Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013 – an inauspicious date

Only once in a hundred years does such a date occur, so all the more reason to wish all my readers a happy new year.

And time for a few hastily compiled notes on the unluckiness of 13.

This belief seems to be widespread in Europe. How much further afield, I'm not sure. I've seen it said that in the Persian culture, 13 is also considered an unlucky number. On the 13th day of the Persian new year (Norouz), people consider staying at home unlucky, and go outside for a picnic in order to ward off the bad luck, apparently. 

To pin down the actual reasons for the belief would be a hopeless quest, but I'll mention those that cropped up most frequently on a quick web trawl.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1496
The most popular origin for European fear of the number 13 is the New Testament story of the Last Supper.  In Mark 14: 17-21 we get:

"And it was in the evening that he came with the twelve. As they were at the table eating, Jesus said 'Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.' They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another 'Is it I?' He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping in the same dish with me. For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.' "

The story carries the inference that one in the group of 13 is doomed. Amongst those who paid attention to this is Franklin Roosevelt who is said to have refused to have a meal with 13 people at the table – also to refuse to travel on a 13th.  The Norwegian playwright Ibsen depicts tragic consequences following a dinner with 13 guests. I think this is in his play The Wild Duck.

Whilst my bones tell me the Last Supper is the right explanation, folklorists appear reluctant to pronounce on this; and we should note that in the Greek world 13 was unlucky even earlier.

Other suggestions I've found from a web search are
•    A Norse myth about the unpleasant god Loki. This is another story on the theme of 13 at dinner. 12 gods were at dinner in Valhalla when Loki intruded uninvited, to make a total of 13. Loki tricked Hoder, the blind god of darkness into shooting Balder with a mistletoe tipped arrow. Balder died and his death plunged the Earth into darkness. The whole of Earth, both gods and humans, went into mourning.  I haven't been able to establish whether this is a genuine Norse myth or an invented one, tailored to the interests of people concerned with the number 13.  I hope to check this soon.
•    13 is unlucky because it follows 12, which in the ancient world was considered to be a lucky number associated with completion and perfection, due perhaps to having so many factors – 2,3,4 and 6. Evidence for 12 being considered a perfect number includes: 12 months in a year, 12 hours in half a day, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 labours of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles of Jesus. (I've also seen 12 gods of Olympus on this list, but I'm not convinced about that one.)
•    The 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, M, was unlucky to the ancient Hebrews due to being the first letter in the word "mavet," meaning death.  This one sounds thin and contrived to me, moreover it doesn't hang together with celebrating bar mitzvah at age 13. But I haven't had time to check it, so who knows.

The "baker's dozen" may have originated as a way for bakers to avoid being blamed for shorting their customers.
Image: Wikipedia
The baker’s dozen deserves a digression. Not that it's unlucky, far from it, you get 13 loaves when you’ve only paid for 12. It's widely believed that this phrase originated from the practice of medieval English bakers giving an extra loaf when selling a dozen in order to avoid being penalized for selling short weight. This attractive story actually appears to be substantially true. The Phrase Finder website carries a useful discussion fleshing out this derivation.

Unlucky Fridays

DePaul University library in Chicago has a webpage commenting that whatever the reasons, it is clear that 13 shows up time and time again in history as a focus for fear and uncertainty.  One of the first texts to reflect this view is Work and Days written in 700 BCE. The Greek poet Hesiod mentions the 13th of the month as an unlucky day for sewing seeds. 

Negativity towards Fridays should be mentioned. The same webpage traces this as far back as the 16th century in western literature, citing the terms "friday-faced" and "friday-look," meaning a sad or solemn demeanour. These surfaced as early as the late 1500’s.  In 1592, Greene wrote, "The Foxe made a Fridayface, counterfeiting sorrow."  The expression was used again in 1681 by Robertson who wrote, "What makes you look so sad, and moodily? with such a Friday face."  Early in the next century Rowley spoke of a "plague of Friday mornings".

Numerous websites cite the line "and on a Friday fell all this misfortune” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But these people haven’t actually read the tale, they are just copying each other, as this line doesn't in fact refer to the unluckiness of Fridays as such - see I seek unlucky Fridays in Chaucer and find none.

Why there's a negative association with Friday is subject to speculation.  And I've seen it stated that the special unluckiness of Friday 13th didn't arise before the 19th century.

To the Greeks, Tuesday is the unlucky day, associated with the fall of Constantinople. Twice. The city fell to the Fourth Crusade on Tuesday, April 13, 1204, and finally to the Ottomans on Tuesday, May 29, 1453.

Note: The Ides of March in the Roman calendar, notorious since 44 BC as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar, was the 15th not the 13th.


  1. Happy New Year Pete! Always thought Judas got a raw deal - if you believe the Gospels God's great plan couldn't have worked without him, yet he gets damned for all time!

    Is the unlucky Friday thing related to Jesus being crucified on a Friday do you think?

  2. Judas is innocent OK! There's a 2nd century Gospel of Judas portraying Judas acting in obedience to instructions given by Jesus, who plans the course of events which led to his death. Re Fridays, I've also seen it suggested that Eve tempted Adam on a Friday, the Flood began on a Friday and God confused the languages of the builders of the tower of Babel on a Friday. I intend to look those up. But certainly Good Friday will have the starring role in this sorry tale.

    1. I read about that gospel and others (Peter, Thomas I seem to remember). Have they been published?

  3. I have the gospel of Judas and the gospel of Thomas. Never seen the gospel of Peter but it will be available somewhere for sure. The Judas gospel is in a book by Elaine Pagels and Karen King called “Reading Judas”, 2007, that I picked up 2nd hand recently, the Thomas gospel is in “The Five Gospels, the Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”, 1997, which an orthodox Anglican cousin of mine says is heretical.