Beware of Friday the 13th. It is a most unlucky day and you’ll be fortunate to make it to Saturday alive, let alone unscathed…
Why is Friday the 13th associated with unfortunate happenings? The 1907 novel –Friday, the Thirteenth by Thomas Lawson, although not dedicated to the unlucky nature of the day, details a case study of what befalls those who engage in business on Friday the 13th. By the time of the novel’s publication, superstitions about not closing deals or engaging in transactions of any significance on the day were already ubiquitous in the business world with many also refraining from travelling. Yet beliefs on what business should be avoided were the latest evolution in superstition surrounding a day that occurs twice yearly (and rarely three times). Although there are no records of when the superstition began, we can reasonably be certain that the unlucky nature of Friday the 13th independent of any activities avoided, stems from the conjunction of what were already believed (in the Christian world) to be inauspicious occurrences – a Friday and the number 13.
In Christian tradition, Friday was the day Christ was betrayed and crucified. Until recent decades, Catholics still fasted on Fridays – not purchasing much more than fish for an evening meal – thus sacrificing for Christ as Christ had sacrificed for them. Such traditions led to lackluster trading in medieval Europe on Friday, which may be the ultimate root of the business aspect of the superstition. To this day, Friday is not considered a good time for business transactions. In the US and most of the Western world, it’s the last day of the work week and often the attention of clients is directed elsewhere. In the Muslim world, it is a holy day unsuitable for purchases of any kind.
Friday’s association with ill-omen due to Christ’s death, over time became interpreted as an association with evil. Because the occult had been effectively branded as evil, pagan practices also became associated with Friday – a day when witches and warlocks rejoice in Christ’s death through all means of sinful excess. Even in contemporary times, from a strictly puritanical standpoint, Friday remains a day of evil – a day when one meets friends for a few drinks – or maybe more than a few – thus engaging in excess and becoming more prone to sin. The pagan aspect is gone, but ask any 9-1-1 operator for their Friday night stories and they will tell you it is still a time of misfortune and the darker aspects of humanity.
The number 13 has an older and more powerful association with evil. There is evidence that belief in the number’s unlucky nature is as old as civilization itself. Although it is impossible to date when the belief began, within the list of laws Hammurabi wrote for all to obey in the 2nd millennium B.C. there is a jump from 12 to 14 – omitting the Babylonian symbol for ‘13’. It is impossible to confirm why ‘13’ was omitted, but in the multiple slabs on which the laws were inscribed – none have a 13thlaw.
Jumping ahead 1000 years to classical Greece when philosophers were just beginning to experiment with mathematics, the number was always an unwelcome result of calculations. Not only is ‘13’ a prime number (only divisible by itself and 1), but it is specifically one more than ‘12’. The number 12 can be divided by 2, 3, 4 and 6. The symmetry and completeness of ‘12’ seems to naturally appeal to humanity. There are twelve Apostles, twelve Greek Gods, twelve sons of Odin, twelve successors to Mohammed, twelve signs of the Zodiac (Eastern and Western) Etc… We still maintain a twelve month calendar and even divide the hours of the day into units of twelve (a.m. and p.m.). The symmetry of ‘12’ is even embedded in most languages. For example, in English, it remains the largest number without embellishment: after twelve, the ‘teens’ begin – augmentations of the original numbers. A singular addition to ‘12’ perverts this symmetrical perfection. Thus the superstition revolves around the 13th – because the 13th of anything must be taken away in order for symmetry to be preserved and a harmonious balance to occur. Superstition about the number’s unlucky nature, thus ironically stems from the mathematical preference of removing one from ‘13’ to get ‘12’.
The most ancient and enduring superstition associated with the unlucky character of ‘12 + 1’ is the belief that if thirteen people sit down at the same table for a meal, the 13th person will die within a year. The superstition was so pronounced in the late 19th century the 13 Club was founded by rationalists in New York to debunk the belief. In their annual get-togethers, all members were required to sit at tables of thirteen. Over time the club gained prominence and members of prestige – including five presidents – joined. Although the 13th person at each table did not die within a year, the death rate amongst members was higher than the population at large.
