Unlucky Friday the 13th

Some days are seen as ominous, others as auspicious. This belief is very ancient and continues into modern times. On the sacred calendar of the early Mesopotamian city-states, dating from circa 3000 BCE, every month was made up of certain lucky and unlucky days. Similarly, the ancient Egyptians believed that certain days were connected with good fortune and others not. This is illustrated by a nineteenth-dynasty papyrus preserved in the British Museum,114 which contains a calendar of lucky and unlucky days, detailed according to the utterances of ancient seers. These series of calendrical lists were believed to have originated from Assyrian sources, though more probably from Egyptian astrological practices, and were called Lucky and Unlucky Days. Good luck was always believed to come from beneficent deities, and bad luck was caused by evil entities. 

Most of us have, at some time, entertained the notion that certain days, months, or seasons are unfavourable. Specific days seem not to bring any luck, while other days do; which is why we often tend to put off functions or decisions to those days that we consider favourable. Although there is almost certainly no truth in the luck or ‘un-luck’ of a day, month, or season, the superstition persists and is still adhered to by a surprising number of perfectly rational people. The belief is also held that some days are bad for everybody, while other days are bad for some and good for others. Generally, in Western societies, Sundays are considered lucky and Fridays unlucky, but Friday the 13th is viewed as the most ominous day of all.

Friday is an ill-fated day in superstition, the reasons varying for its unhappy reputation. The day changed from a lucky to an unlucky day because of Christian belief, and the sombre symbolism of Good Friday soon transferred to every Friday of the year. This, however, was only observed from Christian times onwards, as Friday was considered a most lucky day amongst the Roman and Germanic peoples. 

The Romans dedicated Friday to Venus, naming it dies veneris or ‘day of Venus’, still reflected in vendredi, the French term for Friday. Thus, dedicated to the love goddess, it was regarded as a happy day on which weddings were often held. Similarly, Germanic people devoted this day to Freyja, their goddess of love and marriage, thereby giving the day a cheerful connotation – from Freyja, the German word Freitag for Friday is derived.

However, according to Christian belief, Christ was crucified on a Friday, the disciple Judas hanged himself on a Friday, and early Christians commonly believed that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden on this day. The Catholic Church transferred the tradition of fasting on Good Friday to every Friday, and any year beginning on this day was thought to be ill-fated. 

In England and America, criminals were customarily hanged on a Friday, earning it the reputation of Hangman’s Day. Accidents were believed to be more frequent on Fridays, because of the fact that evil influences were at work on this day. It was also considered a day on which to avoid seeking medical treatment, and after a long illness, it was advisable not to get up on a Friday for the first time. Children born on a Friday were believed to be unlucky and doomed to misfortune, unless it happened to be a Good Friday when the sanctity of the day counterbalanced all other misfortune related to it. Clothes sewn on a Friday would not fit, and anyone who laughed on this day was sure to cry on the Sunday. It was equally unlucky to court or marry on a Friday, to move house, or start a new job or any new venture, journey, or sea voyage. Even to cut one’s hair or nails on a Friday was once considered risking misfortune. According to popular legend, the bad luck linked with Fridays was carefully heeded by great men such as Napoleon and the German statesman, Bismarck, who never began any important venture on this day.115 

However, when the thirteenth day of the month fell on a Friday, the negative omens linked with both the day and the number became compounded; hence, the day was then considered especially unlucky. Christian authorities trace such ill omen back to the Last Supper which was attended by thirteen, but the prejudice against this number is of far older origin and is known to have existed in pre-Christian times. 

The number thirteen’s ill-omened associations in superstition are universal, and the number has been regarded as burdened with misfortune and ill luck since antiquity. (See Chapter IX Unlucky Thirteen)


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App