I trust everyone has survived Friday the 13th? I’ve never been very superstitious, but I’ve been wondering how we got to fear this particular day. So I dug out the book An Uncommon History of Common Things (National Geographic, 2009, page 118). As one might suspect, the answer isn’t very straightforward.
First, the Friday component. By biblical tradition, Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Some also think Eve tempted Adam on a Friday, and Cain murdered Abel on a Friday the 13th. Others point to Norse mythology. Friday was named for Frigga, goddess of the sky. When Christianity was adopted, Frigga was banished and considered a witch. For centuries, Scandinavians have called Friday “witches’ Sabbath.”
Next is fear of the number 13. This phobia seems to go back a very long way.
— Thirteen in prehistoric cultures was revered because it matched the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year. Perhaps fear of the feminine might have led to fear of 13?
— The next possibility is ancient Egypt, with the belief that spiritual ascension came in 12 stages — the 13th was the afterlife and was of course unknown. Thus anything associated with 13 was shrouded in mystery and involved death.
— Or if you were an ancient Roman, you may have believed covens consisted of 12 witches, with the devil making 13.
— The next stop is, again, Norse mythology. Twelve gods were having a dinner party in heaven (Valhalla). An uninvited 13th guest and known troublemaker arrives — Loki. He arranges for Hoder, the god of darkness, to shoot Balder the Beautiful, god of joy, with a mistletoe-tipped arrow. Balder dies and the Earth is shrouded in darkness.
— If you don’t believe in Norse mythology, consider the Last Supper in Christendom. Judas is the last to show up, making 13.
— Maybe you are a numerologist. Twelve is a “complete” number, being evenly divisible by 2, 3, and 4. Twelve also holds a favored place in our culture — number of Jesus’ disciples, months in the year, people on a jury, a dozen, etc. How can 13 compete with that? It must be unlucky by comparison.
So there you have it, take your pick. Or you can ignore the day as being, well, superstitious.