During the same period when the 13 Club gained some notoriety, skyscrapers were finding their place in cities throughout the United States. Despite the club’s efforts, the unlucky nature of ‘13’ had been so engrained into our cultural consciousness that architects skipped the 13th floor when designing them. Instead, like Hammurabi, they opted to jump from 12 to 14. Thus the superstition had advanced from avoiding the addition of ‘1’ to ‘12’ to the number itself – even if part of a greater continuum that resulted in numerical symmetry (such as 100). To this day, many architects – of hotels especially – leave ‘13’ out of the floor plan. Even those that include it – famously, the Empire State building – find the floor perpetually under-rented by businesses. Granted, most entrepreneurs and CEOs are not superstitious, but there is always the possibility a client may be… better safe than sorry.
Friday + 13 = Doubly Bad
Doing important business on a Friday has been considered unlucky for over 1500 years. Not surprisingly, at some point the 13th day of the calendar month also became synonymous with bad luck in the business world (just like ‘13’ of anything). Since superstition about the number predates both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, there is good reason to believe that from the very start, the 13th day of any month was considered inauspicious, if not unlucky.
Hence, combining Friday and ‘13’ could only lead to more bad luck. Once more, there is historical evidence that demonstrates the devastating effects of the combination. Christ was crucified (prior to the acceptance of either the Julian or Gregorian calendars) on a Friday. At the time he also had 12 apostles, who he had dined with the evening before. He was the 13th man at the table and therefore had to die. Thus both Friday and 13 became associated with the most traumatic event in Christian tradition. Once more, Judas – the one who betrayed Christ – is considered to be the 13thApostle, since Paul was converted to the Christian cause after Christ’s death. Judas hung himself.
Yet, it is not until some 1300 years later that evidence of the unlucky nature of the day is available. One of the most infamous treacheries of the Middle Ages – the massacre and arrest of the principle knights in the Order of the Knights Templar – occurred on Friday the 13th. The order was dedicated to crusading in the Holy Land and gained international popularity amongst European nobility. Its popularity only grew after the 3rd crusade and it soon became a political force in medieval Christendom. Indeed, the order became so powerful that it developed considerable influence within the papacy and could challenge the authority of a king. The king of France, Philip IV, felt sufficiently threatened by the Knights Templar that he organized a mass of assassins and sheriffs to arrest and torture and/or kill the Order’s members at a prearranged date. The operation was unique in its conspiratorial nature, which remarkably never reached the ears of the leaders of the order – to their peril. On Friday October 13, 1307, Philip IV’s men executed their instructions across Europe with spectacular success, to the point that the date remains one of infamy in the annals of all secret societies that claim connection to the medieval order.
In contemporary times, mundane happenings also tend to confirm the unlucky character of the day. Several plane crashes have occurred on Friday the 13th, although statistically crashes on Friday the 13th are close to par with other days, their occurrence continues to fuel superstition about travel. Yet, travel by other means has proven decidedly unlucky by any comparison. Automobile accidents are statistically higher on Fridays, but spike to freakish levels on Friday the 13th. A 1993 study in the British Medical Journal showed a shocking 52% jump in accident rates throughout England on the Friday the 13ths of the previous ten years. There are also unexplained coincidences associated with the day. The most recent occurred in 2010. Thirteen minutes past the thirteenth hour (1:13pm) on Friday, August 13th, a 13 year-old boy was struck by lightning at an air show (yes… it’s true!)… Strange, indeed.
Yet, outside of such accidents the public awareness of unlucky correlations is largely the result of pop culture influences that perk up our perceptions – making us more inclined to notice occurrences and associate them with the time and day. The most recent addition to our cultural tradition that fuels continued awareness of ill-omen on Friday the 13th is the Friday the 13th horror movie franchise. Like the novel Friday, the Thirteenth from some 70 years prior, the first movie is a case study of just how unlucky the day can be – especially if you are a horny 20-something at an abandoned summer camp. ‘Friday the 13th’ was originally picked by producers as the title due to its unlucky association and the movie series is ironically now complicit in perpetuating superstition surrounding the day.
Awareness of the unlucky nature of Friday the 13th may itself be the cause of that which brings bad luck. We are more likely to change our habits and do things we wouldn’t normally do during times of ill-omen, which alters our environment in ways we may or may not understand and creates new chain reactions which may lead to that which we interpret as strange and associated phenomena.
As for me: I know that ‘13’ is just a number and ‘Friday’ is just a day. Either alone and I could look the other way. But, together… Well… I can’t explain it, but it’s unsettling. Of course, it doesn’t help that I have personally experienced several bizarre events on Friday the 13th (one may have even involved a ghost).