Superstition is a part of our psychological and imaginative heritage. In a primitive age, before science had begun to unravel the mysteries of the universe, our ignorance caused us to interpret, and subsequently invent patterns in the natural world that were seemingly able to create cause and effect in our day-to-day lives. If, for example, prehistoric hunters killed a rare or unusual type of bird, after which, by pure coincidence, the hunter himself died through some accident or illness, it might give birth to a supernatural fear that killing that species of bird may invite death or disease. All of our superstitions have originated through much the same process of attributing significance to completely chance events, and so it might be reasonably assumed that in the putatively more enlightened 21st century, we have forsaken such irrational beliefs, and consigned them to the medieval past where they belong. But as we all know, that is far from the case.
A recent survey has established that at least fifty percent of the population of Britain, America and Europe will still admit to some superstitious belief or behaviour. This includes the refusal to walk under ladders, stepping over cracks in the pavement, avoiding or welcoming black cats (depending on which country you’re in), the fear of breaking mirrors, the faith in lucky rabbit’s feet and other good-luck charms, and the preserving of four-leafed clovers. The list is endless. We’ve all seen ordinary, perfectly level-headed people who will suddenly act in the most peculiar way when confronted by a single magpie in their garden, or if they happen to spill salt.
But of all superstitious folklore, the number 13, especially when combined with the equally threatening day of Friday, will cause more nervous reaction from the general population than any other mythical harbinger of bad luck.
The fear of Friday 13th is known as paraskavedekatriaphobia, from the Greek translation of 'Friday-thirteen-phobia.' An American survey showed that over 21 million people in the United States are affected by this date to such a degree that some refuse to attend their workplaces and spend the day in bed, afraid to venture outside their homes. Some will not fly or use their car, or eat in public places, and it is estimated that businesses lose millions of dollars on that day due to absenteeism and loss of earnings. Many American cities do not have a thirteenth street or avenue, and a large number of buildings and hotels have no 13th floor or room. The belief that 13 is unlucky has been established as the most common superstition in the western world.
One theory as to why 13 is considered to be an unlucky number is because of its supposed ‘oddness.’ In numerology twelve is a ‘complete’ number. There are twelve months in a year, twelve signs of the Zodiac, twelve tribes of Israel, and so on. Thirteen is ostensibly ‘upsetting’ to the regularity of even numbers, and discordant to a balanced pattern.
The original fear of Friday, and the number 13, first became established in early Christian belief, the main example being The Last Supper. Jesus and his apostles made twelve, until Judas’s arrival at the table made thirteen. Jesus of course, was crucified on Friday, and the Great Flood is said to have occurred on the same day. Friday is also supposed to be the day that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden apple, and so were banished from the Garden of Eden.
Conversely, Friday was seen as a good omen in Norse mythology, being named after Frigg (or Frigga), the goddess of marriage, later to be associated with Freya, goddess of love. Both became representative of Friday, which was the luckiest day of the week to get married. But later, when Norse and Germanic tribes converted to Christianity, the goddesses were described as witches, and Friday was seen as an evil day.
In pagan and wiccan magic 13 is sacred because it was symbolic of the amount of lunar months in a year, as well as thirteen full moons. And in a wiccan coven, six men and six women would bring a balanced level of earth energy, the priest or priestess making thirteen. In black magic and Satanism, this was changed to twelve worshippers, who would, if their rituals were successful, be joined by the thirteenth: the Devil himself.
There are many superstitious beliefs associated with Fridays. For example, if you change your bed on a Friday, it will bring bad dreams; a trip started on Friday may cause danger or unhappiness; cutting your nails on Friday will create sorrow; ships that sail on Friday will have
bad luck; and perhaps most gruesome of all, if thirteen people sit down to dinner, they will all die within the year.
Historically, many sailors have refused to sail on a Friday, and in the 18th century the British Navy commissioned a ship they named HMS Friday in an attempt to put the superstition to rest. The crew was selected on a Friday, the captain was called James Friday, and the ship set off on a Friday morning. Unfortunately, the ship then disappeared without trace, never to be seen again. This incident is most likely apocryphal, and has actually been attributed to a joke told by comedian Dave Allen on his BBC2 programme back in 1975. But nevertheless, it is a fact that to this day, the US Navy will not launch a ship on Friday 13th.
One strange case, is that of Apollo 13, later made into a film with Tom Hanks. Apollo 13 was NASA’s thirteenth mission, which was launched from pad 39 (3+13=39), on April 11, 1970 (4+11+70=8+5=13). An explosion occurred on board at 1:13 (13;13 military time), on April 13th.
Fortunately, as we all know, everyone was eventually rescued.
Sometimes, however, disasters that either happen on this date or are associated with the number 13 do not always have a happy ending. On Friday, October 13th 1972, a plane carrying students and a rugby team crashed in the Andes mountains. During 72 days without food, and with no prospect of rescue, the survivors, facing the grim reality of slow starvation, kept themselves alive by cannibalising the corpses of their fellow passengers. In the crash that killed Princess Diana, her car hit the 13th pillar in the Alma tunnel in Paris. Research by Norwich Union over a five-year period established that the number of accidents that occurred on Friday 13th was up by--you’ve guessed it--13%! Although it has to be admitted that a probable cause might be that the nervousness induced by driving on the 13th could create an over-cautious state of mind, and consequently a situation in which accidents could easily happen.
One particular occasion on which we would certainly hope that this date is, after all, only a superstitious myth, will be April, Friday 13th, 2029. On that day the asteroid 99942 Apophis will, according to NASA’s calculations, come within 18,600 miles of the earth, which in astronomical terms, is very close indeed. We are reliably told that earth’s gravitational field will not pull the asteroid into our atmosphere, which is good news, as its 320-metre mass could easily obliterate an area the size of the British Isles, or generate tidal waves over 400 metres high.
Friday 13th certainly hasn’t meant bad luck for Paramount Pictures.
Their highly successful series of Friday The Thirteenth films, featuring the inhuman psycho killer Jason Voorhees who in the course of eleven films has murdered seemingly countless victims and has even on one occasion had a punch-up with Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street fame, has generated profits of over 523 million dollars.
The Romans executed their prisoners on Friday, the most famous of these being Jesus, and by coincidence or not, Friday was also executioner’s day in Britain. Legend tell us that there were thirteen knots in the hangman’s noose, and thirteen steps up to the gallows. If you were foolish enough to walk under these steps, the fates might decide that you will be the next to be hanged, and it is from this that we developed the superstition of walking under ladders. The guillotine
blade in France was said to fall 13 feet before slicing off the heads of the condemned, and hangmen and executioners were paid thirteen pence halfpenny.
One sinister piece of research that has recently come to light is the fact that many mass murderers seem to have thirteen letters in their name. Frederick (Fred) West, Harold Shipman, Saddam Hussein, Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore (Ted) Bundy and Albert De Salvo, among others, all have this unusual similarity. So, perhaps worryingly, does the title Prime Minister.
In the final analysis, the question of whether superstitions contain any real degree of truth, is largely dependant upon the amount of objectivity with which we view them. Millions of people born on Friday 13th live long and happy lives. Accidents and misfortune occur every day of the year, not just on Friday the 13th, and Robert Redford and Pierce Brosnan, among millions of others, also have thirteen letters in their names. Many paranormal phenomena are difficult to disprove, even in an age of scientific enlightenment, but superstitions seem to exist in our
world as a direct result of the credibility and ‘life’ that we, with our sometimes irrational way of interpreting the natural universe, inadvertently afford them.
That said, however, I don’t think that I’ll be walking under too many ladders today, just in case….