Unlucky 13

Okay, this is probably easily acquired knowledge, but why is 13 considered such an unlucky number and especially Friday, the 13th?

There are a multitude of reasons that i have heard. The most prevalent are two that center around hanging. Thirteen pence was a typical hangman’s rate and there were usually thirteen knots in the noose. There are many others but these are from England. But as an observation people fear the number thirteen but do they release how many 13’s they carry everyday in their wallets and pockets?

A book I have at home (Strange Stories and Amazing Facts, I think) says that it’s because there were 13 people at the table when Christ was betrayed. Now, that book has some other well-debunked BS in it, so take that with as large a grain of salt as you like.

The Straight Dope: Why is the number 13 considered unlucky? Cecil seems to agree with DoubleJ’s book – Judas is responsible, which also explains why Friday the 13th is particularly unlucky.

Some additional information may be found at the thread opened earlier this morning:
Friday 13th, why so bad?

:Bracing myself for impact:

The wife of a friend claimed to be a witch. One day she warned me against flying. In response I went up and made 13 landings.

Impressive post count - now just don’t post anything for a while.

Well, Cecil mentions the idea, but he hardly endorses it.

It has never made the least bit of sense to me. Why should Judas be considered the 13th person at the Last Supper, rather than the 4th or the 9th, or whatever. So far as I am aware, although a few of the apostles seem to have been considered more important than others (Peter, certainly, and perhaps John and James the Greater) there is no canonical ranking of them. Furthermore, every time Jesus got together with the apostles (which, I imagine would have been quite frequently) there would have been 13 people present. All those occasions were not “bad” surely?

Unlike the Last Supper explanation, I have never heard these ideas before. However, they raise more questions than the answer. Why would a hangman’s pay be 13 pence, and for how long was it so? Inflation may not have been so much of an issue in the Middle Ages as in more modern times, but the vale of money, and pay rates, still changed. The rate may have been 13 pence at some point (and in some place) but why latch on to that rather than all the times and places it was surely something else.

And does a noose really use thirteen knots? Why? Why, indeed, should it need or have more than one?

A noose is a single knot, but of a type that has many turns. A side view of a noose knot would look roughly something like


I hope you can tell what I mean there… Anyway, you definitely need more than one turn (the slashes in that diagram) to hold the knot together, but 7 or 8 should be enough. 13 is a matter of tradition, probably because 13 is unlucky.

According to here:

One thing to remember is that for a long time hangings were not designed to snap the neck. A prisoner might simply be hoisted up by a gang of strong men, or else there’s the iconic ‘swatting the horse’ or ‘kicking the chair’; so the Guest of Honour would simply strangle.

The whole Last Supper thing doesn’t fly with me. Jesus deliberately recruited 12 apostles, knowing it would add up to 13. Sure, one of them was fated to betray him, but that was apparently the setup from the get go. So there was no “bad luck” in Judas betraying Jesus, it was supposed to happen that way.

There’s an excellent book on just this question by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, Thirteen : the story of the world’s most popular superstition. He goes through all the folk explanations as well as actual evidence, and concludes that:

  1. The origins of unlucky 13 are in England, regardless of the claims to the contrary.
  2. They began after the 1666 plague, a time when the population was under social stress.
  3. They have been continually evolving, and how thirteen is unlucky changes with time.
  4. Unlucky Friday has quite a different origin, and
  5. The two didn’t come together until the 20th century.

He’s wrong on the last point, but I don’t think he’s off by more than a couple of decades. In general, his reasoning and examinations of the evidence are models to follow for understanding superstition, and I recommend the (first half of) the book.

ETA: He also points out that 13 was often a lucky number, precisely because Jesus + 12 apostles = 13.

Strangely enough, I always ended up having a really good day on Friday the 13th.

Of all the explanations I’ve heard, the (IMHO) most likely one is that it’s unlucky because it isn’t twelve. Twelve of anything is a useful number. If you have twelve loaves of bread, you can evenly split them between 2, 3, 4, 6 or 12 people, but what do you do with 13 loaves? Plus there’s the “bakers’ dozen” where a baker selling 12 loaves has to include the 13th for free, to make sure that it doesn’t come underweight. He could face severe punishment if he sells underweight.

And now it’s over.

Apparently, Russians are even more triskaidecaphobic. A colleague of mine was forced to change from 915 to 913 because they had hired a Russian "star’ who simply would not countenance being assigned 913. Being a star, he has since moved on, but it was quite painful for my colleague (who is a packrat and never throws any piece of paper away).

There is recent resurgence of the meme that Friday, October 13, 1307 was the original unlucky Friday, marking the arrests and murders of a large number of members of the Knights Templar. Trouble with that is finding references to unlucky Friday the 13th anywhere between 1307 and 1900.


I’m especially glad you made this last point, Dr. Drake. There are two things that bother me about Lachenmeyer’s insistence on an early 20th-century origin for a distrust of Friday the 13th.

The first problem is that it’s possible to find continental European examples of the superstition (specifically, French) that date back to the first half of the 19th century. I get the sense that, for whatever reason, English-speaking countries were late to adopt a popular belief in the unluckiness of this day. (At least, this is the perception one gets from searching digitized databases of English and non-English publications and private writings.) As for why Lachenmeyer sticks to an early 20th-century origin, I think that reflects where research stood about a decade ago, at which time folklorists (notably, Steve Roud) began discussing Opie’s and Tatem’s citing of an apparently early instance of this superstion: it dated to 1911, which seems decidedly modern. As you’ve noted, others have now pushed this back well into the 19th century. (The point, however, remains: the coupling of Friday and the number 13 appears to be fairly recent. Furthermore, the superstition in America seemed to blossom in the first quarter of the 20th century.)

The second issue, however, I find rather perplexing. Lachenmeyer, who spent quite a bit of time searching back issues of The New York Times and the like for sightings of the superstition, missed something important about Thomas Lawson, whom Lachenmeyer claims solidified American fear of that day. (Of course, as you point out, Lawson hardly introduced the superstition to this country.) Although Lawson was indeed the author of Friday, the Thirteenth, published in 1907, he also has a coincidental connection to a rather famous nautical calamity. In 1902, the first (and last) seven-masted schooner ever built was named after Lawson; an engineering marvel of its day, it sank off the Scilly Islands on December 13 (a Friday), 1907.

– Tammi Terrell