The origins of Friday the 13th as an unlucky day.
Lock your doors, stay in bed, and pick a different day to play the lotto. If you’re feeling at all uneasy this week, perhaps you can rest a little better knowing that at least you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of Friday the 13th, which is often considered the most unlucky day of the year. But why is Friday the 13th unlucky?
In addition to the widespread paranoia this date causes, fear of Friday the 13th even has its own name – paraskevidekatriaphobia (try saying that 3 times fast) – which derives from the Greek words ‘Paraskeví’ for Friday, ‘Dekatreís’ for 13, and ‘Phobia’ for fear.
How has fear of this day become so prevalent across so much of the world? The answer, as with many things in history, is not so clear cut. To get to the bottom of it, we must first break the day into two separate things people find unlucky – Friday and 13.
Why is Friday Unlucky?
While there is no consensus as to why Friday is regarded as unlucky, most popular theories suggest origins in Christian tradition. In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden after Eve gives Adam a poisonous fruit on the seventh day of creation, which would have been Friday had Fridays existed back then. Furthermore, Jesus was crucified on a Friday, the day we now call Good Friday, as this was the standard day for crucifixions in Rome.
Mentions of Friday being unlucky start to pop in literature around the Middle Ages and onward. In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer suggests Friday is a day ripe for bad luck, explaining that “…on a Friday fell all this mischance.” Another example can be found in a 17th-century catechism: “Now Friday came, you old wives say, of all the week’s, the unluckiest day.”
Over time, Friday came to be considered a bad day for all sorts of ordinary tasks, like receiving medical treatment or getting married. Fridays were said to be a particularly bad day on which to start a new beginning or to set off on a journey. It became a common day for executions to occur, and by the 19th century, Friday was nearly a universal day of bad luck in certain cultures.
Why is 13 Unlucky?
Much like with Friday, many theories exist as to how 13 came to be regarded as an unlucky number, and like Friday, the most popular explanation comes once more from Christian tradition. At the Last Supper, it was Judas Iscariot who was said to have been the 13th guest to sit at the table. If you recall, Judas later betrayed Jesus, which led to his crucifixion.
References to 13 as a bad luck omen become more prevalent in Western references starting in the early 18th century, but the idea that 13 is unlucky is not just a Christian phenomena. In many traditions, 12 is associated with completeness and is seen as a symbol of balance – 12 months in a year, 12 Olympic Gods, 12 animals in the Chinese horoscope, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshiped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. If 12 represented wholeness, then 13 was seen as not quite complete – an awkward, odd, unbalanced number.
We see more recent and widespread examples of superstitions surrounding the number 13 in our day-to-day lives. It’s not uncommon to find buildings or hotels without a 13th floor, and some street addresses even skip from 12 to 14.
It’s also worth noting that 13 is not universally seen as unlucky. In Italy, for example, 13 is actually lucky, and it is Friday the 17th that is considered a day of bad luck. This has to do with the writing of 17 in Roman numerals. XVII can be mixed up to make the word VIXI, which literally translates to “I have lived.” This implication of death in the present is seen by some as a sign of misfortune.
But why is Friday the 13th unlucky?
This all brings us back to our original question: why is Friday the 13th unlucky?
One of the most popular origin stories stems from events that occurred on Friday, October 13, 1307, when members of the Knights Templar – a medieval society – were arrested in France. While there were some arrested on that day, the date was purely coincidence. It was actually modern literature, like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, that helped promote the myth that these arrests are the reason people fear the date.
Actually, the notion to combine two longstanding superstitions wasn’t as widespread as one might think. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, when the expression began to appear more frequently in the press, that the idea of Friday the 13th being the most unlucky day of the year started to gain traction.
One of the most early uses of the phrase was in a 1907 novel by Thomas W. Lawson called, Friday the Thirteenth, about a stockbroker’s efforts to bring down Wall Street on that date. More recently, the Friday the 13th horror movie franchise, which started in 1980, continued to strengthen this day’s notoriety. Just seeing Jason in the hockey mask removes some doubt as to why is Friday the 13th unlucky.
Is Friday the 13th Actually Unlucky?
Despite the uncertainty over its origins, it’s clear that Friday the 13th continues to create anxiety for those who are superstitious. If you’re one of those that believes in bad luck, it may be worth noting that Asteroid 99942 Apophis is forecasted to pass earth at a closer distance than any of our satellites in 2029. The date? You guessed it – Friday the 13th.
In fact, all one needs to do look through recent history to find countless examples of unlucky, unfortunate, or just plain tragic events that occurred on Friday the 13th and might indicate why Friday the 13th is unlucky.
- January 13, 1939 – The “Black Friday” bushfire tears through Australia’s Victoria province, killing 36.
- September 13, 1940 – Buckingham Palace is bombed when Nazi Germany begins an intensive air assault against the UK.
- November 13, 1970 – The deadliest tropical cyclone in history hits Bangladesh. At least 300,000 people are killed.
- October 13, 1972 – Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashes into the Andes. The infamous story of survival that followed has been referenced many times in film, TV, and literature.
- January 13, 2012 – The Costa Concordia cruise ship capsizes off the coast of Italy. 32 people lost their lives.
- November 13, 2015 – A series of coordinated terrorist attacks occur in Paris, France, killing 130.
But couldn’t this all just be a coincidence? Is there any actual evidence to support Friday the 13th being any more unlucky than other days? A 2008 study by the Dutch Centre for Insurance Statistics attempted to get to the bottom of it. The results of their study suggested that Friday the 13th was actually safer than most other days. The researchers theorized that, due to the phobia, more people stay indoors or are cautious on Friday the 13th, and that results in fewer reports of things like car accidents, crimes, and fires.
So maybe there is nothing to fear after all. Get out of bed, go outside, and seize the day! And maybe take some time to earn this badge…that is, if you’re feeling lucky: Friday the 13th.
And if you just can’t get enough of Friday the 13th, check out this episode of Matt and Derek’s Quiz Lab on the subject:
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.