Friday, January 13, 2012


Today, according to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, around twenty million people in the US will be so terrified that they will struggle to get out of bed.

They have something called friggatriskaidekaphobia - fear of Friday the thirteenth. (And yes, that is a real word!)

Why? Well, the two of you who haven’t read The da Vinci Code may not know that this superstition arose because Friday the thirteenth was the date that the Knights Templar were all arrested in Paris. It was a day that 'lived in infamy' even though no one really paid much attention to it for the next five hundred years.

In fact, some scholars are now convinced the stigma attached to Friday the Thirteenth is a thoroughly modern phenomenon exacerbated by 20th-century media hype.  (Like this in fact!!)

The phobia only seems to have taken hold on the popular imagination some time late in the nineteenth century and is rather the melding of a day considered unlucky - Friday - with an unlucky number -13.

This pre-occupation with Friday the Thirteenth spiked after the publication of Thomas W Lawson’s novel of the same name in 1907. It is about an unscrupulous broker (and how far-fetched is that!) who takes advantage of the superstition to create a Wall Street panic on that day. 

photograph: Agamitsudo
But what is it with Fridays? It is supposed to be an unlucky day because it’s believed Christ was crucified on a Friday. (And so why do we call it Good Friday?) In England, the sixth day of the week was also once reserved for public executions: "Hangman's Day."

And the number 13? Well, opinions vary.

A Norse myth says that having thirteen people sitting at dinner will result in the death of one of the diners. And if you’ve ever eaten Swedish rollmop you’ll know the feeling.

Another theory says that the earliest reference to thirteen being unlucky or evil was from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi where the thirteenth law is omitted. In fact, the original Code of Hammurabi has no numeration.

There’s also a Christian tradition that says Judas was the 13th to sit down at the Last Supper. However, the Bible itself says nothing about the order at which the Apostles sat. 

So nothing conclusive there. But whatever the source, it definitely bothers a lot of people; Belgian Airlines recently had to repaint their planes because their logo was made of thirteen dots. Due to public complaints they grounded the fleet to add one extra dot.

And many buildings and hotels do not have a 13th floor.

Those who consider 13 unlucky will quote the example of Apollo 13. It launched at 13:13 from pad 39 (three thirteens) and its oxygen tank exploded  on April 13. 

And then there’s all the serial killers with thirteen letters in their names; Jack the Ripper, 13 letters. Charles Manson, 13. Jeffrey Dahmer, 13. Theodore Bundy. 13.

Bernard Madoff, 13 letters.

Colin Falconer. Uh-oh.

The gangsta rapper, Tupac, was shot dead on Friday, 13 September, 1996. And on Friday, 13 November, 1970, a massive storm killed approximately 300,000 people in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and created floods that killed as many as one million people in the Ganges Delta.

Yes but. What about Kennedy? He wasn’t shot on the 13th. The Boxing Day Tsunami happened on ... Boxing Day. Pearl Harbour was on a Sunday. And 9/11 happened on ... 9/11 not 9/13.

So really - what’s so bad? In 1881, an group of New Yorkers led by U.S. Civil War veteran Captain William Fowler formed a dinner cabaret club, called the Thirteen Club, to show that superstition was just that - superstition. The first meeting was called on Friday 13 January 1881, when 13 people sat down to dine in room 13. The guests had to walk under a ladder to enter the room and sat among piles of spilled salt. 

All of the guests survived. 

Future members included five future U.S. presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt.

Of course, whether Friday the Thirteenth really is unlucky depends which country you’re in. In Spain and Greece, for example, Tuesday the 13th is unlucky. (Judging by the Greek economy any day’s unlucky if you happen to live there. )

And in Asia there is widespread fear of the number four (many apartments and hotels do not have floors with that digit) because the pronunciation of the word for "four" in Mandarin is very similar to that of the word for "death".

photograph: Giovanni Giuseppe Nicosia

And in Afghanistan they fear the number 39. People in Kabul never go to work on Friday the 39th.

But if you’re still worried about this, help is at hand. Traditional folklore offers remedies; one recommendation is to climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them. Seriously. 

Another is to stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.

So there’s your answer to Black Friday. Of course if you get arrested for causing a public nuisance or choke on the gristle don’t blame me.

Perhaps you’re just unlucky. 

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