Why Is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?

Tracing the origin of Friday the 13th superstitions

Calendar Friday the 13th
Stockbyte/Getty Images

In a provocatively study titled, "Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health?" published in the 1993 British Medical Journal, researchers compared the ratio of traffic volume to the number of automobile accidents on two different dates, Friday the 6th and Friday the 13th, over a period of years. Their goal was to map "the relation between health, behavior, and superstition surrounding Friday 13th in the United Kingdom."

Interestingly, they found that while consistently fewer people in the region sampled chose to drive their cars on Friday the 13th, the number of hospital admissions due to vehicular accidents was significantly higher than on Friday the 6th.

Their conclusion?

"Friday 13th is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52 percent. Staying at home is recommended."

Paraskevidekatriaphobics — those afflicted with a morbid, irrational fear of Friday the 13th — will be pricking up their ears about now, buoyed by evidence that the source of their unholy terror may not be so irrational after all. It's unwise to take solace in the results of a single scientific study, however, especially one so peculiar. Surely these statistics have more to teach us about human psychology than the ill-fatedness of any particular date on the calendar.

"The most widespread superstition," says phobia doctor

The sixth day of the week and the number 13 both have foreboding reputations said to date from ancient times. Their inevitable conjunction from one to three times a year portends more misfortune than some credulous minds can bear. According to phobia specialist (and coiner of the term paraskevidekatriaphobia) Dr. Donald Dossey, it's the most widespread superstition in the United States today.

Some people refuse to go to work on Friday the 13th; some won't dine in restaurants; many wouldn't think of setting a wedding on that date.

So, how many Americans at the beginning of the 21st century actually suffer from this condition? According to Dossey, the figure may be as high as 21 million. If he's right, no fewer than eight percent of Americans remain in the grips of a very old superstition.

Exactly how old is difficult to say, because determining the origins of superstitions is an inexact science, at best. In fact, it's mostly guesswork.

The Devil's Dozen

Though no one can say for sure when and why human beings first associated the number 13 with misfortune, the superstition is assumed to be quite old, and there exist any number of theories purporting to trace its origins to antiquity and beyond.

It has been proposed, for example, that human fears surrounding the number 13 are as ancient as the act of counting. Primitive man had only his 10 fingers and two feet to represent units, this explanation goes, so he could count no higher than 12.

What lay beyond that — 13 — was an impenetrable mystery to our prehistoric forebears, hence an object of superstition.

Which has an edifying ring to it, but one is left wondering: did primitive man not have toes?

Life and Death

Despite whatever terrors the numerical unknown held for their hunter-gatherer ancestors, ancient civilizations weren't unanimous in their dread of 13. The Chinese regarded the number as lucky, some commentators note, as did the Egyptians in the time of the pharaohs.

To the ancient Egyptians, they say, life was a quest for spiritual ascension which unfolded in stages — twelve in this life and a thirteenth beyond, thought to be the eternal afterlife. The number 13 therefore symbolized death, not in terms of dust and decay but as a glorious and desirable transformation. Though Egyptian civilization perished, this account continues, the symbolism conferred on the number 13 by its priesthood survived, albeit corrupted by subsequent cultures who came to associate 13 with a fear of death instead of a reverence for the afterlife.

Anathema

Still other sources speculate that the number 13 may have been purposely vilified by the founders of patriarchal religions in the early days of western civilization because it represented femininity. Thirteen is said to have been revered in prehistoric goddess-worshiping cultures because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days).

The "Earth Mother of Laussel," for example — a 27,000-year-old carving found near the Lascaux caves in France often cited as an icon of matriarchal spirituality — depicts a female figure holding a crescent-shaped horn bearing 13 notches. As the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar with the rise of male-dominated civilization, so did the "perfect" number 12 over the "imperfect" number 13, thereafter considered anathema.

