Superstitious, or just a little stitious? 13 facts about Friday the 13th

Aug 13, 2021, 12:01 PM
last supper friday the 13th...
Some people distrust the number 13 because the Last Supper included 13 diners. Photo: Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," via https://cenacolovinciano.org/

With just one Friday the 13th in all of 2021, superstitious folks might consider staying close to home today. But what are the facts when it comes to the Friday the 13th superstitions? 

Not to worry. Here’s a breakdown. 

1. No evidence that anyone considered Friday the 13th unlucky before the 19th century, but lots of historic bad luck 

The number 13 came by its unlucky reputation through a number of events with either religious or historical significance. But no record exists to show a written reference to superstitions around Friday the 13th before the 1800s. 

So where do the superstitions come from? Several possible origins. 

2. Ancient Sumerians considered 12 “perfection.” 13? Not so much.

Going back to roughly 4,000 years BCE, ancient Sumerians considered the number 12 “perfect.” Modern scholars, therefore, concluded that the number after 12 must therefore be imperfect in the view of ancient Sumerians. 

3. No 13th rule in one of the earliest written legal codes

Next, the Code of Hammurabi, one of the very first legal codes in history, written some 1,700 or so years before the birth of Jesus Christ, seems to lack a 13th rule. Was that intentional? No one knows. 

4. The Last Supper’s 13 diners

Another theory? 13 people dined at the Last Supper, Jesus’s last meal before his crucifixion. Harry Potter fans may remember Professor Sybill Trelawney’s concern over 13 guests at the Christmas dinner at Hogwarts — the superstition referenced in the fictional work seems to come from the Last Supper. 

Another infamous meal with 13 diners could also have fueled this aspect of the superstition. In Norse mythology, the trickster god Loki crashed a 12-god dinner party in Valhalla, then arranged for one of the gods to shoot another with an arrow dipped in mistletoe. 

5. Good Friday, the day of crucifixion, led some to believe Fridays are unlucky 

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the Friday after the Last Supper gave rise to the belief, particularly among Italians, especially in times of old, that Fridays are unlucky. (Technically, Italians consider Friday the 17th unlucky. It stems from the Roman numerals for 17, XVII. Shuffle those letters around, and you get VIXI, which translates from Latin to English as “I have lived” — or put another way, I am dead.)

This “Fridays are unlucky” theory comes with at least some evidence in the form of a biography of the composer Giachino Rossini, which leads us to the next Friday the 13th fact. 

6. Famous deaths on Friday the 13th don’t help 

Rossini’s biography, by Henry Sutherland Edwards, includes the following tidbit: 

He [Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that one Friday 13th of November he died.

The composer died Friday, Nov. 13, 1868, at the age of 76. Other more recent notable Friday the 13th deaths include the rapper Tupac Shakur on Sept. 13, 1996, and Tim Russert, NBC correspondent, June 13, 2008. 

7. More facts tying Friday to the 13th: the Knights Templar

Centuries after the crucifixion, the Trials of the Knights Templar brought more notoriety for the number 13, as it began with their arrest on Friday, Oct. 13, 1307. The arrest of some 600 men (some of whom weren’t even Knights Templar) set off a chain of events that included their torture. Hundreds ultimately confessed to false charges to escape that brutality. In the year 1314, several leaders of the movement were burned at the stake, adding more notoriety to the number 13. 

8. Fictional written works spur the superstition 

A novel published in 1907 may have fueled some of the superstition around the date. Titled Friday, the Thirteenth, Thomas W. Lawson’s tale described a Wall Street broker taking advantage of the date’s reputation to incite a market panic. 

It probably doesn’t help that the stock market crashed on Friday, Oct. 13, 1989, a date now known by some as Black Friday, and by others as the Friday the 13th mini-crash. 

9. Fictional film works create their own buzz around the date

Of course, no Friday the 13th list is complete without a reference to the series of movies, popularized in the 1980s, featuring a hockey-mask-wearing baddie named Jason Vorhees. Worldwide, the 12 films in the series have grossed over $460 million dollars to date. 

10. In some countries, it’s not Friday the 13th — it’s Tuesday 

For many Spanish-speaking countries, Tuesday the 13th, or Martes Trece, brings bad luck. The word Martes, meaning Tuesday, comes from the Roman god of war, Mars. A Spanish language saying advises against marrying, setting sail, or going far from home on Tuesday the 13th. 

Greeks also distrust Tuesday the 13th. Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade on Tuesday, Apr. 13, 1204. In addition, in Greek, Tuesday is called Triti, translating to the third day of the week. Some believe bad luck comes in threes. 

11. The number we distrust varies by culture 

13 gets a bad reputation for many in the English-speaking world, as well as Spanish-speaking and Greek culture. For Italians, it’s 17. But in many Asian countries, the unlucky number is 4. For example, in Beijing, China, you can’t get a license plate with the number 4 on it. The reason? The Chinese word for 4 sounds a lot like the word for death. Japan and North and South Korea also share this superstition, as their languages share similarities in that respect. 

12. Many buildings skip the 13th floor 

Spend a night in a fancy, tall hotel and you might notice this anomaly: many tall buildings do not include a 13th floor. Of course, it’s still technically there — they’re just calling it the 14th floor instead. Blame the superstition around the number 13. 

Similarly, some airplanes skip row 13. 

13. Friday the 13th might actually be safer than you think 

Earlier studies into whether you’re more likely to be involved in some kind of accident proved inconclusive because there just wasn’t enough data. But in 2008, Dutch researchers published data showing fewer accidents, fires and thefts on Fridays the 13th. The reason why? They think people just tend to stay home or take more precautions on Friday the 13th. 

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Superstitious, or just a little stitious? 13 facts about Friday the 13th