Today is Friday the 13th, a day for bad luck and fear. Does anyone know why? According to folklorists, there is no evidence for the superstition of an unlucky Friday the 13th before the 19th century. It is though that the belief is a combination of two older superstitions that called 13 an unlucky number and Friday an unlucky day.
The earliest reference to this belief is in the 1869 biography of Gioachino Rossini, who regarded both Fridays and the number 13 unlucky in life, then proved himself right by dying on Friday the 13th.
Why Fridays were ever supposed to be unlucky I may never know. I mean, who doesn’t love a weekend? That particular superstition seems to have been strongest among sailors, who thought that beginning a voyage on Friday was bad luck. So maybe they were just hesitant to give up their weekends, preferring instead to spend those days ashore.
As for the unlucky number 13, we may have Norse trickster Loki to blame for this one. According to the Skeptical Inquirer: “Norse mythology also has a superstition surrounding thirteen at a dinner table and the bad luck that ensues. … Apparently twelve deities sat down for a meal at a gods’ feast only to have Loki, the god of mischief and disorder, come along and crash the party. He rose the number to thirteen, causing one of the gods to die during the meal.”
This may well be the root of the Christian superstition about 13 at a meal; the idea that Judas Iscariot being both the 13th person to sit at the Last Supper and the betrayer of Jesus mirrors the earlier Norse myth nicely.
But whether it’s Judas or Loki they’re afraid of, people continue to believe that thirteen at a dinner table will mean that one of them will die within the year. This is a great excuse to keep those dinner parties to a manageable size—saying that one more guest will cause someone to die sounds much more serious than “I only have 12 plates.”
Fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskevidekatriaphobia or friggatriskaidekaphobia, The latter of these, in addition to being a million-point scrabble word, is partially named after Frigg, the Norse goddess from whose name we get “Friday.” There go those Æsir again.
But there is far from an international consensus on which days are lucky and unlucky. In Spanish-speaking countries, Tuesday the 13th is the one you’ve got to watch out for (this makes more sense to me—bad luck is much worse when you can’t sleep in the next day). And in Italy, where 13 is a lucky number, they worry about Friday the 17th. And a few cultures have even celebrated the day. In Finland, for example, “National Accident Day” is always held on a Friday the 13th, and functions to raise awareness of accidents (mainly car accidents, from what I can glean, but if anyone knows more about this, please let me know).
If you are a sufferer of friggatriskaidekaphobia, the good news is that today is the only Friday the 13th we’ll see in 2014. So get through the day and breathe easy, knowing you’re safe for a while—as long as you don’t walk under ladders, spill salt, break mirrors, or cross paths with a black cat. Take this much-needed reprieve, because you’ll need it next year, when we’ll have THREE Friday the 13ths, two of them back-to-back in February and March.
Frigg help us!
This article originally appeared in the June 13, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call (206) 784-4617.