Pagans, Slashers, and Wall Street Psychos: The True Story of Friday the 13th
Is it bad luck... or just the Christian church's fear of pagans?
Friday the 13th: the very phrase can send a chill (of gleeful excitement or dread, depending on who you are) down the spine. Few days of the year are so notoriously unnerving and so profoundly associated with bad luck. But where did our fear of this date come from, and why does it persist?
Mythical Origins of Friday the 13th: Loki, Jesus, and the Knights Templar
Today, we typically associate Friday the 13th with slasher movies, but the day's ominousness has holier roots.
No one is exactly sure where our fears of Friday the 13th came from, and its origins are shrouded in a mythological haze. According to some biblical sources, Friday the 13th was the day Eve offered Adam the apple and launched humanity out of paradise. It was also supposedly the day Jesus was crucified, just before the dawn of modern times.
Another popular theory about the beginning of Friday the 13th proposes that the date marked the downfall of the Knights Templar, a group of militant monastic Christians. On Friday the 13th, 1307, the French king is said to have ordered the arrest of hundreds of Knights Templar members, thus collapsing the society.
This idea was popularized in The DaVinci Code, in which Dan Brown wrote (in his typically dramatic fashion), "On October 13, 1307, a day so infamous that Friday the 13th would become a synonym for ill fortune, officers of King Philip IV of France carried out mass arrests in a well-coordinated dawn raid that left several thousand Templars — knights, sergeants, priests, and serving brethren — in chains, charged with heresy, blasphemy, various obscenities, and homosexual practices. None of these charges was ever proven, even in France — and the Order was found innocent elsewhere — but in the seven years following the arrests, hundreds of Templars suffered excruciating tortures intended to force 'confessions,' and more than a hundred died under torture or were executed by burning at the stake."
It's not entirely clear how much of this occurred, and it's also unclear whether Friday the 13th was even feared before it was popularized in the 19th century. Still, seeing how badly Christians typically behave when faced with even the most minute deviance from the Holy Book, it's unsurprising that the church's superstition had something to do with our modern fears of the day.
The Witchy Pagan Origins of Our Fear of Friday and 13
The number 13's unlucky connotations are as ancient as human civilization itself. Across religions and time periods, the number 13 tends to have special implications. One ancient Norse myth tells a story of a dinner party intended for 12 gods. Of course, a 13th guest appeared uninvited. That uninvited guest was Loki, the trickster god (and notorious Avengers nemesis), who not only crashed the party but also immediately killed Balder, the god of joy and happiness.
Having 13 guests at dinner seems like a bad decision all around. In some narratives, Judas is described as the 13th guest at Jesus's pre-crucifixion dinner. Also, Hindus are thought to have believed that 13 people gathering in any one place is instantly bad luck.
On the other hand, Ancient Egyptians believed life was a twelve-step quest for spiritual ascension, and the eternal afterlife at the end of this quest was represented by a thirteenth step that marked not an end but an ultimate transformation into something eternal.
Naturally, as civilizations evolved to fear death instead of celebrating it, 13 became feared. Some speculate that our fear of the number 13 was–as most things are—manufactured by the patriarchy thanks to fear of women. It's believed that 13 was sacred in ancient goddess-worshiping cultures because there were 13 lunar and menstrual cycles in a calendar year. But as the patriarchy began to take power, the "perfect" number twelve and the 12-month year, the "imperfect" number 13 became feared and demonized.
In general, Fridays also don't have the best reputation (regardless of what the Rebecca Blacks of the world have to say). In Rome, executions happened on Fridays. Friday was also a holy day for pagans, meaning that the church had to immediately condemn it.
Just as they influence our fears of the number 13, the old Christian fear of Fridays might have roots in fears of paganism. The term "Friday" has been traced to a norse deity known as Frigg (goddess of marriage and fertility) or Freya (goddess of sex and fertility). Of course, when the church became determined to control the world, they recast Frigg and Freya as witches. Friday is the sabbath for pagans and Jews, so no wonder it was vilified by the church.
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In spite of all this, no one's definitively sure how or why Friday the 13th became so famously unlucky. Perhaps the combined fears of 13 and Fridays simply coalesced to create the paranoia we now know.
There are several references to Friday the 13th scattered around history, though it's hard to say if these are coincidental. In Henry Sutherland Edwards' biography of Gioachino Rossini, a brief reference appears: "He [Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday 13th of November he passed away."
Some believe that the specific concept of an unlucky Friday the 13th originated in a book called Friday, the Thirteenth by Thomas W. Lawson. In this book, a chaotic evil banker uses people's fears of Friday the 13th to create a mass Wall Street panic—and he profits immensely.
The press, perhaps hungry for another holiday or an excuse to scare people, jumped on the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky. Certainly Lawson is laughing from beyond the grave.
Of course, Lawson's invention has been immensely profitable for the entertainment industry. There's the infamous twelve-film slasher franchise, a television series, and a slew of books and novels about the day. Jason Vorhees and his cursed summer camp will forever haunt our dreams.
Today, perhaps because of these films or for a much more primal reason, many people are extremely scared of Friday the 13th. Some estimate that businesses lose $800-900 million on this date due to people's fear of flying and refusal to participate in everyday activities.
There's even a name for fear of Friday the 13th. Two names, to be exact: friggatriskaidekaphobi, which refers to the aforementioned goddess-witch Frigg, and paraskevidekatriaphobia, which is derived from the Greek words for Friday (paraskeví) and 13 (dekatria).
Certainly, some spooky things have happened on Friday the 13th. Kitty Genovese was killed on Friday the 13th in 1964, a 1970 cyclone killed more than 300,000 people in Bangladesh on Friday the 13th, and Tupac Shakur died on Friday the 13th in 1996.
On the other hand, tragedies happen every single day. Maybe life itself is just one long Friday the 13th—but it's easier to concentrate our fears on dates, times, and magical forces than to accept that reality.
Still, our fear might be somewhat useful. A 2008 study from the Dutch Center for Insurance Statistics actually reported that our fear of Friday the 13th might be making us safer. "Fewer accidents and reports of fire and theft occur when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday than on other Fridays, because people are preventatively more careful or just stay home," it reads. "Statistically speaking, driving is slightly safer on Friday the 13th, at least in the Netherlands; in the last two years, Dutch insurers received reports of an average 7,800 traffic accidents each Friday; but the average figure when the 13th fell on a Friday was just 7,500."
Rituals, Staycations, and Good Luck Charms for Friday the 13th in the Coronavirus Age
Remember, Fridays are pagan holidays, and 13 has sacred connotations in ancient faiths. Therefore, spiritualists believe that this is a day meant for honoring goddesses and the Divine Feminine. That might mean it's the perfect day for a staycation, a self-pampering session, or a night of creative expression and art-making.
If you're still scared and want to ward off the bad luck, you could try knocking on wood, clutching your rosary or your evil eye pendant, putting a pair of scissors or an amethyst under your pillow, or whatever makes you feel lucky and safe. Of course, regardless of whether you want to lean into the magic of Friday the 13th or just want to be left alone, in the days of coronavirus, Friday the 13th is the ideal day to play it extra safe and practice some healthy social distancing.
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