (1656)
From the early 19th century onward, examples abound of Friday’s being considered a bad day for all sorts of ordinary tasks, from writing letters to conducting business and receiving medical treatment:
- "I knew another poor woman, who lost half her time in waiting for lucky days, and made it a rule never to . . . write a letter on business . . . on a Friday — so her business was never done, and her fortune suffered accordingly." (1804)
- "There are still a few respectable tradesmen and merchants who will not transact business, or be bled, or take physic, on a Friday, because it is an unlucky day." (1831)
Friday was also said to be a particularly unlucky day on which to undertake anything that represented a beginning or the start of a new venture, thus we find references to all of the following activities as endeavors best avoided on Fridays:
- Needleworking: "I knew an old lady who, if she had nearly completed a piece of needlework on a Thursday, would put it aside unfinished, and set a few stitches in her next undertaking, that she might not be obliged either to begin the new task on Friday or to remain idle for a day." (1883)
- Harvesting: "My father once decided to start harvest on a Friday, and men went out on the Thursday evening, and, unpaid, cut along one side of the first field with their scythes, in order to dodge the malign fates which a Friday start would begin." (1933)
- Laying the keel of, or launching, a ship: "Fisherman would have great misgivings about laying the keel of a new boat on Friday, as well as launching one on that day." (1885)
- Beginning a sea voyage: "Sailors are many of them superstitious . . . A voyage begun [on a Friday] is sure to be an unfortunate one." (1823)
- Beginning a journey: "I knew another poor woman, who . . . made it a rule never to . . . set out on a journey on a Friday." (1804)
- Giving birth: "A child born on a Friday is doomed to misfortune." (1846)
- Getting married: "As to Friday, a couple married on that day are doomed to a cat-and-dog life." (1879)
- Recovering from illness: "If you have been ill, don’t get up for the first time on a Friday." (1923)
- Hearing news: "If you hear anything new on a Friday, it gives you another wrinkle on your face, and adds a year to your age." (1883)
- Moving: "Don’t move on a Friday, or you won’t stay there very long." (1982)
- Starting a new job: "Servants who go into their situations on Friday, never go to stay." (1923)
In some cases, Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) was regarded as an exception or ‘antidote’ to the bad luck usually associated with Friday beginnings:
- "Notwithstanding the prejudice against sailing on a Friday . . . most of the pleasure-boats . . . make their first voyage for the season on Good Friday." (1857)
- "It was accounted unlucky for a child to be born on a Friday, unless it happened to be Good Friday, when the event was counterbalanced by the sanctity of the day." (1870)
The origins of the connection between the number thirteen and ill fortune are similarly obscure. Many different sources for the superstition surrounding the number thirteen have been posited, the most common stemming from another Christian source, the Last Supper, at which Judas Iscariot was said to have been the thirteenth guest to sit at the table. (Judas later betrayed Jesus, leading to His crucifixion, and then took his own life.) This Christian symbolism is reflected in early Western references to thirteen as an omen of bad fortune, which generally started to appear in the early 18th century and warned that thirteen people sitting down to a meal together presaged that one of them would die within the year:
- "I have known, and now know, persons in genteel life who did, and do, not sit down to table unmoved with twelve others. Our notion is that one of the thirteen so partaking, will die ere the expiry of the year." (1823)
- "The old story runs, that the last individual of the thirteen who takes a seat has the greatest chance of being the ‘doomed one’." (1839)
Superstition held that the victim would be the first person to rise from the table (or the last one to be seated), leading to the remedies of having all guests sit and stand at the same time, or seating one or more guests at a separate table:
- " . . . Miss Mellon always gave the last comer an equal chance with the rest for life . . . she used to rise and say, ‘I will not have any friend of mine sit down as the thirteenth; you must all rise, and we will then sit down again together.’" (1839)
- "Every one knows that to sit down thirteen at a table is a most unlucky omen, sure to be followed by the death of one of the party within the year . . . Some say, however, that the evil will only befall the first who leaves the table, and may be averted if the whole company are careful to rise from their seats at the same moment." (1883)
- " . . . so far is this feeling carried that one of the thirteen is requested to dine at a side table!" (1823)
(The "thirteen at the table" form of superstition again harkens back to the Last Supper: the one who left the table first, Judas Iscariot, died at his own hand soon afterwards.)
