Although most of us would probably affirm that superstition’s role in Western culture is now a much diminished one, more a source of amusement than anything else, there are still those who allow their trepidation over particular days or dates to prevent them from engaging in their choice of activities. We may make jokes about Friday the 13th and only kiddingly instruct loved ones to exercise greater care on that day, but those who suffer from a fear of the number thirteen (triskaidekaphobia) or a fear of Friday the 13th (paraskevidekatriaphobia) may genuinely feel limited by the rumored potential for ill luck connected with the date.
The reasons why Friday came to be regarded as a day of bad luck have been obscured by the mists of time — some of the more common theories link it to a significant event in Christian tradition said to have taken place on Friday, such as the Crucifixion, Eve’s offering the apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden, the beginning of the Great Flood, or the confusion at the Tower of Babel. 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.)
Not until the early part of the 20th century did regular expressions of Friday the 13th as a day of evil luck start popping up in the press. When we searched The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for such 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:
There’s Little Hope for them.
(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:
Willing to Take the Chance.
These days, however, one is unlikely to get so much as a free latte out of the day. Sanguinity comes at a price.
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. 249-25)
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).