Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?

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Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from  “paraskavedekatriaphobia,” a common neurosis familiar to us all—the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about twelve gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a thirteenth guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki. According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also Odin’s son) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number thirteen was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted thirteenth guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number twelve emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are twelve months in a year, twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve Gods of Olympus, twelve sons of Odin, twelve labors of Hercules, twelve Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, twelve successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and twelve tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his twelve Apostles—Judas—who was the thirteenth guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number twelve ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number thirteen bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

Why Friday?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late-nineteenth century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.) 

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a thirteenth floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though both the Empire State Building and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel have 13th floors). Street addresses sometimes skip from twelve to fourteen, while airports may skip the thirteenth gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. (One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.) And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition, by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer.

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September 13, 2013 - 6:00am
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