Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th is considered a day of bad luck in English-, French- and Portuguese-speaking countries around the world, as well as in Austria, Germany, Estonia, Finland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Bulgaria, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, and the Philippines.

Similar superstitions exist in some other traditions. In Greece, Romania and Spanish-speaking countries, for example, it is Tuesday the 13th that is considered unlucky. In Italy, it is Friday the 17th.

The fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskavedekatriaphobia, a word derived from the concatenation of the Greek words Paraskeví (Παρασκευή) (meaning Friday), and dekatreísthirteen), attached to phobía (φοβία) (meaning fear). The term is a specialized form of triskaidekaphobia, a simple phobia (fear) of the number thirteen appearing in any case.


Both the number thirteen and Friday have been considered unlucky:

  • In numerology, the number twelve is considered the number of completeness, as reflected in the twelve months of the year, twelve recognized signs of the zodiac, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve Apostles of Jesus, 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, that having thirteen people seated at a table will result in the death of one of the diners.
  • Friday, as the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified, has been viewed both positively and negatively among Christians. The actual day of Crucifixion was the 14th day of Nisan in the Hebrew Lunar calendar which does not correspond to "Friday" in the solar calendar of Rome. The 15th day of Nissan (beginning at Sundown) is celebration of Passover.

Despite the onus on the two separated elements, there is no evidence for a link between the two before the 19th century. The earliest known reference in English occurs in a 1869 biography of Gioachino Rossini:

[Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring and affectionate friends; and if it be true that, like so many other Italians, he regarded Friday as an unlucky day, and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday, the 13th of November, he died.

However, only in the 20th century did the superstition receive greater audience, as

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.

Though the superstition developed relatively recently, much older origins are often claimed for it, most notably in the novel The Da Vinci Code (and later the film), which traced the belief to the arrest of the Knights Templar on Friday October 13, 1307.

According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, an estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of this day. Some people are so paralyzed by fear that they avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights or even getting out of bed. "It's been estimated that $800 or $900 million is lost in business on this day". Despite this, representatives for both Delta and Continental Airlines say that their airlines don't suffer from any noticeable drop in travel on those Fridays.

A British Medical Journal study has shown that there is a significant increase in traffic-related accidents on Fridays the 13th.

An abstract of a 1993 study published in the British Medical Journal provocatively titled, "Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health?" has the aim of mapping "the relation between health, behavior, and superstition surrounding Friday 13th in the United Kingdom," its authors compared the ratio of traffic volume to the number of automobile accidents on two different days, Friday the 6th and Friday the 13th, over a period of years.

Incredibly, they found that in the region sampled, while consistently fewer people chose to drive their cars on Friday the 13th, the number of hospital admissions due to vehicular 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 — 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, 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.

Friday the 13th - The Most Widespread Superstition?

The sixth day of the week and the number 13 both have foreboding reputations said to date from ancient times, so 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," also spelled "paraskavedekatriaphobia"), 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 inexact science, at best. In fact, it's mostly guesswork.

Dutch statisticians have established that Friday 13th, a date regarded in many countries as inauspicious, is actually safer than an average Friday.

A study published on Thursday by the Dutch Centre for Insurance Statistics (CVS) showed that fewer accidents and reports of fire and theft occur when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday than on other Fridays.

"I find it hard to believe that it is because people are preventatively more careful or just stay home, but statistically speaking, driving is a little bit safer on Friday 13th," CVS statistician Alex Hoen told the Verzekerd insurance magazine.

In the last two years, Dutch insurers received reports of an average 7,800 traffic accidents each Friday, the CVS study said. But the average figure when the 13th fell on a Friday was just 7,500.

There were also fewer incidents of fire and theft, although the average value of losses on Fridays 13th was slightly higher.

LEGEND HAS IT: 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 — all of which have been called into question at one time or another, I should point out — 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, this explanation goes, 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 symbolism conferred on the number 13 by its priesthood survived, only to be corrupted by subsequent cultures who came to associate 13 with a fear of death instead of a reverence for the afterlife.

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:


Puts In 13 Bills on Friday the 13th and
There's Little Hope for them.

WASHINGTON, March 13 — Friday the 13th holds no terrors for Senator Owen. The Senator from Oklahoma is a Cherokee Indian, and he places the Indian sign on the ancient superstition.

To-day he introduced thirteen public building bills, and by a queer coincidence the file numbers ran from 6,113 to 6,125, inclusive.

There is little likelihood that the public building bills at this session will carry any but the most pressing improvements.

(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:


Pastor's Offer to Any Young Couple
Willing to Take the Chance.

MIDDLETOWN, N.Y., June 10 — Any young couple bent on matrimony may have the ceremony performed free next Friday by applying to the Rev. Charles H. Reynolds, pastor of the North Congregational Church.

Mr. Reynolds does not believe that Friday is unlucky, nor that
Friday, June 13, 1913, is unlucky, and therefore he offers to tie the knot free of charge for any young couple who comes to him on that day.

DiBacco, Thomas V. "How the 13th Earned Its Cloud."

The Washington Post. 13 January 2004 (p. 47).

Jory, Rex. "It's Friday the 13th, a Day with a History."

The Advertiser. 13 October 2000 (p. 18).

Maclaren, Lorna. "Watch Out for That Black Cat."

The [Glasgow] Herald. 13 April 2001 (p. 20).

Opie, Iona and Moira Tatem. A Dictionary of Superstitions.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-19-282-916-5 (pp. 167-169, 397-399).

Pickering, David. Dictionary of Superstitions.

London: Cassell, 1995. ISBN 0-304-345350 (pp. 8-81, 190-192).

Radford, Edith M. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions.

New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961. ISBN 0-304-345350 (pp. 249-250).

Radford, Tim. "Today Is Friday the 13th — But Whatever You Do, Don't Worry."

The Guardian. 13 June 2003.

Simpson, J and S. Roud. Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore.

Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-860398-3 (pp. 135-136, 355).

Los Angeles Times. "Not Superstitious."

15 December 1912 (p. B14).

The New York Times. "13 Sign on Indian Senator."

14 March 1908 (p. 6).

The New York Times. "Fashion Plate Wins Metropolitan."

14 May 1910 (p. 11).

The New York Times. "Wed Free Friday the 13th."

11 June 1913 (p. 1).

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