Friday the 13th: where does the legend come from?

Today is Friday the 13th. In the West this date is surrounded by a gloomy mystique. From the infamous legend of the Knights Templar to the “Friday the 13th” film franchise, we are surrounded by stories, beliefs and traditions that all teach us the same lesson: Friday the 13th is a bad day, full bad omens. But where does this reputation come from?

Triscaidecaphobia: fear the number 13

Yes, there is a specific name for the fear of the number 13: “Triscaidecaphobia”, a word that first appears in 1910 in the book “Abnormal Psychology” by psychiatrist and neurologist Isador Coriat. This tongue twister of a word refers to a very real and even common phenomenon. Many people experience fear, distrust or at least a little discomfort in regards to the number 13 (unless you are a fan of Brazilian soccer teams Botafogo from Rio de Janeiro or Treze from Paraíba, but sports superstitions are a whole other ball game, so to speak).

To understand why the number 13 has so many negative associations, we first need to talk about its predecessor: the number 12. Have you noticed how this number often has positive or mystical associations? Let’s see: the western zodiac has 12 signs. Jesus Christ had 12 apostles. The Olympian gods of Greek mythology were 12. In Viking mythology, Odin has 12 children. In many versions of The Legend of King Arthur the Knights of the Round Table numbered 12 (probably to create a symbolic link with the apostles). There were 12 tribes in Israel. The calendar has 12 months, and a day has 24 hours, that is, 12 times two.

Astronomical clock in Prague, showing the 12 Zodiac signs

The number 12 is often associated with balance and perfection, probably for reasons that can be explained by mathematics. It is considered a sublime number, meaning a positive integer that has a perfect number of positive divisors (including itself), where sum of the positive divisors is another perfect number. Only two sublime numbers are known, 12 and 608655567023837898967037173424316962265783077335188597052832486051279 (no, that was not a typo, it’s that huge number right there)


According to Jean Chevalier, in his dictionary of symbols:

Twelve is the number of space-time divisions. It is the product of the four cardinal points on the three planes of the world (…) the 12 symbolizes the universe in its cyclical space-time course. Twelve also symbolizes the universe in its inner complexity

So it’s not hard to see why 13 took on all the negative connotations: it “breaks” the perfection represented by12. This concept is well illustrated by a very common belief from medieval times that claims Judas was supposedly the thirteenth person to sit at the table during the last supper, after Jesus and the other apostles, a sure sign that he would be the traitor. According to Tomas Fernsler, a researcher at the Math and Science Education Resource Center as the University of Delaware, the association between the number 13 and bad luck lies in the fact that this number “is slightly beyond perfection. This makes the number restless, uncomfortable”. Returning to Jean Chevalier’s Dictionary of symbols, Thirteen is the “eccentric, marginal, erratic element that escapes the normal order and rhythms of the universe.”

The Last Supper- Leonardo DaVinci- 1495-1498

The distrust of 13 is more prominent in the European and Christian collective imagination than it is in other religions and cultures. For example, in many pagan cultures, the number 13 was associated with the feminine because it corresponded to the number of lunar cycles in a year, and the lunar cycle has the same length as the menstrual cycle (28 days; 28 x 13 =364), which makes it easy to understand why the Moon is usually associated with various female deities in pre-Christian religions. To this day many Wicca practitioners believe that 13 is the ideal number of members in a Coven. In the Medieval and Modern Eras, this may have led to the spread of the belief that witches would gather during the full moon in groups of 12, the thirteenth participant being the Devil himself. In Jewish culture, 13 also has positive connotations. According to Jewish tradition, boys come of age at the age of 13 when they go through the bar-mitzvah ceremony (girls get a similar celebration called the bat-mitzvah, but at the age of 12). According to the philosopher and Rabbi Maimonides, a central figure of medieval Jewish academia, there are 13 principles of the Jewish faith and by rabbinic tradition, God would have 13 Attributes of piety. In the Mayan and Aztec cultures the number 13 also has great importance. The Mayan sacred book Popol Vuhl, lists thirteen deities and in the Aztec calendar, thirteen represents time and the end of a cycle. So it is easy to understand how the Christian imagination could have seen the number 13 as something negative, given its importance to so many religious groups that Christianity deemed “heretics” or enemies

Hekate, Greek goddess of the moon and witchcraft. Maximilian Pirner, 1901

.

