Susan here, on Friday the 13th – the first Friday 13th of 2023 (the second will be in October). We all do a bit of a double-take on any Friday the 13th, but why? Some who are genuinely superstitious about it may have triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13, while others may be so superstitious that they develop a fear of Friday the 13th in particular, called paraskevidekatriaphobia (from the Greek) or friggatriskaidekaphobia (from the Norse “frigg,” the root word of Friday).
What is it about this particular day, or the number 13? Let’s take a look.
Probably the earliest and certainly the most well-known cause of superstition around the number 13 is due to the attendance at the Last Supper of the 13th Apostle, Judas, who betrayed Jesus at the supper held on the 13th of Nisan, later called Maundy Thursday. From that developed an understandable superstition about 13 guests at a dinner table. . .
In Norse myth—not based in Christianity, so perhaps rising independently—there is a story of a feast of the gods in Valhalla when Loki, being the 13th and uninvited arrival, took offense and provoked one god to kill another, the god of light and joy–whose death brought darkness and destruction to the realm of the Norse gods.
In the fairytale realm, another party ended in disaster in the Brothers Grimm story of Briar-Rose, or Sleeping Beauty. The king and queen, celebrating at last the birth of a child, a beautiful baby daughter, host a dinner and invite fairies to bless her with gifts and protection. Having only twelve golden plates for the table, they declined to invite a thirteenth fairy—who arrived in a snit, cursing the child with the prediction that she would prick her finger on a needle and die at the age of 16.
The twelfth fairy, skipped over in the confusion, then stepped up with her gift—the child would not die, but rather sleep for a hundred years. And we all know what happened then: a wall of thorns and briars grew up around the castle where everyone slept for a hundred years–until a trusty prince whacked his way through the prickly barrier to find the sleeping princess and wake her, breaking the spell over her and all around her.
Moving on, even today, some restaurants routinely make sure there is no table thirteen—when tables are grouped, the limit in a space is considered twelve, and when they are numbered for service staff, there is no 13th table. And it’s common enough in social gatherings for hosts to rethink the seating arrangements to avoid thirteen people at a table!
Some buildings, along the same lines, eliminate the 13th floor, designating either 12th and 14th floors, or floor 12A, or “M”—the 13th letter of the alphabet—as a mezzanine level rather than a number floor. The Essex House in New York City is one early example of this, as floor 13 does not exist. Interesting that Essex House construction was begun the day after the stock market crash in October 1929, and not finished until 1931 — a round of bad luck indeed, though in the end it was finished, and still operates as a hotel in its modern incarnation (this vintage photo of Essex House reminds me of the haunted apartment building in "Ghostbusters"!).
As for Fridays, there's a good bit of superstition around that day with or without the number 13. Adam and Eve were said to eat the apple on a Friday, their sons Cain and Abel fought and Cain killed Abel on a Friday, and Noah’s ark was believed to have set sail when the epic flood began on a Friday. And Friday was the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. When combined with thirteen, the notoriousness of Friday in early history and in the Bible gave the number 13 a darker edge.
Adding to that, the Norse goddess Freyja and the Germanic goddess Frigga—often confused, and either separate goddesses or two sides of the same goddess coin—were associated with magic, predictions, marriage, fertility, and war—light and darkness, love and violence. They are also associated with the root word for Friday, which scholars think more likely stems from Frigga rather than Freyja, though honestly, no one seems entirely sure!
In the 20th century, a bestselling novel published in 1907 by T. W. Lawson, Friday the Thirteenth, about a Wall Street financial collapse and resulting panic, kicked the superstitions about Friday the 13th into overdrive. Even more oddly, the novel turned prophetic in 1929, reinforcing the curse of that day.
To balance out the evidence of Friday the 13th—and thirteen itself—as more bad fortune than good fortune, there are those who regard 13 as their very lucky number, among them music star Taylor Swift, who has said in interviews that she has always seen patterns of 13 in her life, including important dates. And I have friends who have also seen the number 13 pop up through the decades whenever something good happens to them. So however you regard it – 13 is a powerful number, and Friday the 13th can be a significant day . . . or just another TGIF!
Are you superstitious about 13 and/or Friday the 13th? Would you sit at the 13th table or avoid the 13th floor of a building? Or do you go boldly forth and take the risk?