Friday, 13 June 2014

Why is Friday the 13th considered unlucky?

I have to declare a personal interest - both my father and my youngest son were born on the same day - Friday 13th of January. And I'm not particularly superstitious about that day!
But I would not go so far as the Anti-Superstition society of Chicago, which in 1959, defied superstitions at its Friday the 13th February gathering by breaking thirteen mirrors with thirteen horse- shoes, while seated thirteen at a table, after walking under thirteen rung ladders and under thirteen open umbrellas! Alas, the society no longer exists. But did its members meet a sticky end? No one knows!
In New York, there was also the "Thirteen Club" which was created in the 1880s to debunk the superstition of "13 at a table" being unlucky. They met on the 13th of the month for a dinner served to 13 people at each table. But it is interesting that they never mentioned the combination of Friday and the 13th as particularly unlucky.
Everyone knows that Friday the 13th is unlucky. But is it? Actually the combination of Friday and 13th does not seem to appear in records until around the late 19th or early 20th century.
 One historian has suggested that since references to Friday the 13th were nonexistent before 1907, the popularity of the superstition must come from the publication of Thomas W. Lawson's popular novel, Friday, the Thirteenth, published in 1907.
In the novel, a stock broker takes advantage of the superstition about unlucky Friday to create a Wall Street panic on Friday the 13th. Financiers have had several "Black Fridays" since 1866 when the London stock market panic started.
As one reviewer put it:
"Part torrid love story, part polemic on the crookedness of the "stock-gambling game," with a plot that hinged on a speculator's attempt to manipulate the market on that day, Friday, the Thirteenth was as successful as it was awful"
Some folklore researchers put it earlier, but the combination - Friday 13th - does not seem to go back before the late 19th century.
An Earlier Date?
In 1869, in the biography of Gioachino Rossini, the author, Henry Sutherland Edwards notes:
"He [Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that one Friday 13th of November he died."
But 13 is not an unlucky number in Italy! So perhaps Edwards was recording his own beliefs, and attributing them to Rossini.
It didn't take off from there, and it is only after Lawson's book that it really hits the headlines - 1908 - in the New York Times of that year - ""WASHINGTON, March 13 - Friday the 13th holds no terror for Senator Owen." Thereafter, it enters into the public record.
We can certainly discount the modern myth that it was when the Knights Templar were arrested on Friday, October 13, 1307. There is no documentary evidence for that! It's of a piece with some of the fantasies we find in the Da Vinci code.
Incidentally, there can be a maximum of 3 Friday 13ths in any calendar year, and a minimum of 1.
The fear of Friday the 13 is called "friggatriskaidekaphobia" (Frigga is the Norse goddess for whom "Friday" is named in English and triskaidekaphobia is fear of the number thirteen. It makes "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" a doddle to pronounce!
Number 13
Why 13 is unlucky is obscure.
In the ancient Babylon's Code of Hammurabi, dating to about 1772 BC, the number 13 is omitted in the list of laws. Was it because it was unlucky? Perhaps.
One story is told about 13 being unlucky among the Norse people. This was because of Loki's appearance at a dinner party of 12 gods, making 13, brought the death of the beloved Balder, for whose mother, Frigg, Friday is named.
Another story is that Judas was the 13th guest at the Last Supper, just before he betrayed Jesus. That is reflected in superstitions about 13 at Dinner, for example, in the 1880s, one writer noted that
"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 "
Agatha Christie, of course, had a story called "Lord Edgware Dies" in which there are 13 people at the dinner table, and naturally one of them is murdered. Hercule Poirot, of course, solves the case.
In America, President Woodrow Wilson gave an Armistice Night dinner of thirteen and died within twelve months! Proof positive!
Most hotels don't have a number 13, and in Jersey, we have a 12 and 12A bus, and not until very recently, a number 13 - which goes to Durrell.
 In Germany and France, where streets known by numbers, there are some which are "12 ½" but never 13!
 "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."
Unlucky 17
The superstition surrounding 13 is not as widespread as you might think. In Italy, 13 is a lucky number, and it is the number 17 that is a portent of doom! The Roman numeral for 17 - XVII, can be seen as an anagram for VIXI, reminding Italians of the Latin phrase "I have lived", implying - my life is over.
The Italian airline carrier, Alitalia, does not have a seat 17. Renault sold its "R17" model in Italy as "R177."
Tuesday the 13th
Tuesday the 13th is the unlucky day in Greece and Spanish speaking countries.
Unlucky Friday
The origins are this are obscure, but Good Friday, the day when Jesus was crucified, may be the cause of one explanation.
Chaucer mentions Friday as a day of bad luck - "And on a Friday fell all this mischance", but again most of the mention of superstitions are recorded in the early 19th century.

In particular, sailors avoid a voyage which begins on a Friday. Birth and marriage on a Friday mean that you will be unlucky.
Friday was also the traditional English day for public hanging. Very unlucky for some!
When this was changed in America, in 1890, Judge McAdam said: "Now anybody can have as much pleasure on that day as on any other, while those who were formerly hanged only on Friday may now have the pleasure of being hanged on every day of the week."

A Jersey folk tale about the unlucky number 13.
The part of the Jersey coastline near La Rocque is very treacherous because there are many rocks hidden under the water. Legend has it that the witches of Rocqueberg would only allow fishermen to pass this headland safely if they were thrown every thirteenth fish from the fishermen's catch. If they failed to do this the hags would cast a spell to raise a great storm, and the boat would be smashed to pieces on the rocks.
One brave fisherman refused to do this - instead he took a five-rayed starfish from his catch, cut off one of the arms and threw it at the witches, shouting: 'The cross is my passport'. It landed amongst the witches in the shape of the cross and they disappeared, never to be seen again.
Concluding Unsuperstitious Postscript
One folklore recommendation to avoid bad luck on Friday 13th is to climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them.
But Dr Caroline Watt says that it is the belief in the Friday 13th superstition which can cause the bad luck:
 "If people believe in the superstition of Friday the 13th then they believe they are in greater danger on that day. As a result they may be more anxious and distracted and this could lead to accidents. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. It is like telling someone they are cursed. If they believe they are then they will worry, their blood pressure will go up and they put themselves at risk."
Or you can take it all with a pinch of salt, rather like Robert Green Ingersoll, who ended his toast, "The Superstitions of Public Men" at the December 13 1886 meeting of the "Thirteen Club":
"We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: 'Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the Nineteenth Century.'"

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