Friday, September 13, 2013

Friday the Thirteenth

Today, Friday, is the thirteenth day of the month!
It’s that time of the year again when our closet superstitions come out in full force.

Whenever the calendar aligns to award us this merging of date and day, a lot of people get just a little paranoid. Friends of mine, who are normally very level headed, intelligent people, take turns warning each other to be careful, swearing that all the crazies come out of the woodwork for that day, and relish in telling each other strange and spooky personal stories or experiences.

I confess that I too have a tendency to participate in this good-hearted little fantasy experience. So, I decided to do a little research and try to see if there is anything to all this dread. 

I found a study published in the British Medical Journal titled "Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health?" Its purpose is to discover "the relation between health, behavior, and superstition surrounding Friday 13th in the United Kingdom.”

They compared the ratio of traffic volume to the number of automobile accidents on two different days, Friday the 6th and Friday the 13th, over a period of years. Incredibly, they found that in the region sampled, while consistently fewer people chose to drive their cars on Friday the 13th, the number of hospital admissions due to vehicular accidents was significantly higher than on "normal" Fridays. Their conclusion:

"Friday 13th is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52 percent. Staying at home is recommended."

Paraskevidekatriaphobics — people afflicted with a morbid, irrational fear of Friday the 13th — will be buoyed by this evidence that the source of their unholy terror may not be so irrational after all. But it's probably not smart to pay to much attention to a single scientific study, especially one so peculiar. I suspect these statistics have more to teach us about human psychology than the strange influence of any particular date on the calendar.

The sixth day of the week and the number 13 both have bad reputations dating from ancient times, and their conjunction from one to three times a year predicts more misfortune than some people can bear. According to at least one source it's the most widespread superstition in the United States today. Some people refuse to go to work on Friday the 13th; some won't eat in restaurants; many wouldn't think of setting a wedding on the date.

How many Americans actually suffer from this condition? According to Dr. Donald Dossey, a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of phobias, the figure may be as high as 21 million. That means that as many as eight percent of Americans are still in the grips of a very old superstition.

Exactly how old is difficult to say, because determining the origins of superstitions is an inexact science, at best. In fact, it's mostly guesswork.

LEGEND HAS IT: If 13 people sit down to dinner together, one will die within the year. The Turks so disliked the number 13 that it was practically expunged from their vocabulary (Brewer, 1894). Many cities do not have a 13th Street or a 13th Avenue. Many buildings don't have a 13th floor. If you have 13 letters in your name, you will have the devil's luck (Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Albert De Salvo all have 13 letters in their names). There are 13 witches in a coven.

Although no one can say for sure when and why human beings first associated the number 13 with misfortune, the superstition is assumed to be very old, and are many theories — most of which deserve to be treated with a healthy skepticism.

It has been proposed, for example, that fears surrounding the number 13 are as ancient as the act of counting. Primitive man had only his 10 fingers and two feet to represent units, this explanation goes, so he could count no higher than 12. What lay beyond that — 13 — was an impenetrable mystery to our prehistoric forebears, hence an object of superstition. This has a believeable ring to it, until one asks: did primitive man not have toes?

Despite whatever terrors the numerical unknown held for their hunter-gatherer ancestors, ancient civilizations weren't unanimous in their dread of 13. Both the Chinese and the Egyptians, in the time of the pharaohs, regarded the number as lucky.

To the ancient Egyptians, life was a quest for spiritual ascension which unfolded in stages — twelve in this life and a thirteenth beyond, thought to be the eternal afterlife. The number 13 therefore symbolized death, not in terms of dust and decay but as a glorious and desirable transformation. Though Egyptian civilization perished, the symbolism conferred on the number 13 by its priesthood survived, we may speculate, only to be corrupted by subsequent cultures who came to associate 13 with a fear of death instead of a reverence for the afterlife.

Still other sources speculate that the number 13 may have been purposely vilified by the founders of patriarchal religions in the early days of western civilization because it represented femininity. Thirteen had been revered in prehistoric goddess-worshiping cultures because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The "Earth Mother of Laussel," for example — a 27,000-year-old carving found near the Lascaux caves in France often cited as an icon of matriarchal spirituality — depicts a female figure holding a cresent-shaped horn bearing 13 notches. As the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar with the rise of male-dominated civilization, it is believed, so did the "perfect" number 12 over the "imperfect" number 13, thereafter considered anathema.