But of course this is all in the past, right? Well, actually…No. Triscaidecaphobia is more common than you might think. For example, in several countries it is not uncommon for buildings to not to have a thirteenth floor: often this floor is called floor 12A, “skipped” (that is, after the twelfth floor, the next is numbered as fourteenth) or is used as an “empty” floor, usually containing equipment or serving building maintenance purposes. According to the records of American elevator manufacturer Otis, about 85% of the elevators that the company installed until the year 2002 did not have the thirteenth floor. This practice is also common in Asian countries, such as China where many buildings have neither the thirteenth nor the fourth floor (in Asia the 4 is also considered “unlucky”). Another interesting example comes from Ireland: in this country the license plates of cars usually contain the last two digits of the year of placement, but in the year 2013, the Irish government replaced the 13 with 31 or 32, for fear that car sales would drop.

As you can see, many really do suffer from triscaidecaphobia, including famous people such as none other than Stephen King, the master of terror himself. King has already stated:

“The number 13 never fails to trace that old icy finger up and down my spine. When I’m writing, I’ll never stop work if the page number is 13 or a multiple of 13; I’ll just keep on typing till I get to a safe number. I always take the last two steps on my back stairs as one, making 13 into 12. There were after all 13 steps on the English gallows up until 1900 or so. When I’m reading, I won’t stop on page 94, 193, or 382, since the sums of these numbers add up to 13.”

In fact, of Stephen King’s most famous short stories is titled ” 1408.” 1+4+0+8=13. This tale takes place inside a “possessed” hotel room, numbered is 1408, and which is located…on thirteenth floor (mislabled as fouteenth).

Movie adaptation of 1408

And what does Friday have to do with it?

We don’t know for sure how many people suffer from triscaidecaphobia, but according to the Center for Stress Management and Phobia Institute of Asheville, North Carolina, between 17 and 21 million Americans suffer from Friggatriskaidecaphobia, that is the fear of Friday the 13th. So at what point did Friday get into this?

You may have heard that the reputation of Friday the 13th originates from the “persecution of the Knights Templar”. Is that true? Yes and no. Yes, it is true that King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of the Knights Templar on a Friday, October 13, 1307, but it is not true that it was this event that originated the legends about this day. This particular story tends to show The Templars as a group of martyrs, persecuted by an evil king, but anybody who’s familiar with History knows there isn’t always such a thing as “good guys vs bad guys” There is a mystique around the Templars, a legend that portrays them as “knights of God”, but they were just a group of military men who acted under religious justifications and with the Church’s endorsement. The Templars eventually became so rich and powerful that they posed a threat to other political players of the time, who not only wanted them out of the way, but also coveted their wealth. The fall of the Templars was merely a political event, and the idea that it had anything to do with the Curse of Friday the 13th is a product of the twentieth century, along with various conspiracy theories that inspired books such as The DaVinci Code.

Seal of the Knights Templar

The myth of Friday the 13th as a cursed day is much more recent.

Until the nineteenth century various Western cultures traditionally considered Friday to be a day of bad luck, regardless of the calendar date, because it was the day of Christ’s death. Jesus was crucified on the eve of the Jewish weekly Sabbath and resurrected on Sunday. That is why in Christianity the holy day of rest and prayer is Sunday, and not Saturday, as it should be if the Old Testament were followed to the letter: God created the world in six days, and on the seventh he rested: the seventh day of the week is Saturday, not Sunday. Incidentally, Friday would have been the day God created man in his image and likeness (the sixth day), so symbolically, God would have offered his son in sacrifice for humanity on the same day he originally created the first man. This means that in the Christian imaginary Friday is a very, shall we say, symbolically “charged” day.

Diego Velazquez, c. 1632

However, while there is historical evidence that both the 13th and Friday had negative connotations in the Christian culture, there is no reliable record of any specific superstition about Friday the 13th until the 19th century. An interesting quote comes from the biography of the composer Giochino Rossini, written by H. S Edwards:

“Rossini was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday 13th of November he passed away.”

Reading this passage we can see that the author, who was English, mentions the belief in the bad luck of Friday and the 13th as Italian superstitions, which implies that they were not necessarily common in England. Also, he does not mention any specific belief about Friday the 13th, and only seems to find it curious that Rossini died on this day. This leads us to think that at the time the composer died, in November 1868, this superstition would not have been very common.

