Friday the 13th

Why is Friday the 13th Unlucky?

Taken from a post by Paul in Calderdale Chat

Paraskevidekatriaphobia: Fear of Friday the 13th

I have before me the abstract of a study published in the British Medical Journal in 1993, entitled "Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health?" With the aim of mapping "the relation between health, behaviour, and superstition surrounding Friday 13th in the United Kingdom," its authors compared the ratio of traffic volume to vehicular accidents on two different days, Friday the 6th and Friday the 13th, over a period of years.

Surprisingly, they found that in the region sampled, while consistently fewer people chose to drive on Friday the 13th, the number of hospital admissions due to accidents was significantly higher than on "normal" Fridays. Their conclusion:

"Friday 13th is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52 percent. Staying at home is recommended."

Paraskevidekatriaphobics — people afflicted with a morbid, irrational fear of Friday the 13th — are no doubt pricking up their ears just now, buoyed by evidence that their fears 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 it has more to teach us about human psychology than it does about 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; their inevitable conjunction from one to three times a year portends more misfortune than some credulous minds can bear. Folklorists say it's probably the most widespread superstition in the UK (and no doubt in other parts of the world, as well) — 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.

How many people 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 credited with coining the term "paraskevidekatriaphobia," as many as 21 million do in the United States alone. If that figure is correct, something like eight percent of Americans are still in the grips of an old superstition.

Exactly how old is difficult to say, because tracing the origins of superstitions is an imprecise science, at best. In fact, it's mostly guesswork.

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. Advertisement

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 are 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, so he could not count higher than 12. What lay beyond that — 13 — was an impenetrable mystery, hence an object of superstition.

Which has a lovely, didactic ring to it, but one is left wondering: did primitive man not have toes?

Despite whatever terrors the numerical unknown held for their prehistoric forebears, ancient civilizations weren't unanimous in their dread of 13. The Chinese regarded the number as lucky, historians say, as did the Egyptians in the time of the pharaohs.

To the ancient Egyptians, 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 associated it with a fear of death instead of a reverence for the afterlife.

Anathema

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 explanation, 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:

Twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the Evil One, god of mischief, had been excluded from the guest list but crashed the party anyway, 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?

Bad 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.

For example, 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.

The Witch-Goddess

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.

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