One of the earliest concrete taboos associated with the number 13 is said to have originated in the East with the Hindus, who apparently believed, for reasons I haven't been able to ascertain, that it is always unlucky for 13 people to gather in one place — say, at dinner. Interestingly enough, precisely the same superstition has been attributed to the ancient Vikings (though I've also been told that this and the accompanying mythographical explanation of it are of questionable authenticity). That story has been laid down as follows:

Twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the Evil One, the god of mischief, had been left off the guest list but crashed the party anyway, bringing the total number of attendees to 13. True to character, Loki incited Hod, the blind god of winter, to attack Balder the Good, who was a favorite of the gods.

Hod took a spear of mistletoe offered by Loki and obediently hurled it at Balder, killing him instantly. All Valhalla grieved. And although one might take the moral of this story to be "Beware of uninvited guests bearing mistletoe," the Norse themselves apparently concluded that 13 people at a dinner party is just plain bad luck.

As if to prove the point, the Bible tells us there were exactly 13 present at the Last Supper. One of the dinner guests — er, disciples — betrayed Jesus Christ, setting the stage for the Crucifixion.

Did we mention the Crucifixion took place on a Friday?

Bad Friday

Some say Friday's bad reputation goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. It was on a Friday, supposedly, that Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit. Adam bit, as we all learned in Sunday School, and they were both ejected from Paradise. Tradition also holds that the Great Flood began on a Friday; God tongue-tied the builders of the Tower of Babel on a Friday; the Temple of Solomon was destroyed on a Friday; and, of course, Friday was the day of the week on which Christ was crucified.

It is therefore a day of penance for Christians.

In pagan Rome, Friday was execution day (later Hangman's Day in Britain), but in other pre-Christian cultures it was the sabbath, a day of worship, so those who indulged in secular or self-interested activities on that day could not expect to receive blessings from the gods — which may explain the lingering taboo on embarking on journeys or starting important projects on Fridays.

To complicate matters, these pagan associations were not lost on the early Church, which went to great lengths to suppress them. If Friday was a holy day for heathens, the Church fathers felt, it must not be so for Christians — thus it became known in the Middle Ages as the "Witches' Sabbath," and thereby hangs another tale.


The witch-goddess

The name "Friday" was derived from a Norse deity worshiped on the sixth day, known either as Frigg (goddess of marriage and fertility), or Freya (goddess of sex and fertility), or both, the two figures having become intertwined in the handing down of myths over time (the etymology of "Friday" has been given both ways).

Frigg/Freya corresponded to Venus, the goddess of love of the Romans, who named the sixth day of the week in her honor "dies Veneris."

Friday was actually considered quite lucky by pre-Christian Teutonic peoples, we are told — especially as a day to get married — because of its traditional association with love and fertility.

All that changed when Christianity came along. The goddess of the sixth day — most likely Freya in this context, given that the cat was her sacred animal — was recast in post-pagan folklore as a witch, and her day became associated with evil doings.

Various legends developed in that vein, but one is of particular interest: As the story goes, the witches of the north used to observe their sabbath by gathering in a cemetery in the dark of the moon. On one such occasion the Friday goddess, Freya herself, came down from her sanctuary in the mountaintops and appeared before the group, who numbered only 12 at the time, and gave them one of her cats, after which the witches' coven — and, by "tradition," every properly-formed coven since — comprised exactly 13.

The astute reader will have observed that while we have thus far insinuated any number of intriguing connections between events, practices and beliefs attributed to ancient cultures and the superstitious fear of Fridays and the number 13, we have yet to happen upon an explanation of how, why, or when these separate strands of folklore converged — if that is indeed what happened — to mark Friday the 13th as the unluckiest day of all.

There's a very simple reason for that: Nobody really knows, and few concrete explanations have been proposed.

