Every year I receive requests from journalists who want to know where the idea of Friday the 13th being unlucky originated. So here’s a summary of the lore which surrounds this widely held superstition.
The idea that Friday 13th is unlucky or a day to be dreaded, both in terms of being generally inauspicious in terms of luck and in terms of breakdowns, accidents or even death, is widespread in folklore. But coincidence plays a major part in this perception, with the ‘bad luck’ attributed to Friday 13th arising from the prior assumption that the date carries evil in its wake.
The British Library Newspaper Archive has published a handy round-up of stories on its blog that reveal the collective angst of the nation, from ships delaying their sailing time until one minute past midnight to deserted marriage and registry offices. There is even a word, triskaidekaphobia, to describe those who live in fear of the date.
One example concerns the notorious Stocksbridge bypass (A616) road, near my home in Sheffield, Yorkshire. Since opening on Friday, 13 May 1988 there have been many dozens of serious accidents on the road, a number of which have been fatal. Accident investigators have attributed these to careless and dangerous driving. This has not ended speculation that the road has a jinx, for the area already had a tradition of hauntings before the bypass was built (see my paper on ‘Road Ghosts’).
The idea of evil or supernatural associations with the date has been enhanced by newspaper stories and horror film genre which play upon the theme, such as Friday the 13th (Sean Cunningham, 1980) and its sequels. The British Library traces this back further, noting: ‘it’s… interesting to see how popular culture tunes in to our superstitions, which brings us to the newspaper review of the early 1930s Hollywood horror-ish movie, ‘Friday the 13th’. With a thunderstorm raging all around, a group of bus passengers endure all manner of Friday the 13th-type of malarkey, before the film finally ends.’
But the idea of Friday 13th being unlucky actually stems from quite a recent combination of two older superstitions: a fear of Friday that dates back to the Middle Ages, and a more recent dislike of the number 13. It is a surprising fact that the two ideas were not combined as one superstition in their own right until the beginning of the 20th century.
Today it is claimed that the superstition is so widespread in hotels in the USA there is almost never a floor containing the number 13. On the other hand, in Italy 13 is considered lucky to the extent that a charm containing the number is given to infants to ensure good luck and prosperity.
Chaucer wrote “…on a Friday fell all this mischance.” This was possibly a reference to a Catholic tradition that Friday was a day for penance. By the 18th century the belief had spread to the extent that many people felt Friday was an unlucky day to be born, to get married or to begin any business or journey. In more recent years, Friday is associated with road accidents or break-downs (hence the question ‘was it made on a Friday?’)
On the one hand Dickens in David Copperfield (chapter 1) says that children born at midnight on Friday are fated to be unlucky, and have the ability to see ghosts. On the other, dreams that were had on Friday night were to be trusted, as in the rhyme:
Friday’s dream on Saturday told
Is bound to come true, be it never so old.
In medieval England 13 was not seen as an unlucky number. In fact it was often associated with an extra item added to the customary dozen produce (‘the baker’s dozen.’)
However, by the 17th century a belief arose that if thirteen people sat down to eat a meal together, one of them would die within the year. The source of this belief is that, during the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot was the first to leave the table and committed suicide shortly afterwards. Other more recent explanations offered are that 13 has evil or pagan connotations because of there being 13 witches in a coven, or that the ‘death card’ is the 13th Tarot trump.
Curiously, in games of chance such as bingo the number 13 is seen as ‘lucky for some.’