More generally, groups of thirteen people in any context — at a table, in a room, on a ship — were believed to inevitably lead to tragedy:
- "On a sudden an old woman unluckily observed there were thirteen of us in company. This remark struck a panic terror into several who were present . . . but a friend of mine, taking notice that one of our female companions was big with child, affirmed there were fourteen in the room . . ." (1711)
- "Notwithstanding . . . opinions in favour of odd numbers, the number thirteen is considered as extremely ominous; it being held that, when thirteen persons meet in a room, one of them will die within the year." (1787)
- "Many will not sail on a vessel when [thirteen] is the number of persons on board; and it is believed that some fatal accident must befall one of them." (1808)
By the late 19th century the superstition surrounding thirteen had become even more general, with people going out of their ways to avoid anything designated by the number thirteen, whether it be hotel rooms, desks, or cars:
- "’Look at that,’ said Parnell, pointing to the number on his door. It was No. 13! ‘What a room to give me!’" (1893)
- "For some time before the late War I went almost daily to the British Museum reading room . . . I gave some attention to the desks left to the last comers . . . there was a very marked preference of any other desk to that numbered ’13’." (1927)
- "The mechanic helped him get out [of the racing car]. ‘May as well scratch,’ he said. ‘He won’t be good for anything more this afternoon. It’s asking for trouble having a No. 13.’" (1930)
Once again these ill omens were avoided through artifice, such as the renumbering of rooms in hotels and inns to eliminate any Room #13’s, and misnumbering the floors above the 12th floor in multi-story buildings so that tenants could pretend 13th floors were really 14th floors.
Just as Friday was considered an inauspicious day of the week on which to embark upon a new enterprise, so the 13th day of a month came to signify a particularly bad day for beginning a venture. Although regarding the confluence of a particularly unlucky day of the week (Friday) and a particularly unlucky day of the month (the 13th) as a date of supreme unluckiness might seem to be obvious and inevitable, superstitions regarding Friday the 13th are not nearly as old as most people tend to think. The belief in Friday the 13th as a day on which Murphy’s Law reigns supreme and anything that can go wrong will go wrong appears to be largely a 20th century phenomenon. (The claim that the Friday the 13th superstition began with the arrest of the final Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques Demolay, on Friday, October 13, 1307, is a modern-day invention.)
Books of English folklore generally cite a 1913 Notes & Queries reference as the earliest known expression of Friday the 13th as a day of evil luck, and this corresponds to what we found when we searched The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for similar references. In both newspapers the first mentions of the ill-fated date occured in 1908, as in this short piece about a U.S. senator from Oklahoma who dared to tempt fate by introducing 13 bills on Friday the 13th:
(It’s interesting to note that this very early reference to Friday the 13th already describes it as being an "ancient superstition.")
Similarly, a 1913 piece described a minister who offered to marry free of charge any couple willing to take the matrimonial plunge on Friday the 13th:
These days, however, one is unlikely to get so much as a free latte out of the day. Sanguinity comes at a price.
Paraskevidekatriaphobics — people afflicted with a morbid, irrational fear of Friday the 13th — must be pricking up their ears just now, buoyed by seeming evidence that their terror may not be so irrational after all. But it’s unwise to take solace in a single scientific study — the only one of its kind, so far as I know — especially one so peculiar. I suspect these statistics have more to teach us about human psychology than the ill-fatedness of any particular date on the calendar.
The Most Widespread Superstition
The sixth day of the week and the number 13 both have foreboding reputations said to date from ancient times, and their inevitable conjunction from one to three times a year portends more misfortune than some credulous minds can bear. Some sources say it may be the most widespread superstition in the United States. Some people won’t go to work on Friday the 13th; some won’t eat in restaurants; many wouldn’t think of setting a wedding on the date.
Just how many Americans at the turn of the millennium still suffer from this condition? According to Dr. Donald Dossey, a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of phobias (and coiner of the term "paraskevidekatriaphobia"), the figure may be as high as 21 million. If he’s right, eight percent of Americans are still in the grips of a very old superstition.
Exactly how old is difficult to say, because determining the origins of superstitions is an imprecise science, at best. In fact, it’s mostly guesswork.
13: The Devil’s Dozen
It is said: If 13 people sit down to dinner together, all will die within the year. The Turks so disliked the number 13 that it was practically expunged from their vocabulary (Brewer, 1894). Many cities do not have a 13th Street or a 13th Avenue. Many buildings don’t have a 13th floor. If you have 13 letters in your name, you will have the devil’s luck (Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Albert De Salvo all have 13 letters in their names). There are 13 witches in a coven.
