Updated: Nov 7
At least once a year the 13th of the month falls on a Friday and the Western hemisphere releases a superstitious shriek. Once is the minimum amount of bad luck and foreboding in a year, but it can happen up to three times, for example, 2015 had one in February, March and November. Friday the 13th will occur in any month that starts on a Sunday. In many ancient cultures, Friday was considered sacred. For example, the ancient Babylonians named the sixth day of the week "frighat" or "freitag" (Friday) in honor of the goddess Inanna, who was associated with love, fertility and war. In fact, Friday originates from the Old English word "Frigedæg" (Frigg's day) after the Norse goddess Frigg, who is associated with love, fertility and war.
So why the irrational fear? Or to give it the scientific name ‘Paraskevidekatraphobia’ (the fear of Friday 13th - find more weird phobias and philes here).
It may originate within a Norse myth. In said myth, 12 Gods are having a dinner party in Valhalla, when the trickster God Loki (who was not invited, perhaps due to his trickster ways) arrives as the 13th guest. Loki sets about his trickster ways, unconcerned that he will probably continue to be uninvited to social gatherings, and manipulates Höðr into shooting Balder with a mistletoe-tipped arrow. Balder dies and the whole Earth is plunged into darkness as it mourns. From then on, the number 13 was viewed with caution and became a symbol of bad luck.
It could also have originated in the Middle Ages, from the story of Jesus at the last supper and later the crucifixion. There were 13 attendees at the Last Supper on the 13th of Nisan or Maundy Thursday, the night before the death of Jesus by crucifixion on Good Friday.
The Knights Templar
On Friday, October 13, 1307, King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of all the Knights Templar in France in order to seize their wealth and properties, which were considerable. This event is widely considered as the beginning of the end for the Order of the Knights Templar. On that day, many Templars were arrested and taken into custody by the King's agents, on charges of heresy, blasphemy and other crimes.
They were arrested and tortured into giving false confessions. Some were burned at the stake, while others were imprisoned for life. The order was officially disbanded in 1312 by Pope Clement V. The remaining assets of the order were transferred to the Knights Hospitaller, another Christian military order. It is thought that the mass murder of thousands of Knights being burnt at the stake in town squares across Europe had a lasting affect and so the day Friday 13th entered the social consciousness as an unlucky occurrence or bad omen to be feared.
However, while there is evidence of both Friday and the number 13 being considered separately, it wasn’t until the 20th century they were considered unlucky in conjunction.
In 1907 Thomas W Lawson published his popular novel Friday, the Thirteenth. In the novel, a broker takes advantage of superstition surrounding the date to create a Wall Street panic.
Elsewhere in Europe...
In Spain and Spanish speaking countries, it is instead 'martes trece' or Tuesday the 13th that is considered bad luck. Tuesday the 13th occurs in months that begin on a Thursday.
This is also the case in Greece, Tuesday is considered to be dominated by Ares, the God of war (Mars in Roman mythology). The fall of Constantinople took place on Tuesday, April 13th 1204 and strengthened this belief. What’s more, in Greek the name for Tuesday is Triti ( Τρίτη ) meaning ‘the third’ (as in the third day of the week) which adds weight to the superstition through the belief that ‘bad luck comes in threes’.
According to the Stress Management and Phobia Institute of Asheville, North Carolina (yes, it does exist) between 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of this ominous day, which makes it the most feared day in history. Many people take it so seriously they will avoid their normal routines, travel or even leaving the house. This has resulted in an estimated $800 to $900 million of loss in business on this day alone.
Break the spell
Here are some good and bad luck superstitions from around the World:
In Italy, it's considered bad luck to have a broom near a newborn baby. It's believed that if a broom is near a baby, it might sweep away the baby's good luck or good health.
In Japan, it's believed that if a cat washes its face, it will rain soon. Cats are known to be fastidious animals, and it's believed that if they're cleaning themselves, it's a sign that the weather is going to change and it will soon rain.
In India, it's considered bad luck to sleep with your head pointing towards the North, as it's believed that the dead are buried in that direction. In Hindu culture, the North direction is associated with the Lord Yama (God of death) and it's considered inauspicious to sleep towards that direction.
In Turkey, it's considered good luck to see a rainbow and it's believed that a person who sees a rainbow will have good luck for the next 7 days. The rainbow is a symbol of hope and promise, and seeing one is thought to bring good luck.
In Spain, it's considered bad luck to wear black to a wedding, because it symbolizes death. In Spain and other Catholic countries, black is often associated with mourning and death, and it's thought to be in poor taste to wear it to a joyful occasion like a wedding.
In Russia, if you see a shooting star, you should make a wish. A shooting star is believed to be a sign of good luck, and it's thought that making a wish upon seeing one will increase the likelihood that the wish will come true.
In many cultures, it's considered good luck to find a four-leaf clover. Four-leaf clovers are considered rare and finding one is thought to bring good luck.
In some cultures, it's believed that walking under a ladder brings bad luck because it forms a triangle, which was a symbol of the holy trinity. Many people consider that disrupting the shape of a triangle, a powerful symbol of the sacred, will cause bad luck.
In some cultures, it's considered bad luck to whistle inside a building because it's believed to invite evil spirits. Whistling is thought to attract spirits and this is considered as a way to call them.
In the United States and some other cultures, it's considered bad luck to break a mirror because it's believed to bring seven years of bad luck. Mirrors were expensive and scarce in the past, and breaking one was seen as a symbol of bad luck for seven years.