Today is Friday the 13th. Ooooh, cue Twilight Zone music. Of course, it’s all superstitious bollocks, like being afraid to walk under a ladder or thinking a political agitator died two thousand years ago for your sins. I mean, really? Get over yourself. But why is Friday 13th considered unlucky? Folklore and superstition is some pretty interesting stuff and it’s great fodder for stories. The more we draw on existing mythologies and folk tales, that have endured over centuries for a reason, the more we can make our own stories feel authentic and convincing, thereby helping readers to suspend disbelief and enjoy a fictional journey. And who knows, maybe in two thousand years there’ll be a group of weirdos attending the Church of RealmShift, praying to the god Isiah for absolution. That would be quite funny, but we really should have grown out of this stuff already, so considering another two thousand years of it is a bit sad.
Anyway, Friday 13th – where does that particular bad luck superstition come from? Well, the answer, as is so often the case: No one knows. But there are a lot of theories. Interestingly, this particular superstition seems to be quite young, with no real references before the 20th century. Going to the fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia, obviously), we get these possibilities:
1. In numerology, the number twelve is considered the number of completeness, as reflected in the twelve months of the year, twelve hours of the clock, twelve gods of Olympus, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Apostles of Jesus, the 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, etc., whereas the number thirteen was considered irregular, transgressing this completeness. There is also a superstition, thought by some to derive from the Last Supper or a Norse myth [more on this later – Alan], that having thirteen people seated at a table will result in the death of one of the diners.
2. Friday has been considered an unlucky day at least since the 14th century’s The Canterbury Tales, and many other professions have regarded Friday as an unlucky day to undertake journeys, begin new projects or deploy releases in production. Black Friday has been associated with stock market crashes and other disasters since the 1800s.
3. One author, noting that references are all but nonexistent before 1907 but frequently seen thereafter, has argued that its popularity derives from the publication that year of Thomas W. Lawson’s popular novel Friday, the Thirteenth, in which an unscrupulous broker takes advantage of the superstition to create a Wall Street panic on a Friday the 13th. Records of the superstition are rarely found before the 20th century, when it became extremely common.
It seems that there were existing superstitious issues regarding both the number 13 and Fridays, so it seems “logical” that Friday the 13th is doom with extra tragic sauce.
Another theory is that Primitive man had only his 10 fingers and two feet to represent units, 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.
That doesn’t really take into account toes, though, so seems like a dodgy idea to me. Not to mention that surely there would be no evidence of anything beyond 12, thereby nothing to be scared of. It certainly wouldn’t have been called 13… or would it? That one makes no bloody sense at all.
Here’s another interesting idea from David Emery at Urban Legends:
Still other sources speculate that the number 13 may have been 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, we are told, 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 crescent-shaped horn bearing 13 notches. As the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar with the rise of male-dominated civilization, it is surmised, so did the “perfect” number 12 over the “imperfect” number 13, thereafter considered anathema.
I quite like that theory, not it’s got just enough bastardry in it to make it an enduring myth, and enough impetus for men in power to keep pushing their agenda. It would explain a lot about why 13 is so consistently recognised as a “bad” number if it meant men could retain some patriarchal power. Of course, it also means that superstitious feminists should embrace Friday the 13th, and that might give rise to some brain implosions.
And from the same source, here’s that great Norse yarn, mentioned earlier:
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.
David also points out that there were 13 present at the Last Supper, one of whom betrayed Jesus and triggered the Crucifixion. And that crucifixioin allegedly took place on a Friday. The bad news is just stacking up for the mythologically-minded.
David Emery’s entire article makes for great reading on the subject, so maybe you should just go there and read the whole thing. I’ll wait here.
Good, wasn’t it?
Here’s an interesting extra tidbit, though:
The Dutch Centre for Insurance Statistics (CVS) on June 12, 2008, stated that “fewer accidents and reports of fire and theft occur when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday than on other Fridays, because people are preventatively more careful or just stay home. Statistically speaking, driving is slightly safer on Friday the 13th, at least in the Netherlands; in the last two years, Dutch insurers received reports of an average 7,800 traffic accidents each Friday; but the average figure when the 13th fell on a Friday was just 7,500.”
It’s a small difference, but I do love me a bit of irony.
Anyway, if you really want to test your superstitious credulity this is the year for it – there will be three occurrences of Friday 13th in 2012, exactly 13 weeks apart. OH MY GODS WE’RE DOOMED!
Not that everyone needs to worry. The Spanish and Greeks consider Tuesday 13th bad luck, and the Italians are concerned about Friday 17th. You see, it’s all bollocks.
On the upside, we do get some brilliant words from the superstition:
The fear of Friday the 13th has been called friggatriskaidekaphobia (Frigga being the name of the Norse goddess for whom “Friday” is named and triskaidekaphobia meaning fear of the number thirteen). Seriously, say that word out loud and see if you don’t love it. FRIGGATRISKAIDEKAPHOBIA! Now, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to use that word today in casual conversation. Best of luck.
There’s also paraskevidekatriaphobia a concatenation of the Greek words Paraskeví (Παρασκευή, meaning “Friday”), and dekatreís (δεκατρείς, meaning “thirteen”) attached to phobía (φοβία, from phóbos, φόβος, meaning “fear”).
My preference definitely goes with friggatriskaidekaphobia, though.
Regardless, the only real bad luck I’ve ever heard of relating to anything directly related to this stuff is a stunt in the US many years ago. A guy was going for a bungee jump stunt where he would bungee off the side of a building and pick up a can of soda from the pavement. Extremely careful calculations were made, regarding his weight, the bungee rope, the distance and so on, to make such a dangerously accurate jump. Finally ready, he made the jump and smashed his head into the pavement and died. Why? Because many US buildings don’t have a 13th floor, skipping from 12 to 14, so the calculations of the building’s height were out by one storey. So 13 was definitely unlucky for that guy, but in a rather ironic way. Of course, all that could just be an urban legend, but it’s a great story nonetheless. And good stories are the best thing about all superstitions.