Friday 13th History: The Murky Story Behind the Unlucky Day


Today is Friday the 13th of September, and you know what that means, America. Time to exercise our God-given right to believe in one of the most ridiculous superstitions there is: paraskevidekatriaphobia. I apologize for bringing up the word that must not be mentioned, as it strikes widespread fear into the hearts of many. For those of you who never had the misfortune of studying for a spelling bee, paraskevidekatriaphobia is the official term for the fear of Friday the 13th.

Fridays that fall on the 13th day of the month don’t happen too often, though they are considered an especially unlucky day. More people, however, are afraid of the number 13 in general, constrained by the phobia known more commonly to all as triskaidekaphobia. The history of aversion towards the number 13 goes back to ancient times, and is an accepted superstition among diverse cultures ranging from ancient Babylon to the Vikings to modern-day China.

Modern Iranians have a tradition known as Sizdah Bedar that dates back centuries. Because ancient Persians believed the 12 constellations in the Zodiac controlled each month of the year, they held the number 13 to symbolize chaos. On the 13th day of Favardin, the first month in the Persian calendar, Iranians leave their houses to spend the day outdoors. The custom translates to “getting rid of the thirteenth."

We’ve all probably stepped on an elevator in a building that didn’t have a 13th floor, or eaten at a business establishment that skipped from menu option number 12 to number 14. Certain Christian traditions even base their rejection of the number 13 on the belief that Jesus’ betrayer, Judas, was the 13th member at the Last Supper. 

Some societies’ attempts to avoid the number 13 border on unreasonable. In Ireland the first two characters on a car’s license plate indicate the last two digits of the year it was registered. As the year 2013 was approaching officials came up with a new way to circumvent the issue, fearful that by putting "13" on the beginning of cars purchased that year people would be dissuaded from buying new cars from an already suffering car industry. Their fix? New cars registered in the first six months of 2013 would get 131 on the license plates, and those registered in the second six months would begin with 132.

On a brighter note, for all you paraskevidekatriaphobes, on this day in history Chiang Kai-Shek became the president China (1943), Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat were photographed shaking hands after signing a historic peace agreement (1993), and a four-day revolt at a prison in New York (1971) ended when police and National Guard troops stormed the facility, killing 42. Happy Friday the 13th.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @AlexdeAvilaCA.