Why is Friday 13th Unlucky? The Real Story Behind the Superstition | History Hit

Why is Friday 13th Unlucky? The Real Story Behind the Superstition

13th century miniature
Image Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Friday 13th is generally considered a day that anticipates misfortune and bad luck. Its perceived unluckiness has multiple roots. The stories commonly associated with the event include allusions to the number of individuals present during Jesus Christ’s Last Supper and the date of the sudden arrest of members of the Knights Templar in 1307.

Over the years, the occasion’s misfortunate associations have been embellished. The unluckiness of Friday 13th has been related to a fateful dinner party in Norse mythology, a 1907 novel, and the untimely death of an Italian composer. Given its tradition as a folk tale, each explanation should be taken with a grain of salt.

The unluckiest day

Geoffrey Chaucer, 19th century portrait

Image Credit: National Library of Wales / Public Domain

It’s possible that the stories around Friday 13th developed on existing beliefs relating to the day of Friday and the number 13. Friday is generally considered the unluckiest day of the week.

A practice of executing people by hanging on a Friday may have led to the day being known as hangman’s day. Meanwhile, a line in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, alludes to the “mischance” that fell on a Friday.

Fear of 13

Detail of a forge stone incised with the face of the god Loki with lips sewn together.

Image Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The fear of the number 13 is known as triskaidekaphobia. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes its use in the 1911 book Abnormal Psychology by Isador H. Coriat. The folklore writer Donald Dossey attributes the unlucky nature of the cardinal numeral to his interpretation of Norse mythology.

Dossey was not a historian but founded a clinic focused on phobias. According to Dossey, a dinner party in Valhalla featured 12 gods, but excluded the trickster god Loki. When Loki arrived as the thirteenth guest, he contrived one god to murder another god. The resounding impression is of the misfortune this thirteenth guest had brought.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper

Image Credit: Public Domain

According to a separate skein of superstition, another famous thirteenth guest was perhaps Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. There were 13 individuals present during the Last Supper that preceded Jesus’ crucifixion.

A story embracing the crucifixion of Jesus has also contributed to modern speculation around Friday 13th. A mathematician at the University of Delaware, Thomas Fernsler, has claimed that Christ was crucified on a Friday the thirteenth.

The Trial of the Knights Templar

13th century miniature

Image Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

People searching for confirmation of the unluckiness of Friday 13th may find it in the gruesome events of the Trials of the Knights Templar. The secrecy, power and wealth of the Christian order had made it a target of the King of France in the 14th century.

On Friday 13 October 1307, the king’s agents in France arrested members of the Templar order en masse. They were charged with heresy, their prosecutors making spurious accusations of idol worship and obscenity. Many were sentenced to imprisonment or burned at the stake.

Dan Jones discusses his book 'The Knights Templar' at the Temple in Central London, the physical embodiment of this medieval religious order that also trained warrior monks.
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The death of a composer

A novel published in 1907 named Friday, the Thirteenth may have helped to disseminate a superstition that had grown as a result of stories like Giachino Rossini’s. In his 1869 biography of the Italian composer Giachino Rossini, who died on Friday 13th, Henry Sutherland Edwards writes that:

He [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.

White Friday

Alpini ski troops in the Italian Alps during the First World War, when Italy were fighting the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Date: circa 1916

Image Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

A calamity that befell soldiers on the Italian Front of World War One has also become associated with Friday 13th. On ‘White Friday’, 13 December 1916, thousands of soldiers died in the Dolomites from avalanches. On Mount Marmolada, 270 soldiers died when an avalanche struck an Austro-Hungarian base. Elsewhere, avalanches struck Austro-Hungarian and Italian positions.

Heavy snowfall and a sudden thaw in the Alps had created the dangerous conditions. A request to vacate the Austro-Hungarian barracks on the Gran Poz summit of Mount Marmolada by Captain Rudolf Schmid had in fact noted the danger, but it was denied.

Historian of archaeology Dr Amara Thornton explores a network of archaeologist-spies, codebreaking, mapping and running agents, and with expert contributors delves into the extraordinary double lives led by the critical players in the international theatres of World War One.
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What is wrong with Friday the 13th?

Friday 13th may be regarded as an unlucky day, but there’s no avoiding it. The occasion of the thirteenth day of the month falling on a Friday happens once every year at the very least, but can take place three times in one year. There’s even a word for the fear the day provokes: Friggatriskaidekaphobia.

Most people are not genuinely fearful of Friday 13th. While a 2004 report by National Geographic included a claim that the fear of travelling and conducting business on the day contributed to hundreds of millions of dollars of “lost” business, it’s difficult to substantiate.

A 1993 report in the British Medical Journal had similarly claimed that an increase in accidents may take place on Friday 13th, but later studies disproved any correlation. Instead, Friday 13th is something of a folk tale, a shared story that may well date no earlier than the 19th and 20th centuries.

Kyle Hoekstra