Though no one can say for sure when and why human beings first associated the number 13 with misfortune, the belief is assumed to be quite old and there exist any number of theories purporting to trace its origins to antiquity and beyond.
It has been proposed, for example, that fears surrounding the number 13 are as ancient as the act of counting.
Primitive man had only his 10 fingers and two feet to represent units, according to this explanation, so he could count no higher than 12. What lay beyond that — 13 — was an impenetrable mystery to our prehistoric forebears, hence an object of superstition.
Which has an edifying ring to it, but one is left wondering — did primitive man not have toes?
Despite whatever terrors the numerical unknown held for their hunter-gatherer ancestors, ancient civilizations weren’t unanimous in their dread of 13. The Chinese regarded the number as lucky, some commentators note, as did the Egyptians in the time of the pharaohs.
To the ancient Egyptians, these sources tell us, life was a quest for spiritual ascension which unfolded in stages — 12 in this life and a 13th beyond, thought to be the eternal afterlife. The number 13 therefore symbolized death — not in terms of dust and decay, but as a glorious and desirable transformation. Though Egyptian civilization perished, the death symbolism they conferred on the number 13 survived, only to be corrupted by later cultures who came to associate it with a fear of death instead of a reverence for the afterlife.
Other sources suggest the number 13 was purposely vilified by the founders of patriarchal religions in the early days of western civilization because it represented femininity. Thirteen had been revered in prehistoric goddess-worshiping cultures, allegedly, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The "Earth Mother of Laussel," for example, a 27,000-year-old carving found near the Lascaux caves in France often cited as an icon of matriarchal spirituality, depicts a female figure holding a cresent-shaped horn bearing 13 notches. According to this theory, as the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar with the rise of male-dominated civilization, so did the number 12 over the number 13, thereafter considered anathema.
On the other hand, one of the earliest concrete taboos associated with the number 13 — a taboo still observed by some superstitious folks today, apparently — is said to have originated in the East with the Hindus, who believed, for reasons I haven’t been able to ascertain, that it is always unlucky for 13 people to gather in one place — say, at dinner. Interestingly enough, exactly the same superstition has been attributed to the ancient Vikings, though I have also been told that this and the accompanying mythological explanation are apocryphal. In any case, the story has been handed down as follows:
Loki, the Evil One
Twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the Evil One, god of mischief, had been left off the guest list but crashed the party, bringing the total number of attendees to 13. True to character, Loki raised hell by inciting Hod, the blind god of winter, to attack Balder the Good, who was a favorite of the gods. Hod took a spear of mistletoe offered by Loki and obediently hurled it at Balder, killing him instantly. All Valhalla grieved. And although one might take the moral of this story to be "Beware of uninvited guests bearing mistletoe," the Norse themselves apparently concluded that 13 people at a dinner party is just plain bad luck.
As if to prove the point, the Bible tells us there were exactly 13 present at the Last Supper. One of the dinner guests — er, disciples — betrayed Jesus Christ, setting the stage for the Crucifixion.
Did I mention the Crucifixion took place on a Friday?
It is said: Never change your bed on Friday; it will bring bad dreams. Don’t start a trip on Friday or you will have misfortune. If you cut your nails on Friday, you cut them for sorrow. Ships that set sail on a Friday will have bad luck – as in the tale of H.M.S. Friday … One hundred years ago, the British government sought to quell once and for all the widespread superstition among seamen that setting sail on Fridays was unlucky. A special ship was commissioned, named "H.M.S. Friday." They laid her keel on a Friday, launched her on a Friday, selected her crew on a Friday and hired a man named Jim Friday to be her captain. To top it off, H.M.S. Friday embarked on her maiden voyage on a Friday, and was never seen or heard from again.
Some say Friday’s bad reputation goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
It was on a Friday, supposedly, that Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit. Adam bit, as we all learned in Sunday School, and they were both ejected from Paradise. Tradition also holds that the Great Flood began on a Friday; God tongue-tied the builders of the Tower of Babel on a Friday; the Temple of Solomon was destroyed on a Friday; and, of course, Friday was the day of the week on which Christ was crucified. It is therefore a day of penance for Christians.
In pagan Rome, Friday was execution day (later Hangman’s Day in Britain), but in other pre-Christian cultures it was the sabbath, a day of worship, so those who indulged in secular or self-interested activities on that day could not expect to receive blessings from the gods — which may explain the lingering taboo on embarking on journeys or starting important projects on Fridays.
