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Who’s Afraid of Friday the Thirteenth?

A creature with bat wings, horns, fangs and skeletal arms, legs, and torso points to a calendar date, Friday the 13th.

This “Jinx” decorates a wedding party announcement for June 13, 1913 in which the number 13 will be celebrated as an organized effort to laugh off bad luck. Jinx meant a curse or bad luck, but in early 20th century newspapers in the United States, the Friday the 13th jinx was often depicted as a demonic-looking, but often comical, spirit. In The Day Book, June 13, 1913, Chicago, IL. Found in Chronicling America.

Friday the 13th may be considered an unlucky day in some parts of Europe and in North America.   For some, the day can cause great anxiety, called paraskevidekatriaphobia, meaning fear of Friday the 13th.

The idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky is not very old. It seems to have arisen in the 19th century. My colleague Stephen Winick has found many references to unlucky Friday the thirteenth in French works, the first two from 1834. In an article in the Revue de Paris, the Marquis de Salvo, writing about a Sicilian count who killed his daughter on a Friday the Thirteenth, wrote, “Ce sont toujours ces vendredis et ces nombres, treize qui portent malheur!” (“It is always Fridays and the number thirteen that bring bad luck!”) Similarly, an 1834 play called Les Finesses des Gribouilles has a character state, “Je suis né un vendredi, treize décèmbre, 1813, d’où viennent tous mes malheurs!” (“I was born on a Friday, December 13, 1813, from which come all my misfortunes.”) The first of these two references could be to a belief in Friday and 13 individually as unlucky, and the second could refer only to Friday, December 13, but later examples show that by the middle of the 19th century, the idea that any Friday the 13th was unlucky was common in France.  To give just one example, the 1858 play Bloqué! Vaudeville en un acte, by Henri Chivot and Alfred Duru, has a character exclaim, “je n’ai jamais eu de chance de ma vie! Je suis né un vendredi treize!” (“I have never had any luck in my life! I was born on a Friday the 13th!”)  

I have not been able to find mention of Friday the 13th as an unlucky day in American newspapers until the 20th century. But there are clues that a belief in Friday the 13th as unlucky must have existed in 19th century America in a group that went out of their way to break taboos about luck. The Thirteen Club of Manhattan held their first dinner for 13 people on Friday, January 13th, 1882. Some point to a 1907 novel,  Friday, the Thirteenth, by Thomas W. Lawson, as the story that popularized the belief. Recent explanations, such as the one tied to Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, and the mass arrest of Knights Templar in France on October 13th 1307 attempt to come up with an early source for Friday the 13th being unlucky, but the problem is showing historic evidence for the belief before 1900.  But the two parts of the belief, that 13 and Friday have important meanings do have a long history.

The idea that some days are inauspicious and others auspicious is very old and still an important part of planning one’s life in some countries and among some ethnic and belief groups. Astrologers might be consulted to plan a wedding or a journey. Almanacs providing advice based on the phase of the moon or astrology might be consulted for planting, harvest, and everyday activities. There were many inauspicious days, not just one or two  a year. In the Middle Ages there were two inauspicious days each month called “Egyptian days” (meaning that they had been determined by Egyptian Astrologers), or “dismal days” simply meaning that they were unlucky.1 These practices helped people to deal with the uncertainty of life by attempting to avoid calamity by planning around those days perceived as unlucky.

In many parts of Europe, Fridays have traditionally been considered an inauspicious day to begin new projects, get married, or begin a journey because in the Old Testament it was the last day of the creation of the Earth. Jesus was executed on a Friday, further adding to the symbolism of the day. Friday, then, is thought to be suitable for endings, not beginnings. Fishermen often did not go out to sea on Fridays. Some ideas about beginning a journey or moving house on a Friday continue today.

SwatTheJinxGirl_3b43519u

Miss Rose Cade–Queen of the Lemons at the National Orange Show in San Bernidino, California, was also designated the “Swat the Jinx Girl” in order to avert bad luck for convention-goers on Friday, February 13, 1920. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b43519

The number 13 in numerology is the number of beginnings and endings, of birth and death. In many parts of Europe it is a lucky number, and a good day to get married or start something new.  In the United States, the number 13 has many positive associations related to the 13 original colonies.  So on the Great Seal there are 13 stars, 13 red stripes, and thirteen arrows held by the eagle. But 13 may be unlucky in certain contexts. A common belief about bad luck associated with 13 is that if 13 people dine together, then one of them will die. This belief is associated with the Last Supper. In the United States prior to 1900, this was the most common belief about the number 13. An older root for the taboo of gatherings of thirteen comes from a story from Norse mythology of a dinner party of 12 gods was crashed by Loki, with disastrous consequences.  It may be that combining the symbolism of Friday as a day of endings with the symbolism of 13 was thought to mean death or danger and so it makes an inauspicious day and/or the common belief about 13 at dinner may have been combined with beliefs about Friday in the late 19th or early 20th century.  These are the complex of ideas that underlie the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky.

Not everyone expects bad luck on the same days. In Spanish speaking countries and Greece Tuesday the 13th may be considered unlucky because it combines the symbolism of Mars, the God of War, with the symbolism of 13. That is seen as a portent of disaster. In Italy, it is Friday the 17th that is unlucky and other associations of the number 17 can also be unlucky. The usual explanation is that the Roman number  XVII can be rearranged to spell vixi, meaning “I have lived” or death. In Japan, it is the number 4 that is unlucky, for a similar reason. The number  sounds like the word for death, and so it is avoided in some contexts and a different word for 4 is used to count living things than is used to count inanimate objects. April the 4th is an unlucky day, because it is the 4th day of the 4th month. The Japanese have also picked up on the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky from contact with western countries.

So Friday the 13th is not universally unlucky, but the idea that some days are auspicious and others are inauspicious is still with us. We are fortunate not to have as many unlucky days as in the Middle Ages, but the ideas about Friday the 13th being unlucky are a remnant of that system of beliefs.

Various cultures have traditions about Friday the 13th or similar customs about unlucky days.  I would be interested in hearing about yours in the comments.

Note

For more on inauspicious days in the calendars of the Middle Ages see the article “Dismal or Bad Days,” in the Wyzant educational resource. This includes a list of the “Egyptian days” thought to be unlucky in Europe in the Middle Ages.