Rossini, phoyo by Etiènne Carjat, 1865

In fact, to this day Friday the 13th is not a “unanimously” seen as bad. For example in Spain and Greece the day considered ominous is Tuesday the 13th. There are some theories that explain the difference. In the case of Spain the name of the day would be the justification: in Spanish Tuesday is called “Martes”, in honor of the Roman god Mars, god of war and discord (curiously, in Spanish, Friday is “Viernes” in honor of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and sexuality). According to another theory, both Spaniards and Greeks consider Tuesday the 13th unlucky because the fall of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade happened on a Tuesday, April 13, 1204. In Italy, on the other hand, this ”honor ” is also shared by Friday the 17th. The belief comes from the Roman numerals: 17 is XVII. By shuffling the letters of XVII, it is possible to form the word VIXI, in Latin “I lived“, which implies death (”I lived ” in the past indicates that the person who speaks no longer lives), making 17 also an unlucky number.


In his book “13: The Story of the world’s Most Notorious Superstition”, Nathaniel Lachenmeyer offers the theory that the lore about Friday the 13th as a day of bad luck would have spread in the United States thanks to the novel Friday, the Thirteenth by T. W. Lawson, published in 1907 and a best seller at the time. The author was a.W. Lawson was an extremely superstitious businessman who made his fortune using, shall we say, unorthodox methods, but he was also an advocate of reforms in the system that governed the stock market. In Friday, the Thirteenth he uses his own superstition as inspiration to narrate a story in which the protagonist intentionally causes a crash on the stock exchange, precisely on a Friday the 13th.

Whether this theory is true or not, it is undeniable that the lore of Friday the 13th has only grown in the twentieth century and that’s in large part thanks to cinema. With the release of Friday the 13th, in 1980, what was mere superstition morphed into terror. The original title was to be “Long Night at Camp Blood”, until director Sean Cunningham suggested the title that would go down in the history of horror cinema. Interestingly, there was an initial concern: could there be another movie with the same name already? They only found one other film with a similar title Friday the 13th: The Orphan, which didn’t pose an issue to the production. Paying close attention to the dialogues in the film, you can tell that the title was a last minute change since Friday the 13th is not mentioned much, with is only a passing reference to the date as Jason’s birthday.

From the release of “Friday the 13th” American popular culture fully embraced this date as not only ominous, but as synonymous with horror. Before Jason Vorhees came on the scene, Friday the 13th was seen more as a day when things went wrong or when strange events happened (as in the novel by T. W. Lawson), but it didn’t always evoke the idea of fear or death.

Of course,” Friday the 13th ” didn’t do it alone, but it was the most successful of the films, books, stories and cultural products that used the mystique of Friday and the number 13 to create horror narratives. From the perspective of popular culture and entertainment, previous historical events such as the fall of the Templars or any accidents and tragedies that happened to fall on this date, as well as all the legends surrounding the number 13 and Friday were all in a way revisited and “revised” by our collective imagination, and fitted into a sinister mold labeled “Friday the 13th”. After all, if there is one thing that the human mind loves to do, it is to create connections and patterns where they do not necessarily exist. And that’s how Friday the 13th was forever cursed in our collective imagination.

Materials used:

Books:

Jean Chevalier, Dictionary of symbols. Editora José Olympio, 1998

Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. 13:The Story of the world’s Most Notorious Superstition

Peter Bracke. Crystal Lake Memories. 2006

Raymond Buckland. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. Llewellyn Publications, 2002

Articles:


https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/menstrual-cycles-and-lunar-cycles-is-there-a-link#Study-relevance-and-limitations

https://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodResourceCenter/friday-13th-origins-phobia/story?id=11395381

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/110513-friday-the-13th-superstitions-triskaidekaphobia

https://www.livescience.com/32497-why-is-friday-the-13th-considered-unlucky.html

https://web.archive.org/web/20130430013751/http://realtytimes.com/rtpages/20020913_13thfloor.htm

https://www.shortlist.com/news/20-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-stephen-king#:~:text=%E2%80%9CThe%20number%2013%20never%20fails,one%2C%20making%2013%20into%2012.

https://web.archive.org/web/20130608183526/http://www.cafebabel.it/article/24987/venerdi-13-17-fortuna-sfortuna-italia.html

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/maimonides/#:~:text=While%20discussing%20the%20claim%20that,God%20communicates%20to%20prophets%2C%20that

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