Faith vs. Myth: Why is Friday the 13th bad?
You may not know the name for it, paraskevidekatriaphobia, but you probably know about the fear of Friday the 13th. According to legend, learning to pronounce the word keeps one from being paraskevidekatriaphobic.
How Friday the 13th got the reputation as a day when bad things happen, no one knows for sure, but the theories are interesting.
Thirteen has long been considered an unlucky number in some cultures. Skyscrapers occasionally omit labeling a 13th floor and airlines have skipped over row 13 when assigning seat numbers.
The reason may be rooted in an ancient understanding of twelve as a complete number. There are 12 months in a year, 12 hours on a clock, 12 tribes of Israel, and Jesus called 12 disciples. A thirteenth disturbs this completeness.
Some trace the fear of the number 13, triskaidekaphobia, to a Norse myth—pay attention Avengers fans. According to the legend, 12 gods were having a dinner party in Valhalla when a 13th and uninvited guest arrived. The gatecrasher, a god named Loki, tricked the god of darkness to shoot the god of joy and gladness, with an arrow made of mistletoe, the only substance to which he was not impervious. The tale states that when Balder the Beautiful died, a deep darkness fell upon the earth. Because Loki was the 13th guest, people associated darkness and dread with the number 13.
Long before Norse mythology however, Jesus and the disciples gathered in an upper room for the Last Supper. Thirteen people were at the table on the night Jesus was betrayed.
Some historians wonder about possible evidence from a much earlier source. The ancient Code of Hammurabi, written more than 1,700 years before the birth of Jesus, has no thirteenth law. The numbering skips from 12 to 14. Most scholars attribute this to a simple clerical error literally etched in stone, but it could be early evidence of triskaidekaphobia.
Friday was also considered unlucky, long before anyone called it Fri-yay on Facebook. Geoffrey Chaucer receives much of the credit for popularizing this idea in the 1300s. In The Canterbury Tales he writes, “And on a Friday fell all this mischance.”
Other explanations go back to the Bible. It was once believed that the day of the week Adam and Eve first sinned, Cain killed Abel, rain began to fall on Noah, and God scattered the nations at the Tower of Babel, were all Fridays. There is no biblical evidence to support dating those stories that way, but we know that Jesus was crucified on a Friday.
Doubly unlucky Friday the 13th
An unlucky number falling on an unlucky day sounds like a recipe for double the bad luck to those who believe these superstitions.
Author Thomas William Lawson may deserve the blame for putting these two unlucky signs together. In his 1907 novel Friday, the Thirteenth, a New York City stockbroker makes a fortune by preying on people’s fears of Friday the 13th to create chaos in the market.
Interestingly, one warning about the 13th of the month dates all the way back to the eighth century BC. An ancient farmer’s almanac called Works and Days, warns, “Avoid the thirteenth of the waxing month for beginning to sow.” Unfortunately, the author offers no reason for this admonition.
Many historians are convinced that Friday the thirteenth’s reputation is likely rooted in the story of Holy Week. Jesus was betrayed by one at the Last Supper, a table around which 13 gathered, and crucified on a Friday.
Let us rejoice
If the calendar happens to say Friday the 13th when you spill coffee on your favorite outfit, you may smile and jokingly attribute your misfortune to this “unlucky” day. As people of faith, however, we know that God is with us every day, including these certain Fridays that occur at least once and at most three times in a year.
When tempted to buy into a negative way of thinking or to believe something sinister is in the air on Friday the 13th, it might help to learn to pronounce paraskevidekatriaphobia.
It will be far more effective however, to remember the words of scripture, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24 NRSV). Even when it is Friday the 13th.
This story first posted on April 11, 2018.