Americans have long been a superstitious lot: Don’t walk under ladders (which is actually very good advice), panic if a black cat crosses your path and whomever opened a pocket knife must be the one to close it, otherwise you’ll be cursed (This is one my West Virginia-born father swore by).
But our superstitions are taken to a whole new level every time a Friday falls on the 13th day of a month.
The fear of the number 13 has been given a scientific name: “triskaidekaphobia”; and the fear of Friday the 13th is called “paraskevidekatriaphobia”… Here’s betting you didn’t even attempt to pronounce that word!
But why on earth did Western culture develop a fear of Friday the 13th in the first place?
The answer to this question dates back to the Middle Ages.
With every aspect of their life dominated by religion, the people of this era began to draw a connection to this last supper and crucifixion of Jesus: There were 13 individuals present in the Upper Room on the 13th day of the month, the night before his death on Good Friday.
For the next few centuries, both Fridays and the number 13 were considered to be unlucky, independent of each other.
However, by the early 1900s, English writers had connected the two and popularized Friday 13th as being supremely unlucky:
In 1907, writer Thomas W. Lawson published a popular novel called “Friday, the Thirteenth”, in which an unscrupulous broker takes advantage of the superstition to create a Wall Street panic on a Friday the 13th. The novel was an instant hit and the fate of this date and day combination was forever sealed in Western Culture.
Fascinatingly, other cultures view various different date / day combinations as unlucky.
In Spanish-speaking countries, instead of Friday, Tuesday the 13th (martes trece) is considered a day of bad luck.
In Italian popular culture, Friday the 17th (and not the 13th) is considered a day of bad luck. The origin of this belief could be traced in the writing of number 17, in Roman numerals: XVII. By shuffling the digits of the number one can easily get the word VIXI (“I have lived”, implying death in the present), an omen of bad luck. In fact, in Italy, 13 is generally considered a lucky number.
So perhaps today, we can pretend as though we’re in Rome… Happy day of good luck!
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