On the other hand, one of the earliest concrete taboos associated with the number 13, a taboo still observed by some superstitious folks today, is said to have originated in the East with the Hindus, who believed that it is always unlucky for 13 people to gather in one place. Interestingly enough, precisely the same superstition has been attributed to the ancient Vikings. The story has been laid down as follows:

Twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the Evil One, god of mischief, had been left off the guest list but crashed the party, bringing the total number of attendees to 13. True to character, Loki raised hell by inciting Hod, the blind god of winter, to attack Balder the Good, who was a favorite of the gods. Hod took a spear of mistletoe offered by Loki and obediently hurled it at Balder, killing him instantly. All Valhalla grieved. And although one might take the moral of this story to be "Beware of uninvited guests bearing mistletoe," the Norse themselves apparently concluded that 13 people at a dinner party is just plain bad luck.
As if to prove the point, the Bible tells us there were exactly 13 present at the Last Supper. One of the dinner guests (disciples) betrayed Jesus Christ, setting the stage for the Crucifixion.

Did I mention the Crucifixion took place on a Friday?

LEGEND HAS IT: Never change your bed on Friday; it will bring bad dreams. Don't start a trip on Friday or you will have misfortune. If you cut your nails on Friday, you cut them for sorrow. Ships that set sail on a Friday will have bad luck – as in the tale of H.M.S. Friday ... One hundred years ago, the British government sought to quell once and for all the widespread superstition among seamen that setting sail on Fridays was unlucky. A special ship was commissioned, named "H.M.S. Friday." They laid her keel on a Friday, launched her on a Friday, selected her crew on a Friday and hired a man named Jim Friday to be her captain. To top it off, H.M.S. Friday embarked on her maiden voyage on a Friday -and was never seen or heard from again.

Some say Friday's bad reputation goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. It was on a Friday, supposedly, that Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit. Adam bit, as we all learned in Sunday School, and they were both ejected from Paradise. Tradition also holds that the Great Flood began on a Friday; God tongue-tied the builders of the Tower of Babel on a Friday; the Temple of Solomon was destroyed on a Friday; and, of course, Friday was the day of the week on which Christ was crucified. It is therefore a day of penance for Christians.

In pagan Rome, Friday was execution day (later Hangman's Day in Britain), but in other pre-Christian cultures it was the Sabbath, a day of worship, so those who indulged in secular or self-interested activities on that day could not expect to receive blessings from the gods — which may explain the lingering taboo on embarking on journeys or starting important projects on Fridays.
To complicate matters, these pagan associations were not lost on the early Church, which went to great lengths to suppress them. If Friday was a holy day for heathens, the Church fathers felt, it must not be so for Christians. It became known in the Middle Ages as the "Witches' Sabbath".

You may have noticed that while I have 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, I have yet to explain how, why, or when these separate strands of folklore converged to mark Friday the 13th as the unluckiest day of all.

There's a very simple reason for that: nobody really knows, though various explanations have been proposed.

One theory, recently offered up as historical fact in the novel The Da Vinci Code, holds that it came about not as the result of a convergence, but a catastrophe, a single historical event that happened nearly 700 years ago. The catastrophe 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 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 drawbacks to the "day so infamous" thesis. It attributes enormous cultural significance to a relatively obscure historical event. Even more problematic is the fact that no one has been able to document the existence of such beliefs prior to the late 19th century. If folks who lived in earlier ages perceived Friday the 13th as a day of special misfortune, no evidence has been found to document it. As a result, some scholars are now convinced the stigma is a thoroughly modern phenomenon exacerbated by media hype.

What do I think? I don’t believe in such nonsense. I am far too intelligent to give in to superstition.

You see, I know Friday the 13th is only unlucky when it falls on the same day as a full moon……

Todays Reflection:
Why do Americans choose from just two people to run for president and 50 for Miss America?

Live Long and Prosper...

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