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Why Friday the 13th Is Unlucky

The Unluckiest Day of All

By

The unanswered question

The astute reader will have observed that while we have thus far insinuated any number of intriguing connections between events, practices and beliefs attributed to ancient cultures and the superstitious fear of Fridays and the number 13, we have yet to happen upon an explanation of how, why, or when these separate strands of folklore converged — if that is indeed what happened — to mark Friday the 13th as the unluckiest day of all.

There's a very simple reason for that: nobody really knows, and few concrete explanations have been proposed.

'A day so infamous'

One theory, recently offered up as historical fact in the novel The Da Vinci Code, holds that the stigma came about not as the result of a convergence, but because of a catastrophe, a single historical event that happened nearly 700 years ago. That event was the decimation of the Knights Templar, the legendary order of "warrior monks" formed during the Christian Crusades to combat Islam. Renowned as a fighting force for 200 years, by the 1300s the order had grown so pervasive and powerful it was perceived as a political threat by kings and popes alike and brought down by a church-state conspiracy, as recounted by Katharine Kurtz in Tales of the Knights Templar (Warner Books, 1995):

On October 13, 1307, a day so infamous that Friday the 13th would become a synonym for ill fortune, officers of King Philip IV of France carried out mass arrests in a well-coordinated dawn raid that left several thousand Templars — knights, sergeants, priests, and serving brethren — in chains, charged with heresy, blasphemy, various obscenities, and homosexual practices. None of these charges was ever proven, even in France — and the Order was found innocent elsewhere — but in the seven years following the arrests, hundreds of Templars suffered excruciating tortures intended to force "confessions," and more than a hundred died under torture or were executed by burning at the stake.

There are problems with the "day so infamous" thesis, not the least of which is that it attributes enormous significance to a relatively obscure historical event. Even more problematic for this or any other theory positing pre-modern origins for a superstitious dread of Friday the 13th is the fact that so little documentation has been found to prove that such a superstition even existed prior to the late 19th century.

An accrual of bad omens?

Going back more than a hundred years, Friday the 13th doesn't even merit a mention in the 1898 edition of E. Cobham Brewer's voluminous Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, though one does find entries for "Friday, an Unlucky Day" and "Thirteen Unlucky."  When the date of ill fate finally does make an appearance in later editions of the text, it is without extravagant claims as to the superstition's historicity or longevity. The very brevity of the entry is instructive: "Friday the Thirteenth: A particularly unlucky Friday. See Thirteen" — implying that the extra dollop of misfortune might be accounted for in terms of a simple accrual, as it were, of bad omens:

UNLUCKY FRIDAY + UNLUCKY 13 = UNLUCKIER FRIDAY

That being the case, we are guilty of perpetuating a misnomer by labeling Friday the 13th "the unluckiest day of all," a designation perhaps better reserved for, say, a Friday the 13th on which one breaks a mirror, walks under a ladder, spills the salt, and spies a black cat crossing one's path — a day, if there ever was one, best spent in the safety of one's own home with doors locked, shutters closed, and fingers crossed.

Postscript: A novel theory

In 13: The Story of the World's Most Popular Superstition (Avalon, 2004), author Nathaniel Lachenmeyer argues that the commingling of "unlucky Friday" and "unlucky 13" took place in the pages of a specific literary work, a novel published in 1907 titled — what else? — Friday, the Thirteenth. The book, all but forgotten now, concerned dirty dealings in the stock market and sold quite well in its day. Both the titular phrase and the phobic premise behind it — namely that superstitious people regard Friday the 13th as a supremely unlucky day — were instantly adopted and popularized by the press.

It seems unlikely that the novelist, Thomas W. Lawson, literally invented that premise himself — he treats it within the story, in fact, as a notion that already existed in the public consciousness — but he most certainly lent it gravitas and set it on a path to becoming the most widespread — or at least the most widely known — superstition in the modern world.


Sources and further reading (updated):

  • Bowen, John. "Friday the 13th." Salon magazine, 13 Aug 1999.
  • Brewer, E. Cobham. The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. (1898 Edition in Hypertext).
  • "Days of the Week: Friday." The Mystical World Wide Web.
  • de Lys, Claudia. The Giant Book of Superstitions. New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1979.
  • Duncan, David E. Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. New York: Avon, 1998.
  • Ferm, Vergilius. A Brief Dictionary of American Superstitions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1965.
  • Krischke, Wolfgang. "This Just Might Be Your Lucky Day." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1 Nov 2001.
  • Kurtz, Katharine. Tales of the Knights Templar. New York: Warner Books, 1995.
  • Lachenmeyer, Nathaniel. 13: The Story of the World's Most Popular Superstition. New York: Avalon, 2004.
  • Lawson, Thomas W. Friday, the Thirteenth. New York: Doubleday, 1907.
  • Opie, Iona and Tatem, Moira. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.
  • Q and A: Triskaidekaphobia. New York Times, 8 Aug 1993.
  • Scanlon, T.J., et al. "Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health?" British Medical Journal. (Dec. 18-25, 1993): 1584-6.
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