Superstitions: Friday the 13th and the Full Moon

June 13, 2014 | Posted in: Psychology

The Madness of Fear, Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Friday the 13th.

The Madness of Fear, Francisco Goya (1746-1828).

“If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”
Groucho Marx


“I have, thanks to my travels, added to my stock all the superstitions of other countries. I know them all now, and in any critical moment of my life, they all rise up in armed legions for or against me.” Sarah Bernhardt


In this world of unforeseeable happenings, our species, since its inception, has been on an endless quest to explain, cajole, and pray our way into feeling a sense of power over our fate. Superstitions, in particular, shine light on this psychological need for control: we create imagined dangers that are clearly defined and easily counteracted through various charms and precautions. Today’s date is a splendid example of multiple superstitions, each with a murky history, coming together to create a blogosphere buzz.

Yes, today is the “dreaded” Friday the 13th, a day still believed by a surprising number of people to be filled with doom and bad luck for all. This particular Friday the 13th has garnered even more sensationalism than normal, as it coincides with June’s full moon.

There are enough people plagued with a fear of the number 13 as to require the phobia have its own long-winded name: Triskaidekaphobia. The origin of the number 13’s ill-luck is blamed on everything from Loki in Nordic mythology, to Judas at the Last Supper, to simply the fact that it happens to follow the favored number 12. The twelve months, twelve apostles, twelve zodiac signs, twelve gods of Olympus, twelve tribes of Israel… The number twelve was long considered an ordered and complete divine pattern, which the number thirteen by its very existence threatened with chaos and discord.

“There is hardly an absurdity of the past that cannot be found flourishing somewhere in the present.” Will Durant

Le Chat, Jean-François Millet, 1857.

Le Chat, Jean-François Millet, 1857.

The fear-inducing mixture of Friday with the agent-of-chaos 13 has even less historical basis, but it’s become such a pervasive superstition in the west that it too has its own word-vomit name: Friggatriskaidekaphobia. The Christians’ remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion on a Friday is often cited as an explanation for Friday’s connection with darkness, as well as one line in the 14th century work The Canterbury Tales, which says only “And on a Friday fell all this mischance.”

It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that Friday the 13th seeped deeply into our culture, due in part to Thomas Lawson’s novel Friday, the Thirteenth, which tells the story of a devious stockbroker who plays on the superstitions of the number 13 to create a false stock market panic for his own greedy gain. In 1933, popular mystery writer Agatha Christie immortalized the evil of the number 13 with her book Thirteen at Dinner (or Lord Edgeware Dies). And then there’s the more recent, ad nauseam Friday the 13th horror film franchise that has indoctrinated a new generation with an irrational fear of this day.

“I have my superstitions… There are some people I never telephone because their numbers add up to an unlucky figure. Or I won’t accept a hotel room for the same reason. I will not tolerate the presence of yellow roses—which is sad because they’re my favorite flower. I can’t allow three cigarette butts in the same ashtray. Won’t travel on a plane with two nuns. Won’t begin or end anything on a Friday. It’s endless the things I can’t and won’t. But I derive some curious comfort obeying these primitive concepts.” Truman Capote

The full moon is as mixed with positive and negative associations as nearly any other symbol one could choose, with the most common myth being the onslaught of lunacy. Whether one takes on the actual form of a beast or simply looses all their senses and behaves monstrously, the notion of the beast within us all being unleashed by the moon at its brightest is deeply enmeshed in our collective mythology. Other lunar effects are claimed to be correlated with the full moon, including increases in the number of births, greater blood loss from wounds received on this night, and greater criminal behavior.

The Werewolf Howls, from the pulp magazine Weird Tales, 1941.

The Werewolf Howls, from the pulp magazine Weird Tales, 1941.

Whatever one believes, however seemingly ludicrous or factual, there is power in believing. The placebo effect is evidence enough that what we hold as true can have radical effects on our health and potential. With so many real terrors threatening the well-being and continuation of life as we know it (climate change, toxification of the biosphere, wide-scale poverty, mass extinction, just to name a few) it’s more distracting than ever to waste one’s time worrying over baseless fears of full moons and unlucky numbers. Every moment is an opportunity to create a more beautiful world, no luck needed and no bad luck giving us an excuse to let it slip by.

“One of the ideas I’ve clung to most of my life is that if I just try hard enough it will work out. If I work hard, I will be spared, and I will get what I desire, finding the cave opening over and over again, thieving life from the abyss. This sturdy belief system has a sidecar in which superstition rides. Until recently, I half believed that if a certain song came on the radio just as I thought of it, it meant that all would be well. What did I mean? I preferred not to answer that question. To look too closely was to prick the balloon of possibility.”
Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye


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