F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 8/13/2004 2:45:14 PM ET 2004-08-13T18:45:14

The Olympics formally opened in Athens. On Friday.

Aug. 13.

Friday the 13th.

Talk about tempting fate. (Or playing with fire: Would you want to be anywhere near the Olympic Flame on Friday the 13th?)

Fortunately, it’s the Summer Games. They couldn’t possibly start the Winter Olympics on Friday the 13th, what with all those hockey goalies in their Jason Vorhees masks.

Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was more circumspect this week. Goh, who resigned to become head of the central bank, made sure his formal handover of power was on Thursday, the 12th.

He is not alone in walking softly (and around, not under, ladders). Various polls over the last decade reveal that anywhere from 8 percent to 15 percent of Americans take account of Friday the 13th in planning their day. According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, N.C., U.S. companies will lose $800 million to $900 million in business owing to paraskevidekatriaphobes who refuse to travel or go to work on Friday the 13th.

(Paraskevidekatriaphobia is the word for people who have an irrational fear of Friday the 13th — we looked it up and everything. They’re also sometimes called friggatriskaidekaphobes.)

The 13 x 3 Steps
Superstition being what it is — abstract and irrational — it’s impossible to pin down precisely why Friday the 13th became synonymous with bad luck. Fortunately, people with degrees study these things for a living, and they say it’s because Fridays are considered bad luck and the number 13 is considered bad luck, so when you put them together, you have really bad luck.

Um, duh.

But why are Fridays considered bad luck?

Some of it comes from the Bible. They had different calendars back then, but Christian tradition says Jesus died on a Friday. It also holds that Eve tempted Adam with the apple on a Friday. Same with the Great Flood.

And 13? God (or the gods) again: There were 13 at the Last Supper. The Norse god Loki crashed a dinner party of 12, making 13; he then tricked Hodur into killing his brother Balder, the god of light and joy, with an arrow poisoned with mistletoe. The 13 months of the pagan lunar calendar meant the number was cursed by God.

Plus, 12 is such a neat number: Twelve months in a year. Twelve signs of the zodiac. Twelve inches in a foot. Twelve pairs of ribs in the body. Twelve gods of Olympus. Twelve days of Christmas. True fact: The first four integers go neatly in sequence this way: 12 = 3 x 4.

Thirteen is 12’s dorky little brother, with tape on his glasses.

In combination, Friday and 13 have special resonance: When Frigg, sometimes confused with Freya, the Norse goddess for whom Friday is named, joined a dozen witches, she transformed them into a coven of 13. Fridays used to be reserved for public hangings in Britain; traditionally, there were 13 steps on the scaffold.

But most authorities say Friday the 13th earned its notoriety on Oct. 13, 1307, when King Philip IV of France (known, oddly, as Philip the Fair) ordered the dismantling of the Knights Templar, the warrior monks who were the scourge of Islam during the Crusades.

Over the previous two centuries, the Knights had become a pan-European guild so powerful that the Catholic church and many kings saw it as a threat — the Carlyle Group of the chain mail set. Philip’s assault led to the torture and executions of hundreds of Knights and, within seven years, the order’s death as a political force. It survives today only as the inspiration for dozens of conspiracy theories.

13 things that happened on Friday the 13th
Looking for bad luck? Consider:

  • Benjamin Franklin writes “Everything appears to promise that it will last; but in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes” on Friday, Nov. 13, 1789.
  • One of America’s most loathsome historical figures, Confederate general/slave trader/Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest, is born on Friday, July 13, 1821.
  • Anthony Foss, for reasons known only to himself, patents the accordion on Friday, Jan. 13, 1854.
  • Tennessee passes a law making it illegal to teach evolution on Friday, March 13, 1925.
  • Spielplatz, generally considered the first nudist colony, opens in Bricket Wood, England, on Friday, June 13, 1930. Please be seated. No really — please.
  • German bombs damage Buckingham Palace on Friday, Sept. 13, 1940.
  • Annoying pixieish actress Didi Conn is born on Friday, July 13, 1951.
  • A huge south Asian storm is estimated to kill 300,000 people in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and create floods that kill as many as 1 million in the Ganges delta on Friday, Nov. 13, 1970.
  • Howard Stern begins broadcasting on WRNW in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., on Friday, May 13, 1977.
  • “Friday the 13th” opens Friday, June 13, 1980.
  • Yeah, him, the other Beatle — also known as Ringo Starr — releases “Wrack My Brain” on Friday, Nov. 13, 1981. It does not chart.
  • The Olsen twins are born on Friday, June 13, 1986.
  • The Friday the 13th virus afflicts IBM computers across Britain on Friday, Jan. 13, 1989. At the time, this is considered a Big Deal.

Specifically, it’s 14.3333 percent
Surely, Friday the 13th is a big occasion because of its rarity, right?

Wrong.

Because of the distribution of leap years, the calendar repeats itself exactly every 400 years, which is equal to 4,800 months. That means the 13th of the month comes around 4,800 times each cycle.

Using a complicated formula, B.H. Brown, a mathematician with enough time on his hands to calculate how much time he had on his hands, found in 1933 that Fridays come around on those 13th days most often — 688 times. (Monday is next, at 687.) So the 13th of any month is statistically more likely to be a Friday than any other day.

In fact, there is at least one Friday the 13th every year. Sometimes there are as many as three (the next time is in 2009). There were two this year (back in February, the day before Valentine’s).

In the face of all that, what’s a phobic to do?

One tradition says you should go to a high place, such as a mountaintop, and burn any socks that have holes in them. Or you can ...

Editor’s note: Before he contracted peritonitis from a splinter while knocking on wood, Alex Johnson was a reporter for MSNBC.com. This was all he filed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments