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.