The Unluckiest Day?

The Unluckiest Day?

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As Friday 13th hoves into view (yes, 13th November falls on a Friday this year) some of our guides have hand-picked some appropriately themed walks for that most onerous of dates.

As a little warm-up, Paul Surma (who will be running his Ghost. Ghouls and Graveyards walks on that day) delves into the origins of the superstition that this is the unluckiest day.

Friday 13th

In the West (Europe and North America in particular) when a particular day and date fall together large numbers of the population begin to act rather strangely. Friday and the 13th…

People put off getting married, starting new projects, going to work, hosting parties and applying for jobs (research in the USA reported around 8% of the population admitting they “act differently” on Friday 13th – and that’s just north of 42 million people).

But why is Friday 13th so terrifying to the Western world?

Paraskevidekatriaphobia (to give the phobia its official title – try saying that at the end of a long night out…) is a compound phobia of the number 13 and Friday.

But what are their origins?

The simple answer is very ancient as they can be traced back (at least) to early Christian theology.

At the Last Supper, for example it is said thatlast supper Judas “the betrayer” Iscariot was the 13th person to arrive and Jesus was, of course, crucified on a Friday.

But it may even go further back than that. Some religious scholars believe that, that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit on a Friday and that the Great Flood that Noah had to set sail to survive was on the very same day of the week.

So it looks like God had it in for Friday which founded a superstition throughout the Christian world not to do anything of any great importance (such as start projects or make trips) on that day.

Others have traced it back even further to Pagan religions. Friday is named after the Norse goddess Frigg, wife of Odin. She was associated with foreknowledge, wisdom, love, war, death and magic and such a strong female figure friggwould have posed a threat to the male dominated Christian religion, so in order to fight her influence on her name day she was vilified.

Legend also has her joining a coven of 12 witches, thus bringing their number to 13 (a similar Christian tradition holds that 13 is an unholy number because it signifies the gathering of 12 witches and the devil).

Frigg’s son Baldr was killed when the malevolent god Loki arrived uninvited during a feast where – you guessed it – there were already 12 Gods present, so another instance of the arrival of an untrustworthy individual bringing a dining group to 13 (Loki convinced Hod, the blind God of winter and darkness, to murder Baldr with a spear of mistletoe by the way).

So even before we had come out of the Dark Ages, congregating for dinner with 13 people and doing anything vaguely important on a Friday were firmly fixed as “bad ideas”.

Bringing it more up to date(!), Friday 13th October 1066 was also the day King Harold took the arrow that ended his reign courtesy of William the Conqueror’s invading hordes, so it was certainly unlucky for him.

But by far the most popular theory you will hear relates to King Philip IV of France’s order to arrest all members of the order of the Knights Templar in France on Friday 13th October 1307.

knights templarsPhilip was hugely in debt to the order (they were the bankers of the day), was looking for a way out and used a complaint against them as his excuse to make his move.

His co-ordinated effort arrested most of The Templars on the same day and they subsequently faced a range of trumped-up charges such as fraud, corruption, idol worship, sodomy and secrecy.

Confessions were duly obtained under duress (largely through torture) and they were all burned at the stake or crucified. So not what you would call the luckiest day in their history.

Moving forward to the 18th century, sailors at the time were infamous for their suspicions and would flat refuse to ever set sail on a Friday. This led to an urban myth that, having had enough of this, the Navy commissioned a ship named ‘HMS Friday’, for which they employed the crew on a Friday, appointed a James Friday as its captain and its first voyage departed on a Friday. Upon which it mysteriously vanished with all hands never to be seen again.

Whilst a lovely story, there is sadly not a grain of truth behind it.  But it does illustrate the lingering power of this particular superstition (even when we had entered what was supposed to be a more enlightened age).

20th century pop culture has also done its bit to further ingrain it into western culture; Thomas W. Lawson’s 1907 novel “Friday the Thirteenth” – which told of a stockbroker’s efforts to destroy the stock market on that date – and the notoriously gory ‘Friday the 13th’ film franchise are a couple of examples of this.

Some plucky individuals, though, have refused to be cowed by such superstitions and chosen instead to fly in the face of them.

thirteen_club_Take the ‘The Thirteen Club’ for instance. First organised by William Fowler in Manhattan in 1882, they would meet on the 13th of the month, sit 13 to a table, break mirrors, spill salt and even walked into dinner under crossed ladders, their purpose being to put these superstitions to the test with the aim of proving them false and demonstrate them as an ancient relic with no place in modern society.

The club died out during the early 1920s, however Fowler proudly reported that none of their members had had nothing especially terrible befall them despite their wanton disregard in the face of ‘bad luck’.

A much more scientific attempt to disprove the superstitions was made recently as recently as 2008 by a Dutch research agency. Their aim was to prove through statistics that Friday 13th is the same as every other day, but they came up with a somewhat unexpected result.

Based on car accident data from 2006 – 2008, they discovered that Friday the 13th is actually a slightly safer day on which to drive (their hypothesis is people’s phobia causes them to drive less on Friday 13th or be more careful if they have to).

So why are we wedded to the belief that bad things happen on Friday 13th when we know as a fact that not all of the bad (and sometimes downright horrific) things that happen are not confined to that day?

The simple truth is that Friday 13th is unlucky because we want it to be. To be able to blame ‘bad luck’ on of a specific date and conveniently forget all the other times when it passes uneventfully is part of the human condition and as much part of the folklore of our society as fairies, ghosts and monsters. And it has had a few thousand years’ head start on a more enlightened age of science and rationality to ingrain itself as a belief.

So what are your plans for the upcoming Friday 13th? Avoid it? Ignore it? Embrace it William Fowler-style and throw salt in the wind?

Or why not come on one of our walks we have scheduled specially for that portentous day to hear stories of others’ misfortunes instead? Ghouls, ghosts, graveyards, executions, prisons, murderous intent and some people with just the wrong idea in the wrong place at the wrong time – no matter what the day or date!

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