Like many superstitious beliefs, the myth of Friday the 13th being unlucky has a multi-layered origin story. Its roots can be traced back to Christianly, Norse mythology, or the Knights Templar. After centuries, this superstition is present in popular culture - from films, through books, to video games.
Black cats, walking under ladders, and Friday 13th have the reputation of bringing one bad luck. These superstitions seem to be deeply rooted in our culture, often omitted by all means. But have you ever wondered why Friday 13th is believed to be the harbinger of bad luck?
Superstitions and myths often have got a plethora of theories and legends they’re based upon, hence it’s difficult to pinpoint only one origin story. By observing culture and studying the many-branched roots of superstitions, we can get a more general picture of them and see how different sources influenced today’s ‘unlucky’ beliefs.
Friday the 13th is a recurring motif in popular culture – films, books, video games, and advertisements. One of the best known movies touching upon this subject is the 1980, Friday the 13th, a horror film with Jason, the hockey-masked killer, in its centre. This film made almost $60million in box office, being a worldwide success and a horror classic, starting a franchise of its own.
The infamous day also had its role in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a mystery thriller novel. In the book, the main plot oscillated around the myth of the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, a legendary cup used during the last supper. According to the legend, some of the Knights Templar, including the order’s Grand Master were arrested on Friday, October 13, 1307 by order of King Phillip IV of France.
The Da Vinci Code is also full of references to Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting, The Last Supper. Another old story has it that Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus Christ, was the 13th person to sit at the table during Jesus’s final meal.
Indeed, the number 13 can in itself be an object of superstition, believed to bring one bad luck. The supporters of this theory use history to back their claims. The 1995 film with Tom Hanks depicted the events of Apollo 13’s failed space mission. One of the space ship’s oxygen tanks went off on Monday, April 13, 1970, and the third manned mission to land on the moon was aborted. The crew returned to Earth safely afterwards.
Another urban legend has been influencing construction workers and architects for decades. In some American cities, the 13th floor of a skyscraper is often omitted, and in some cases described as level “M” – the 13th letter of the alphabet. This superstition made its way into a 1975 Superman story, whence the 13th floor was used to teleport aliens who were visiting our planet.
As you see, modern pop-culture is full of references to Friday the 13th or the number 13 in itself. Can we track the origin of this superstition to the aforementioned arrest of Knights Templar’s Grand Master by order of France’s Phillip IV, or are there any other centuries-old stories that provide answers to this intriguing myth?
Origins of Friday the 13th Superstition
Similarly to the last supper of Christ and his apostles, with Judas as the 13th person at the table, another mythical story involving the unwelcome, 13th guest is an important part of the Norse mythology.
The legend has it that the mischievous god Loki was the 13th god who came to a dinner honouring the death of Baldur, another god associated with beauty and good. Loki was indeed the one who had killed Baldur – sometimes spelled Baldr. Some claim that this myth gave rise to the fear of the number 13 across Scandinavia, which later spread around Europe
As a matter of fact, one might find a cornucopia of similarities between Christianity and Norse mythology. Apart from the superstition-creating story of the 13th guest, one can see connections in the crucifixion of Christ and Odin’s sacrifice, having been nailed to a tree, as well as Jesus’s and Baldur’s resurrection after death. For centuries, religions and mythologies in Europe merged together and exchanged ideas, which altogether created the European civilisation we know now. Along with holidays and gods, there came superstitions.
Yet another story deeply rooted in European culture, and one being almost a contemporary to the Norse myth above, is the famous Canterbury Tales. The collection of 24 stories written by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century was a crucial piece, setting the foundation for medieval literature and culture in Europe.
In the Canterbury Tales, the author often refers to the doom of both Fridays and the number 13. In Great Britain, the hangings would frequently take place on Fridays, which was one of the reasons for this superstition. Years and years later, by the 17th century, it was popularly unadvisable to undertake any important actions whatsoever on Friday.
Nevertheless, there are sources claiming that Friday 13th wasn’t commonly regarded as unlucky until the American author and entrepreneur Thomas W. Lawson published his novel in 1907. Unsurprisingly, the book was titled Friday the Thirteenth and told the story of Bob Brownley, a successful young trader who brings Wall Street down to its knees in revenge for his financial failure.
The book certainly popularised the superstition, which might as well have been just a return to age-old myths of bad luck. The world is full of spine-chilling stories and curious legends that have to do with the mystery of Friday 13th. Some 30 years before Lawson’s novel was published, there was an intriguing attempt to fight superstition altogether.
The Thirteen Club
In late 19th century, the fear of Fridays and the number 13 was already gaining publicity in Italy. One year after the death of the eminent Italian composer Gioachino Antonio Rossini, author of almost 40 operas, his biography was put in print. In the book, it was mentioned that Rossini died on Friday 13th, in November 1868 – a curious case, taking into consideration the already-present myth in the background.
In order to fight superstition and debunk some of the unlucky beliefs, the Thirteen Club was established in 1880. Among their main goals, they wanted to unroot superstitious beliefs from society, especially politics, where 13 people at table were supposed to bring about bad luck.
Within 7 years, this secret society had some 400 members. Over time, five U.S. President joined of the Thirteen Club as honorary members, that being William McKinley, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt.
On December 13, 1886, Robert Green Ingersoll ended his toast with these famous words:
“We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: ‘Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the 19th century’.”
Indeed, as centuries went by and we learned more and more about the universe with the help of science and reason, superstitious beliefs have often been mistrusted, or even treated as silly or childish. Fortunately or not, the Thirteen Club didn’t manage to get rid of Friday the 13th’s cultural connotations with their 13-guest dinners. Almost 150 years later, the unlucky day is still a common part of culture, along with other superstitions and myths.
Friday the 13th
As of now, historians haven’t reached any kind of consensus regarding the origins of the Friday the 13th superstition. In reality, the roots can be tracked to a plethora of sources, including Norse mythology, Christianity, Knights Templar, or the Canterbury Tales.
Despite the Thirteen Club’s attempts, this myth is still present in modern societies, though not so often taken seriously – it’s most commonly used as inspiration for horror movie franchises, fiction novels, and numerous conspiracy theories.
The greatest threat of Friday the 13th today is auto-suggestion: if you strongly believe that bad things are about to happen, you might misinterpret some events, look for signs of trouble, or suffer from anxiety. We can only hope that age-old stories won’t stop you from having a good time on a Friday night – be it the 13th or not.
Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney
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