What is it about a date that evokes fear and panic and conjures up thoughts of dread, bad luck, and inevitable misfortune? Friday the 13th has become so foreboding in our culture that the mere mention of the date can make some people shudder, sending chills down the spine. But is there a valid reason for a date to be anticipated with horror or is it nothing more than a superstition – a belief with no rational basis?
A look through bits and pieces of historical information gives us some clues as to how this unwelcome date came to be labeled luckless.
One theory has its roots in the story of the Last Supper. There were 13 guests. The 13th (Judas) betrayed Christ, who was crucified on a Friday. Another speculation can be traced back to Norse mythology. When the Norse and Germanic tribes converted to Christianity, Frigga, a major goddess who was unwilling to convert to another religion, was exiled and branded a witch. It was said that every Friday she held a meeting with 13 people – eleven witches, plus Frigga, made twelve. The last person was the devil. Friday was later named for her.
Enhancing this hypothesis are two other intriguing bits of information. In the days of yore, it was believed that Friday was the day witches held their Sabbath, and there were 13 witches in a coven. Yet, another popular theory comes from the 14th century, when the Knights of the Templar were powerful and wealthy. King Philip IV of France, feeling jealous and threatened, had all the knights arrested on Friday, October 13, 1307.
Individually, the number 13 and Friday (the sixth day of the week) each began to get a bad rap centuries ago.
In ancient Rome, the number 13 was regarded as unlucky. It was a symbol of death, destruction, and misfortune. Numerologists interpret 13 as the number of upheaval. The 13th card of the tarot depicts the Grim Reaper, or Death. Symbolically, it indicates transformation, which may be difficult. Another Norse myth offers an explanation for the bad fortune associated with the number 13. Odin, the king of the gods, invited the eleven great gods to a banquet, but snubbed the mischievous Loki. Nevertheless, Loki showed up, causing trouble that resulted in the death of Balder the Good. This is most likely the source of the superstition that if you have 13 dinner guests, one will die within a year.
As for the fear of Friday, some biblical pundits say that significant events took place on this day, for example, Eve offered the apple to Adam on a Friday, and the great deluge began on a Friday. In addition, going back to the 14th century, there is reference to the calamitousness of Friday in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “And on a Friday fell all this mischance.”
By the Middle Ages, both Friday and the number 13 had gained their reputations for being the bearers of ill fortune, and at some point merged to augur a day of trepidation. Yet there is no written documentation of a Friday the 13th superstition until the 19th century. It appears in an 1869 biography of Gioachino Rossini, the celebrated composer of The Barber of Seville. Rossini was a very superstitious man, as were many Italians. He actually died on Friday the 13th!
Still, there is no proof or evidence for paraskavedekatriaphobia or friggatriskaidekaphobia, the fear of Friday the 13th, or triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13. Nevertheless, in our highly technologically advanced era, these phobias have become embedded in our culture and, for some, may rule their lives. Many buildings don’t have a 13th floor, and anxieties about Friday are fueled because more people are fired on that day than on other days of the week. There are those who use Friday the 13th as a good excuse to stay in bed all day in an attempt to avert possible catastrophe!
A belief can be powerfully self-validating, and the jinx associated with this date can be self-fulfilling. Fortunately, however, Friday the 13th isn’t a frequent occurrence. It falls on average about 18 times within a decade, or every 212.35 days, or 1.8 times per year. Whew! Let’s thank our lucky stars for that!