Unlucky Thirteen

Did everyone have a good Friday the 13th? Statistically, somebody somewhere had a bad one, though statistics wouldn’t support any correlation between the date and unhappy events in general. In fact, I’d imagine that Friday the 13th’s greatest overall effect is to ensure that none of us will ever quite forget the word triskaidekaphobia, no matter how seldom it crops up in our lives otherwise.

Friday the 13th is an interesting sort of … holiday isn’t really the right word; occasion might be a better one. It’s a hybrid, for one thing. The number thirteen, and Friday, were both watched out for separately but it wasn’t until exactly one hundred years ago that someone got the bright idea that Friday the 13th would therefore amount to a hyper-unlucky day. That someone was a Thomas William Lawson, who in 1907 published a novel called (surprise!) Friday, The Thirteenth. It’s about the stock market, but more than that I cannot tell you until I finish reading the online PDF.

Before then, by far the most prevalent superstition involving the number thirteen was that seating thirteen at a table meant that one of the number would die within a year.

Nathaniel Lachenmeyer’s book 13: The Story Of The World’s Most Notorious Superstition traces this particular belief back to 1695, where it turns up in a printed anecdote. There might be earlier references out there which he didn’t find – the book is a good read, but also fairly light in its approach – and certainly the number thirteen itself (as apart from “thirteen at a table”) was considered to be a little ambiguous even before then. Be that as it may, the belief in the bad luck of thirteen at a table took off, though it doesn’t seem to have ever been considered an exactly respectable belief. Browsing through nineteenth-century journals finds that most references to it are framed to be comical and just a bit disparaging – not too different from a lot of the “Friday the 13th” articles published today, in fact! In 1894, some anonymous editorialist in The Manufacturer And Builder after congratulating “Modern man” on having gotten past superstitious nonsense like believing that comets and eclipses were bad portents, sniffs at supposedly rational-minded types who still refuse to eat thirteen at a table, or sleep in Room 13 in a hotel. “Of course,” he says, “It is useless to attempt to bring reason or common sense to a weakness of this kind,” and then tries to do so anyway by pointing out that if thirteen is so incredibly unlucky, “How is it that a baker’s dozen is everywhere accepted without protest? …. Why is it that a setting of eggs – a matter in which the lucky stars are to be invoked if they have any place whatever in the affairs of this world – is commonly thirteen in number.” (Admittedly I haven’t a solitary clue as to how accurate that last statement is).

So, why thirteen? It can’t be because it’s a prime number; there isn’t, as far as I know, a word for fear of the numbers 17, 11 and endless others. The answer, maddeningly for library types, is nonexistent. Nobody knows – it’s probably just one of those combinations of factors that turned into a superstitious Perfect Storm. One popular idea is that thirteen at a table is unlucky because the Last Supper had thirteen participants, and the thirteenth – Judas – was a traitor. It’s interesting, but it’s odd that that there should be no obvious trace of the connection before the end of the seventeenth century. Not many people in the Middle Ages were literate, but quite a few of them went to churches with murals of the Last Supper, and no doubt most of them were able to count to thirteen. Did they make the connection? Perhaps they did and it was just never written down until late, but the explanation has (to me, at least) the air of a slightly-too-perfect post hoc invention, the way people invention acronyms for obscenities and use those to explain their “origins.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine hypothesized about the Last Supper connection in 1849, but also speculated that the idea of thirteen at a table might arise from a legend about Pope St. Gregory giving a silver porringer to an uninvited thirteenth guest – a poor man – who turned out to be Christ. Also an interesting story, but missing the key element of bad luck. Oh well!

The answer probably lies not so much in the nature of the number thirteen as in the nature of the number twelve: there were twelve months of the year, twelve Apostles (traitorous tendencies aside), twelve tribes of Israel, and (one thing people don’t mention a lot, but still probably relevant) in Great Britain, a monetary system rooted in Base 12. Twelve was a standard-setting sort of number – normal things fell naturally into twelves. Thirteen threw things off just a fraction – made the numbers come out not quite even, was an uneasy, solitary leftover (superstitious considerations aside, it’s still very awkward trying to seat thirteen at a table). How exactly this state of affairs evolved into several distinct superstitions is probably impossible to discover.

As for Friday, that’s also fairly murky. Friday, of course, is the day on which Jesus was supposed to have been crucified, so the bad-luck associations there are fairly straightforward. Less straightforward are traditions like Cain murdering Abel on a Friday – again, probably a piece of post hoc invention to make bad Biblical events fall into a pattern. Another theory holds that in addition to these instances, Friday was deliberately demonized by early Christian missionaries. (This was a theory floated in the local paper this morning, in fact). The reasoning behind it is that Friday is named after the Norse goddess Freya, or Frigg, who was the goddess of mothers and of childbirth. Christian missionaries thought of pagan gods not as being nonexistent but as demons who had tricked people into worshipping them, hence Freya was recast as a witch and her day was demonized.

