The secret history of Friday 13th

Discover how the unluckiest day in the calendar connects Tupac Shakur, Margaret Thatcher and a 17th-century Scottish 'witch'

Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th
Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th Courtesy of schmoesknow.com

Post-Dawkins, belief in the supernatural is pretty passé. Unless you suffer from triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13), or more specifically paraskavedekatriaphobia (fear of Friday the 13th), it’s likely you don’t normally notice this day except with a passing, “Oh look, that’s mildly interesting”, and then forget about it.

This year, there is only one Friday which falls on the 13th; next year there will be three. It occurs 688 times during the 400-year Gregorian cycle – roughly every six months – although sometimes it can be as close together as three months or as far apart as 14 (and if it falls in February it will repeat the following month).

So why is the number 13, and specifically Friday 13th, so unlucky?

Ancient History

Twelve Norse gods are having dinner in Valhalla, the great hall of Asgard ruled by the god Odin. The troublemaking Loki (you know, Tom Hiddleston) crashes the party, bringing the total number of guests to 13. Pissed off that he hasn’t been invited, he connives to get the god of joy, light and purity Balder the Beautiful killed, plunging the world into darkness. Since then it has been considered unlucky to sit down to dinner with 13 guests – Roosevelt was so afraid of doing so that he would bring in his secretary to state meals to avoid the unlucky number.

Loki at dinner - WG Collingwood, Wikimedia Commons
Loki at dinner - WG Collingwood Wikimedia Commons

33 AD

Judas is the 13th guest to the Last Supper; Jesus is crucified on a Friday (hence Good Friday). Other “historical” events that are said to have taken place on a Friday include Adam and Eve being expelled from Heaven, Cain killing Abel, the start of the Great Flood and the confusion at the Tower of Babel.

Last supper - Ugolino di Nerio, Metropolitan Museu
Last supper - Ugolino di Nerio Metropolitan Museu

Friday 13 October 1307

Hundreds of Knights Templar are arrested and falsely charged with heresy by King Philip IV of France; they are promptly massacred.

14th century

Geoffrey Chaucer writes the Canterbury Tales, where he talks about how unlucky Fridays are in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale: “And on a Friday fell all this mischance […] For truly, on a Friday slain was he.”

Canterbury Tales - Ellesmere Chaucer
Canterbury Tales - Ellesmere Chaucer Wikimedia Commons

15th century

Tarot playing cards are invented. The cards are numbered from one to 20, with each number representing something like the Lovers (6) or the Sun (19). Number 13, predictably, is Death.

Death - Johann Georg Rauch, Wikimedia Commons
Death - Johann Georg Rauch Wikimedia Commons

1662

The 30–year–old Scottish housewife Isobel Gowdie is tried for being a witch, and gives a detailed confession of the methods she uses to mutate into animals and kill children. The “coven” she is in consists of 13 witches (as covens traditionally do), which is seen as a perversion of the symbolic group of 12 apostles plus Jesus.

Witches
Witches Wikimedia Commons

Friday 13 April 1906

Nobel–winning playwright and inveterate pessimist Samuel Beckett is born. Other people born on Friday 13th include Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, Steve Buscemi and the Olsen twins.

Samuel Beckett - Roger Pic
Samuel Beckett - Roger Pic Wikimedia Commons

Friday 13 July 1951

Composer and father of atonality Arnold Schoenberg dies. In 1908 he noticed that the thirteenth song of his song cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten had 13 letters in its title, ‘Moses und Aaron’. He suffered from triskaidekaphobia for most of his life, and died on Friday 13th at the age of 76 (7 + 6 = 13).

1964

The last hangings in the UK take place. A noose is achieved by tying a hangman’s knot, made by coiling the rope around itself 13 times. Woody Guthrie sings about these knots in "Hangknot, Slipknot": “Did you ever see a hangman tie a hangknot? / I've seen it many a time and he winds, he winds / After thirteen times he's got a hangknot.”

Hanged men, Pisanello, The Yorck Project
Hanged men, Pisanello, The Yorck Project

Friday 13 October 1972

A plane carrying the Uruguay rugby team Montevideo crashes in the Andes, killing almost everyone on board. The survivors, who are found three months later, are forced to eat the flesh of the dead in order to survive. The events are later immortalised in Alive, starring Ethan Hawke.

1978

John Wayne Gacy Jr is arrested for the sexual assault and murder of 33 teenage boys and young men. The letters in his name add up to 13. Coincidence?

* Jack the Ripper - 13 letters

* John Wayne Gacy - 13 letters

* Charles Manson - 13 letters

* Jeffrey Dahmer - 13 letters

* Theodore (Ted) Bundy - 13 letters

1980

Slasher flick Friday the 13th is released, inspired by the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween two years earlier. After her son drowns at Camp Crystal Lake, a mother goes on a killing spree to take revenge. A follow–up is released the next year, spawning several sequels. It turns out the boy isn’t dead after all – he is actually Jason Voorhees of ‘Jason’s hockey mask’ fame, and is just as murderous as his mother.

Friday 13 September 1996

Tupac Shakur, a.k.a. 2Pac, dies at the age of 25 in Las Vegas after a drive–by shooting six days earlier inflicts multiple gunshot wounds. His group The Outlawz later smoke his ashes with some weed: “Pac loved that kind of shit, so we were giving him our own farewell.”

Friday 13 October 2006

A superstitious British couple’s mirror breaks: that’s seven years of bad luck. Later that day, they buy a lottery ticket and win roughly £9 million. Dawkins 1, supernatural 0.

Friday 13 February 2009

A remake of Friday the 13th is released, with the intention of giving the series a reboot. The film (produced by Michael Bay) is almost universally panned for being boring and unoriginal. On the plus side, it is the first film in the franchise to be released on a Friday 13th.

Friday 13 January 2012

The Costa Concordia cruise liner sinks near the Isola del Giglio, Italy, killing 30 people.

2014

No one really gives a damn about Friday 13th anymore, except distribution companies with horror films to promote and journalists with articles to write. Still, it’s the only one this year and Halloween is a long way away, so take it as an excuse to throw a Norse God themed party.

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