"A Day So Infamous"

One theory, recently offered up as historical fact in the novel The Da Vinci Code, holds that the stigma came about not as the result of a convergence, but because of a catastrophe, a single historical event that happened nearly 700 years ago. That event was the decimation of the Knights Templar, the legendary order of "warrior monks" formed during the Christian Crusades to combat Islam. Renowned as a fighting force for 200 years, by the 1300s the order had grown so pervasive and powerful it was perceived as a political threat by kings and popes alike and brought down by a church-state conspiracy, as recounted by Katharine Kurtz in Tales of the Knights Templar (Warner Books, 1995):

On October 13, 1307, a day so infamous that Friday the 13th would become a synonym for ill fortune, officers of King Philip IV of France carried out mass arrests in a well-coordinated dawn raid that left several thousand Templars — knights, sergeants, priests, and serving brethren — in chains, charged with heresy, blasphemy, various obscenities, and homosexual practices. None of these charges was ever proven, even in France — and the Order was found innocent elsewhere — but in the seven years following the arrests, hundreds of Templars suffered excruciating tortures intended to force "confessions," and more than a hundred died under torture or were executed by burning at the stake.

There are problems with the "day so infamous" thesis, however, not the least of which is that it attributes enormous significance to a relatively obscure historical event. Even more problematic for this or any other theory positing pre-modern origins for a superstitious dread of Friday the 13th is the fact that so little documentation has been found to prove that such a superstition even existed prior to the late 19th century.

An Accrual of Bad Omens

Going back more than a hundred years, Friday the 13th doesn't even merit a mention in the 1898 edition of E. Cobham Brewer's voluminous Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, though one does find entries for "Friday, an Unlucky Day" and "Thirteen Unlucky."  When the date of ill fate finally does make an appearance in later editions of the text, it is without extravagant claims as to the superstition's historicity or longevity. The very brevity of the entry is instructive: "Friday the Thirteenth: A particularly unlucky Friday. See Thirteen" — implying that the extra dollop of misfortune might be accounted for in terms of a simple accrual, as it were, of bad omens:

UNLUCKY FRIDAY + UNLUCKY 13 = UNLUCKIER FRIDAY

That being the case, we're guilty of perpetuating a misnomer by labeling Friday the 13th "the unluckiest day of all," a designation perhaps better reserved for, say, a Friday the 13th on which one breaks a mirror, walks under a ladder, spills the salt, and spies a black cat crossing one's path; a day, if there ever was one, best spent in the safety of one's own home with doors locked, shutters closed, and fingers crossed.

Postscript: A Novel Theory Emerges

In 13: The Story of the World's Most Popular Superstition (Avalon, 2004), author Nathaniel Lachenmeyer argues that the commingling of "unlucky Friday" and "unlucky 13" took place in the pages of a specific literary work, a novel published in 1907 titled — what else?

Friday, the Thirteenth. The book, all but forgotten now, concerned dirty dealings in the stock market and sold quite well in its day. Both the titular phrase and the phobic premise behind it — namely that superstitious people regard Friday the 13th as a supremely unlucky day — were instantly adopted and popularized by the press.

It seems unlikely that the novelist, Thomas W. Lawson, literally invented that premise himself — he treats it within the story, in fact, as a notion that already existed in the public consciousness — but he most certainly lent it gravitas and set it on a path to becoming the most widespread — or at least the most widely known — superstition in the modern world.

Sources and further reading:

  • "Days of the Week: Friday." The Mystical World Wide Web.
  • de Lys, Claudia. The Giant Book of Superstitions. New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1979.
  • Duncan, David E. Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. New York: Avon, 1998.
  • Ferm, Vergilius. A Brief Dictionary of American Superstitions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1965.
  • Krischke, Wolfgang. "This Just Might Be Your Lucky Day." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1 Nov 2001.
  • Kurtz, Katharine. Tales of the Knights Templar. New York: Warner Books, 1995.
  • Lachenmeyer, Nathaniel. 13: The Story of the World's Most Popular Superstition. New York: Avalon, 2004.
  • Lawson, Thomas W. Friday, the Thirteenth. New York: Doubleday, 1907.
  • Opie, Iona and Tatem, Moira. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.
  • Q and A: Triskaidekaphobia. New York Times, 8 Aug 1993.
  • Scanlon, T.J., et al. "Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health?" British Medical Journal. (Dec. 18-25, 1993): 1584-6.