While it’s true that Christian missionaries could and did recast old gods as having really been malevolent demons (admittedly not much of a stretch where someone like Loki or Pan is concerned, though they themselves were outsiders in their own mythologies) this interpretation seems like a bit of a stretch, mainly because Freya is not the only Norse deity to have a day of the week named after her. Why pick on her especially and not on Odin, who was after all much more important? There could be an element of especially disliking female deities, but overall the evidence seems a little thin. Not to say that it couldn’t be the case, but I’m inclined to go with the Crucifixion explanation myself.

I’d probably better wrap this up, seeing as it’s already almost Saturday the 14th, which has not been immortalized in any form that I know of. Any thoughts? I’m curious to hear about the number thirteen (and Friday) in fiction – the only instance I can think of off the top of my head is in The Hobbit, when Gandalf cajoles the dwarves into bringing Bilbo along because otherwise they’ll only have thirteen members of their party, and they wouldn’t want that kind of luck, would they? There has to be a lot more out there.

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6 Responses to Unlucky Thirteen

  1. poetloverrebelspy says:

    It was a pretty unlucky day for me — I woke up to my iBook G4’s logic board in its death throes and Apple refusing any further repair. So I spent the day trying to rescue data instead of enjoying the lovely weather and my last day with my mother. I won’t forget this one for a while.

  2. Dana says:

    At least the Japanese aversion to the number 4 has a more plausible reason, in that it is a homonym for “death.” No room 4s or floor 4s in a hospital there.

    As for the 13 eggs thing, it is true that if you look at a deviled egg plate, there are in fact 13 indentations, which my family has always thought was quite odd. We figured it was because you’re always going to either screw one up, or be overcome by the desire to eat one. I thought that writer’s point about eggs being a place where one might need all the good luck one could get was pretty good. But then, I live in fear of food poisoning myself. He did have a very legitimate point about baker’s dozens, though. People are so inconsistent.

    How timely that this be written on the centennial of the invention of the superstition! I never thought of superstitions having birthdays before.

  3. TheGnat says:

    I’d like to say, I never encountered a 4-story or taller building that did not have the 4th floor labeled as such in Japan. Although, the superstition also exists in China (where the homonym originally derives from), and I can’t say anything about their tall buildings.

    Also, “Saturday the 14th” is the title of a bad 1981 horror-comedy film. So it is immortalized! Sort of.

  4. Sonetka says:

    Dana – I had no idea it was the anniversary of the novel until a couple of days ago, so that was a bit of luck (ironically). I’ve heard of the 4 thing from a Chinese friend of mine who had a big splashy Chinese New Year party one year – ten courses, and while there actually was a fourth course served (damned if I can remember what it was) it was some sort of special food, or specially prepared food, which was specifically chosen to ward off the potential hoodoo. And the anonymous editorialist definitely had some good examples – it was just funny to see him proclaiming that it’s impossible to convince the superstitious and then spend the next two paragraphs trying to do it anyway.

    H – I’m sorry you had such a crap last day.

    TheGnat – The title alone makes it sound dreadful. MST3K never got it, did they?

  5. Dana says:

    Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, it’s Tuesday the 13th in South America. No explanation why. According to the Wikipedia Friday the 13th article, it’s Tuesday in Greece and Spain, as well, though it does not mention Latin America. And supposedly it’s Monday in Russia. I think a fear of Mondays makes more sense.

    Oh, and Gnat, I think it’s only really in hospitals in Japan that they do that. It may also be in hotels. I vaguely remember that the hotel my parents stayed in when they came to visit me may not have had a 4th floor, but I can’t say for sure anymore.

  6. TheGnat says:

    Well, if you do a little digging, it says for Greece and Spanish-speaking countries. Tuesday makes sense for Greece, since it was a Tuesday the 13th when Constantinople fell, and that pretty much sucked.

    I never went to a hospital, so I couldn’t attest to that, but at least the hostel and the hotel I did go to had floor 4s. But the Japanese and Chinese tend to be much more prgamatic about unlucky things. “yes it’s unlucky, but it still exists even if we slap a different number on it, so let’s just counter the bad luck”. I wouldn’t be surprised if they brought in Shinto or Buddhist priests when they built fourth floors.

    And no, that movie doesn’t seem to have been done by MST3K.

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