It’s Halloween week! And in honour of all things weird, eerie, uncanny and mysterious our resident master of all things ghostly (and one of our lovely authors) Gareth P. Jones unravels some of the myths behind some of our more infamous superstitions – a key part of his magical (occult-y doesn’t sound like such a nice adjective) new book THE SOCIETY OF THIRTEEN.
If you’re reading this it means that last year you successfully survived a grand total of three Friday the 13ths. Well done. Next year, there’s only one (June) but this is no time to get complacent. You may have got through Friday 13th September 2013 but there’s another coming up in December so beware!
Friday 13th is certainly the most ominous date of the year (in this country at least) so it is surprising to learn that its infamy doesn’t date all that far back. The component parts of this superstition (Friday and 13) have their own separate histories but it took some time for them to come together. Thirteen has been considered unlucky since around the 18th century, whereas the idea of all Fridays being unlucky is considerably older and has its roots in medieval Christianity. A number of eminent scholars have noted that at no point in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales do they stop off for ribs at TGI Fridays.
It appears to have been the Victorians who married these two separate elements and created one fearful date for our calendars. It’s a good job too. By shifting the emphasis away from all Fridays to a maximum of three per year, the number of unlucky days we have to endure has been dramatically cut.
No one knows for sure how 13 got attached to Friday. Some people will tell you that it is because of the Last Supper and, although it is true that there were thirteen people at that particular dinner party, there is nothing to suggest that it happened on a Friday (or even at TGI Fridays).
Wherever it came from, Friday 13th is now firmly lodged in the collective consciousness as an unlucky date, just as lonesome magpies, the underside of ladders and opening umbrellas indoors are all omens of variable levels of tragedy.
I thought a lot about this sort of stuff when I was writing The Society of Thirteen because I decided early on that the magic in my book (Conjury) had been half-remembered in the form of superstition. This was an important key for me to unlock the magic and help me believe in what I was writing, but my interest in superstition goes much further back. My mum never allowed us to cross on the stairs, cross knives or put new shoes on the table, which, of course, meant my brother and I did all of those things.
Then a few years ago, I scripted and produced a short piece for a TV show in which the presenter, Danny Wallace was charged with putting superstition to the test. Finally, I would establish whether there was any truth in superstition. One day, Danny did lots of lucky things (wearing a rabbit’s foot, avoiding ladders, etc.). The next, he did a multitude of unlucky things (stepping on cracks, spilling salt and so on). At the end of each day, we then tested his luck in a rigorously scientific way. I seem to remember this involved buying ten scratch cards. And – guess what – it worked. We had proved Stevie Wonder wrong. My mum was right all along. Superstition is as scientifically valid as the other hard sciences of astrology, numerology and phrenology.
It was some time ago that I proved this and I am still awaiting my Nobel Prize. I bet what happened was that they sent it on a Friday 13th and it got lost in the post.
I’m just unlucky like that.
For further reading I recommend Steve Roud’s Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles or The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland.
NB: The first TGI Fridays was opened in 1965, when the superstition of Friday the 13th had properly ousted general fear of all Fridays. This was also some time after Jesus and Chaucer were around.
Superstitions – silly habits or dangerously true? We’d love to hear your views on this! And please share with us any weird superstitions you’ve inherited over the years!