Gloom, despair and agony on me
Deep dark depression, excessive misery
If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all
Gloom, despair and agony on me
In 1976, a New Yorker named Daz Baxter was reportedly so afraid of Friday the 13th that he opted to play it safe and stay in bed where no harm could befall him. That same day he was was killed when the floor of his apartment building collapsed. Coincidence, or is this date fated to truly exude the madness and mayhem of the unlucky?
In 1993 the British Medical Journal published an article aptly titled ‘Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Heath?’ The goal of the researchers was to determine the relationship between health, behavior and superstition surrounding this particular day in the U.K. To do this they opted to review hospital admissions stemming from auto accidents, while taking into account the volume of traffic, on two different Fridays: the 6th and the 13th. Now, surprisingly, there were consistently fewer people who braved the roads on the 13th, and yet hospital admission for accidents was significantly higher, showing an increased risk of 52% when compared to the 6th. But is this a sign of the unlucky spirit of the day, or a simple matter of psychology where we believe we are unlucky, and therefore we fulfil our own prophecy?
There is a name for those who fear this day, a name that causes my soul to squirm and shiver when attempting to pronounce it: paraskevidekatriaphobia. Today I went on a quest to discover the origins of this little holiday that captures the imagination and inspires many horror films and scary stories. What I found was surprising, and perhaps a bit vague. So grab a drink and let’s break it down.
The infamous number 13:
The theories and negative associations surrounding this number are plentiful. If 13 people sit down to dine, the first to rise will be soon to die. The Turks had such a fear of this number that it became practically nonexistent in their language. It takes 13 witches to make up a full coven. If you have 13 letters in your name, then you have the devil’s luck. Want a few examples to think over after you have counted the letters in your own? Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy, Albert De Salvo (the Boston stranger), Aileen Wuornos (murdered 7 men in one year and said she’d do it again), Saddam Hussein, Lavinia Fisher (the first American serial killer who poisoned guests at her boarding house), Osama bin Laden; I am sure the list goes on. The fear of 13 has even carried into our modern society; many cities do not have a 13th street or avenue, and many building don’t possess a 13th floor.
Now, not all cultures despise the number. The Chinese always regarded it as lucky, as did the Egyptians in the time of the pharaohs. Even today: I am a big fan of a baker’s dozen where I can get 13 tasty treats instead of 12. But why is there a general dislike of something as unassuming as a number across history and cultures?
To answer that in part, we have to take it back to the Egyptians. Remember how I said that they thought it was a lucky number? Egyptians believed that life itself was meant to be a quest for spiritual ascension, as do so many religions. They believed that this spiritual journey could be broken down into stages; 12 in this life and the 13th beyond, which they viewed as their eternal afterlife. As such, they associated 13 with death, but in their views it was meant as a desirable and glorious thing. As time passed and subsequent cultures rose and fell, the original association between the number thirteen and the nature of death remained strong. What weakened, however, was the light that it was viewed in. People forgot the spiritual context of a happy and glorious afterlife, and began to fill in that empty space with their internal fears of death itself. That fear bred a mistrust and general distaste for the number it was connected with.
Another theory centering around the vilification of the number 13, interestingly enough, ties into the ever raging battle of the sexes. The number 13 represented femininity and was revered within prehistoric worship. As an example, it can be seen in a Stone Age carving known as the earth mother of Laussel, found near the Lascaux caves in France and is often cited as an iconic matriarchal spirit. This carving depicts a female figure holding a crescent-shaped horn that bears 13 notches. The number 13 corresponds to the number of lunar (menstraul) cycles in a year. It is thought that the matriarchal number fell out of favor as many societies and religions found themselves leaning more towards a patriarchal viewpoint.
The religious connotations related to the number 13 carry over into Christianity as well. The predominate story is centered around the Last Supper. There were thirteen in attendance. One of the disciples then betrayed Jesus Christ, leading to the crucifixion. To add an interesting twist, shall I mention the fact that the crucifixion itself was said to take place on a Friday? Ah yes, it appears that the plot thickens. Let us carry on with this thread.
The Fear of Friday:
Personally, I have never been afraid of Friday, nay, I revere and uphold this day as the oh-so-sacred end point of my working week, and my occasional day for lovely happy hours filled with hummus plates, cheesy tots and blue moons at my favorite Irish pub. But the love for this day has not always existed.
