Friday the 13th is perhaps the most prominent of a group of traditional anxiety-heightening superstitions that includes black cats, broken mirrors, stepping on cracks and walking under ladders. This collection of fearsome hobgoblins is an inherent feature of our Western culture, and our families and friends indoctrinate all of us.
The 1907 novel –Friday, the Thirteenth by Thomas Lawson, although not dedicated to the unlucky nature of the day, details a case study of what befalls those who engage in business on Friday the 13th. By the time of the novel’s publication, superstitions about not closing deals or engaging in transactions of any significance on the day were already ubiquitous in the business world with many also refraining from travelling.
Doing important business on a Friday has been considered unlucky for over 1500 years. Not surprisingly, at some point the 13thday of the calendar month also became synonymous with bad luck in the business world (just like ‘13’ of anything). Since superstition about the number predates both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, there is good reason to believe that from the very start, the 13th day of any month was considered inauspicious, if not unlucky.
Most superstitions arise as a method of coping with uncertainty. We fret about the important things in our lives: our health, our children, our paychecks and our sports teams. All these things are dear to us, and all can be drastically affected in a positive or negative direction by events utterly beyond our control.
Superstitious rituals and lucky charms give us a comforting sense of control over the unexpected when there is nothing more practical that can be done. In the case of the lucky superstitions, there is some evidence that belief in luck-enhancing powers can bring psychological benefits and improve performance.
But the phobic, unlucky superstitions are more problematic. Once acquired, these superstitions bring their own anxiety. If you believe Friday the 13th is unlucky, on average, a couple of times a year you will be forced to consider whether to adapt your daily routine to avoid the prospect of harm.
When bad things happen to us, we may prefer having something to blame, such as a traditionally unlucky day. But the price we pay for this illusory explanation is having to confront a recurring fear whenever Friday the 13th rolls around.
For some, the traditional origins of the Friday the 13th superstition probably encourage belief in the day’s dark power. There are many theories about the source of this superstition, but the most lasting and convincing points to the biblical account of the Last Supper, which the Bible describes as a gathering of Jesus and the 12 apostles just before Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday.
In Christian tradition, Friday was the day Christ was betrayed and crucified. Until recent decades, Catholics still fasted on Fridays – not purchasing much more than fish for an evening meal – thus sacrificing for Christ as Christ had sacrificed for them. Such traditions led to lackluster trading in medieval Europe on Friday, which may be the ultimate root of the business aspect of the superstition. To this day, Friday is not considered a good time for business transactions. In the US and most of the Western world, it’s the last day of the work week and often the attention of clients is directed elsewhere. In the Muslim world, it is a holy day unsuitable for purchases of any kind.
In Norse mythology, Frigga, the free-spirited goddess of love and fertility, was labelled a witch and banished when tribes converted to Christianity. Legend has it that every Friday, the malicious goddess assembled the devil and eleven other witches (13 in total) and plotted evil deeds for the coming week. For centuries in Scandinavia, Friday was therefore known as the “Witches’ Sabbath.”
The number 13 has an older and more powerful association with evil. There is evidence that belief in the number’s unlucky nature is as old as civilization itself. Although it is impossible to date when the belief began, within the list of laws Hammurabi wrote for all to obey in the 2nd millennium B.C. there is a jump from 12 to 14 – omitting the Babylonian symbol for ‘13’. It is impossible to confirm why ‘13’ was omitted, but in the multiple slabs on which the laws were inscribed – none have a 13thlaw.