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A Short History of Friday the 13th

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Friday the 13th came and went again just a few days ago, and chances are a good few of you stayed indoors (if your jobs allowed you the day off) for fear of incurring its wrath. The date has become a bit of a superstition over the centuries, and while most people treat it with the same sort of mockery that they did the Mayan calendar's apocalypse date (oh who can forget the Great Apocalypse of 2012?), some still see it as a day of bad luck and suffering. But where did the superstition come from? Why is Friday the 13th so feared? While there is no definitive answer to that question as the superstition comes from a number of different sources, we can at least touch on some of the most popular and well known ones.

Let's start with the numbers. Thirteen comes after twelve. See? You learn something everyday! And here's something else for you to learn. Twelve is a number with a divine importance in most religions. From Jesus having twelve Apostles to the Twelve Tribes of Israel to the twelve imams that would succeed the Prophet Mohammed, the number has been used to symbolize goodness, light, and divinity in some way throughout the majority of the world's major religions. And this is not limited to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hinduism and the Ancient Greco-Roman religions also had a positive fascination with the number. This goes hand in hand with our use of the number in everyday life, from the concept of a “dozen” to the twelve months of the year. The Zodiac has twelve signs. The clock has twelve numbers. The number twelve is a number that we cling to dearly, for reasons both religious and mathematical.

The divinity of the number twelve leads into the “unholiness” that surrounds the superstition of the number thirteen. While twelve is a mathematically “pseudo-perfect” number (divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6) that the highly God-fearing and superstitious people of yesteryear had every reason to believe that the universe revolves around, thirteen has none of those qualities and is the first such number to lie outside twelve's “jurisdiction”, so to speak. So when bad things start occurring in relation to this number, you can't be surprised when people centuries ago and beyond start seeing it in a negative light.

At the Last Supper, thirteen people sat down to dine (Jesus and the twelve Apostles), with the traitor Judas being the thirteenth person to sit. And on the 13th of October 1307 (a Friday, naturally), King Phillip IV of France had thousands of members of the Knights Templar arrested and tortured.

And like the divinity of twelve, the superstition around the number thirteen is not limited only to the three major religions. The number was sacred to the ancient Mayans as well, and the 13th Baktun (a Baktun being a measurement on their calendar that is roughly 394 years on the Gregorian calendar) ended on December 21, 2012. You can see where people's imaginations begin to run wild and superstitions start to form.

But if those are some of the modern sources of the fear of the number thirteen, then what about Friday? Other than being a bad song on Youtube (it still sends shivers up my spine), the Christian religion holds Friday as the day of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is also believed that Adam and Eve ate the apple on a Friday. The province of Gallia Narbonensis was taken from the Roman Empire on a Friday, and they held Fridays as an unlucky day ever since. And even before that, the Ancient Romans associated Fridays with the goddess Venus. You know how the three major religions feel about other gods.

From there, many just conflate the bad luck associated with the number thirteen with the bad luck associated with Fridays, turning Friday the 13th into an extra unlucky day.

Now I've given many examples from many different cultures and religions, but the fact is that there is no single definitive source for the superstition regarding Friday the 13th. People in different parts of the world experienced different events and had different beliefs that eventually formed into these superstitions. And even though back then people lived in a much “larger world” with a diversity of cultures and religions separated by thousands and thousands of miles, one thing people had in common was that they were a “cowardly and superstitious lot”, as Batman would say if he were real. People with almost nothing to their name took up arms and went to war if they thought it was God's will to do so, so it's easy to imagine how the gullible and uneducated masses with no access to uncensored information allowed the superstition to not only spread, but survive to this very day.

Like many Internet memes which evolve over time and are hard to identify the source, the Friday the 13th superstition is a cultural meme with many possible origins, and the mystery behind it is certainly something that has helped it survive to this very day. Even today, many people refuse to do business on Friday the 13th and the S&P 500 stock index dips on that date. While it didn't get “popular”, for lack of a better term, until the early 20th Century, Friday the 13th and the fear surrounding it are a permanent fixture of our culture. It's here to stay for good.

Of course, I think the whole thing surrounds the fact that an invincible man in a hockey mask wielding a machete stalks sexually active high school students on Friday the 13th. But that's just me.

 

The Encyclopedia of Superstitions
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(price as of Jun 20, 2014)
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