Old wives tales and general theory abound when it comes to this particular day of the week. It is said that if you change the bed on a Friday it will bring you bad dreams. Cutting your nails will lead to bad luck and sorrow. If you start a trip on a Friday you will encounter misfortune. Relating to this, ships that set sail on this day will encounter bad luck. There is even an urban myth stating that the Royal Navy once attempted to dispel this fear amongst their sailors so they created the H.M.S Friday. The story goes that they made a point to handle all major events on Fridays; they commissioned and named the ship, laid the keel, launched the vessel, selected the crew and captain, and embarked on its maiden voyage- all on separate Fridays just to prove the point that the superstitious fear was unfounded. The story concludes that, once it set sail, the ship was never seen or heard from again. This story survived under the guise of fact for many years and was spread through such notable publications as ‘The Reader’s Digest’ before additional research was done to conclude that the ship itself never actually existed.
So once again, where does this fear stem from? Once again, there are deep ties to religion when it comes to the fear of a Friday. In terms of Christianity, Fridays were generally no-good, awful, very bad days. As I mentioned before, the crucifixion is said to have taken place on this day. It is also believed that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden on a Friday, the Great Flood, the tying of tongues at the Tower of Babel, the destruction of the Temple of Solomon; all took place on Fridays.
It was also considered a sabbath day in many other pre-Christian religions. This meant that when Christianity took hold in many of these territories, that day became somewhat vilified by the father’s of the church due to its ‘heathen associations.’ In an attempt to discredit the day and ensure that fellow christians would not begin to follow the practice of a Friday sabbath, it was decried the ‘witch’s sabbath,’ a distasteful connotation in a superstitious era.
Another tie to the witchy word happens to stem from its very name. The word Friday is derived from a Norse deity who was worshipped on the 6th day. Depending on the story you read, she was either known as Frigga (the goddess of marriage and fertility), or Freya (the goddess of sex and fertility). These two dieties became intertwined with one another throughout the myths, and are still difficult to differentiate. The goddesses are associated with Venus, the Roman goddess of love. This association meant that those who believed in her felt that Friday was an especially lucky day to get married, as it was her day. Once again, this was to change when Christianity made it to the show. As I said earlier, it discredit the heathen practices. It was re-named the witch’s sabbath. During this vilification process, Freya herself was depicted as a witch. Alongside her, her sacred animal, the cat, was rebranded as the witch’s pet, an association that maintains to this day. From then on, Freya’s day of love was recast as a day of evil intentions and ill omens.
It was not just religion that cast a dark pallor over the day, however. These undertones existed in other cultures as well, thought wether by coincidence or design is yet unknown. It became a recognized day of death. In pagan Rome it was their execution day, which morphed into Hangman’s Day in Britain. The bloody stains could not be easily washed from the fabric of our beloved Friday.
What Brought Friday and the 13th Together at Last?
So we have two separate histories marked by fear and apprehension. But what brought these two together in solemn matrimony? That’s hard to tell, though theories abound. One, admittedly not my personal favorite, circles back to our undercurrent of religion. This concept has arisen in well-published novels, such as The DaVinci Code. The theory itself surrounds historical events, in the form of the decimation and mass arrests of the Knights Templar, which took place on Friday the 13th. Now, I’m not going to spend extensive time on this theory because I don’t find it particularly compelling or plausible. At the time, the events were not cast as a major event, and they would have had little effect over the superstitions and colloquial terminology of the day. While religion has a strong holding over the original superstitions of the two separately, I don’t think they can claim credit for the joining of the ideas.
Another belief stems from a book published in 1907, written by Thomas Lawson. It is simply titled ‘Friday, the Thirteenth,’ and is about dirty dealings in the stock market. It sold relatively well for its time, and some have attributed the origins of the real Friday the 13th to this book. Though in actuality, it appears unlikely that the author came up with the idea himself, as the context of the story nods to the idea of the unlucky day as being one already known in the public conscious. Though, there is a good likelihood that he helped spread its universality. So for that we can thank him (or curse him, depending on your personal beliefs).
Personally, I follow a simple theory, though far less romantic; that people noticed a similar thread between the two and noticed when they coincided on a calendar. Think about it; Friday’s have historically been viewed as unlucky. The 13th has been viewed in the same light. So it stands to reason that when you combine the two, you come up with unlucky multiplied by two. When viewing a calendar it would be easy to spot the anomaly, and given people’s perceptions of the two distinct ideas, it isn’t a far stretch to assume that they would then view the day as one to be doubly dreaded. After all, in the 1898 edition of the ‘Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’ there is no mention of Friday the 13th, though there are separate sections listed for each unlucky title. It wasn’t until later editions that they were combined under one heading. This seems to be a natural progression in the superstitious trends.
This year we will see two occassions to fear the day; the first is right here in January, and our next is nestled snugly in October, a rather fitting month if you ask me. So whether you are one to march boldly out your front door and dare the day to do its worst, or whether you prefer to roll up in bubble wrap and avoid public transportation for the intervening 24 hours, may you be safe and have fun. Just remember, our fears have only the amount of power we grant them.