To complicate matters, these pagan associations were not lost on the early Church, which went to great lengths to suppress them. If Friday was a holy day for heathens, it must not be so for Christians — thus it became known in the Middle Ages as the "Witches’ Sabbath," and thereby hangs another tale.
Poll: Are you superstitious about Friday the 13th?
The name "Friday" came from a Norse deity worshipped on the sixth day, known either as Frigg (goddess of marriage and fertility), or Freya (goddess of sex and fertility), or both, the two figures having become intertwined in the handing-down of myths over time (the etymology of "Friday" has been given both ways). Frigg/Freya corresponded to Venus, the goddess of love of the Romans, who named the sixth day of the week in her honor "dies Veneris."
Friday was actually considered quite lucky by pre-Christian Teutonic peoples, we are told — especially as a day to get married — because of its traditional association with love and fertility. All that changed when Christianity came along. The goddess of the sixth day — most likely Freya in this context, given that the cat was her sacred animal — was recast in post-pagan folklore as a witch, and her day became associated with evil doings.
Various legends developed in that vein, but one is of particular interest: As the story goes, the witches of the north used to observe their sabbath by gathering in a cemetery in the dark of the moon. On one such occasion the Friday goddess, Freya herself, came down from her sanctuary in the mountaintops and appeared before the group, who numbered only 12 at the time, and gave them one of her cats, after which the witches’ coven — and, by tradition, every properly-formed coven since — comprised exactly 13.
The Unluckiest Day of All
The astute reader will have observed that while we have thus far insinuated any number of intriguing connections between events, practices and beliefs attributed to ancient cultures and the superstitious fear of Fridays and the number 13, we have yet to explain how, why or when these separate strands of folklore converged — if that is indeed what happened — to mark Friday the 13th as the unluckiest day of all.
There’s a very simple reason for that: nobody really knows, though various explanations have been proposed.
The Knights Templar
One theory, most recently propounded in the novel "The Da Vinci Code," holds that it came about not as the result of a convergence, but a catastrophe, a single historical event that happened nearly 700 years ago. The catastrophe was the decimation of the Knights Templar, the legendary order of "warrior monks" formed during the Christian Crusades to combat Islam.
Renowned as a fighting force for 200 years, by the 1300s the order had grown so pervasive and powerful it was perceived as a political threat by kings and popes alike and brought down by a church-state conspiracy, as recounted by Katharine Kurtz in "Tales of the Knights Templar" (Warner Books: 1995):
- "On October 13, 1307, a day so infamous that Friday the 13th would become a synonym for ill fortune, officers of King Philip IV of France carried out mass arrests in a well-coordinated dawn raid that left several thousand Templars — knights, sergeants, priests, and serving brethren — in chains, charged with heresy, blasphemy, various obscenities, and homosexual practices. None of these charges was ever proven, even in France — and the Order was found innocent elsewhere — but in the seven years following the arrests, hundreds of Templars suffered excruciating tortures intended to force ‘confessions,’ and more than a hundred died under torture or were executed by burning at the stake."
A Thoroughly Modern Phenomenon?
There are drawbacks to the "day so infamous" thesis, not the least of which is that it attributes great cultural significance to a relatively obscure historical event. Even more problematic, for this or any other theory positing premodern origins for Friday the 13th superstitions, is the fact that no one has been able to document the existence of such beliefs prior to the 19th century. If people who lived before the late 1800s perceived Friday the 13th as a day of special misfortune, no evidence has been found to prove it. Some scholars suspect the stigma is a thoroughly modern phenomenon exacerbated by 20th-century media hype.
Going back a hundred years, Friday the 13th doesn’t even merit a mention in E. Cobham Brewer’s voluminous 1898 edition of the "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable," though one does find entries for "Friday, an Unlucky Day" and "Thirteen Unlucky." When the date of ill fate finally does make an appearance in later editions of the text, it is without extravagant claims as to the superstition’s historicity or longevity. The very brevity of the entry is instructive — "A particularly unlucky Friday. See Thirteen" — implying that the extra dollop of misfortune attributed to Friday the 13th can be accounted for in terms of an accrual, so to speak, of bad omens: Unlucky Friday + Unlucky 13 = Unluckier Friday.
If that’s the case, we’re guilty of a misnomer for labeling Friday the 13th "the unluckiest day of all," a characterization perhaps better reserved for, say, a Friday the 13th on which one breaks a mirror, walks under a ladder and spies a black cat crossing one’s path — a day, if there ever was one, best spent in the safety of one’s own home with doors locked, shutters closed and fingers crossed.