The morbid fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskevodekatriaphobia, derived from the Greek , paraskevi meaning “Friday”. It is also called friggatriskaidekaphobia, “frigga” being the Norse goddess for whom “Friday” is named. The remainders of these two words mean fear or morbid fear of the number thirteen. And for those of us who are afraid of long words, the equally scary word for fear of long words is hippopotomonstrosesquipdaliophobia or the alternative, sesquipdaliophobia . If there’s a word for the fear of the word for the fear of long words we could be here all day.
Friday the 13th conjures up humanity’s natural inclination towards superstition. That may sound a bit deterministic so let me explain. The word superstition has multiple meanings that vary simply in terms of context. For our purposes let’s go with the most relevant meaning which, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is “a belief or way of behaving based on fear of the unknown and faith in magic or luck– a belief that certain events or things will bring good or bad luck”. And, luckily, there isn’t a word for the fear of the unknown.
I am reminded of a famous quote by President F.D. Roosevelt: Only thing we have to fear is fear itself. This statement was situational but let me use it here to illustrate my statement about superstition as a natural human inclination. Humans, as do all animals, have a flight-or-fight response to a perceived harmful attack or event or a threat to survival. There’s also the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response but let’s stick with the fight or flight for our purposes. As it sounds, the subject either stays and fights or runs away. Early humans had the same capacity for such a response. Presumably, early humans also had the cognitive ability for rationalization. Certainly, an angry mammoth charging a human male or lightning striking the tree under which he is sitting , are two different kinds of phenomena. Both potentially harmful and both eliciting a response. A lightning strike, however, comes from an unknown source as far as the early human is concerned.
The root of superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses. – Sir Francis Bacon
Each one of those events could generate superstition, though let’s stay with the lightning strike. The lightning’s source was an unknown. Suppose for simplicity’s sake, the early human decides to make an amulet out of a piece of the burnt tree which he wears or carries to protect himself from being injured by future lightning? Over time, perhaps, the group to which he belongs, all carry such an amulet, and some believe that carrying the amulet positively affected events in their lives such as a good day’s hunting. Superstition is born.
We, peopling the void air, make gods to whom we impute the ills we ought to bear. —Titus Lucretius Carus
Sometimes superstition grows into pagan worship. For example, the same tribe of early humans lived near a dormant volcano. It erupted and spewed lava and pyroclastic materials causing damage, injury and death. The volcano then began periods of on and off activity, which engendered fear, dread, and uncertainty in the people. They attributed a god-like nature to the volcano with which they realized they needed to stay on good terms, otherwise the volcano god would erupt in anger. So, they decided to have ceremonies to appease the god; offerings of special items as well as sacrifices. We all know the cliche´ of throwing a virgin into the volcano. This same group of humans, over time, developed a pantheon of gods that the people believed controlled natural events and their lives. Paganism is born.
You wonder what paganism has to do with the fear of Friday the 13th. It is all part of the human condition. Fear can create superstition which can weave a far-reaching web of influence. It can lead to paganism– polytheistic (multiple gods) religious worship. Such is the power of fear and the reach of superstition. Superstition bred the gods and religious practices of classical Greece and Rome, and goes back to Ancient Egypt, Persia; the Incas and the Aztecs. The superstitions we have now are but mere remnants of what abounded in prehistoric and ancient times. We know this because of the historical record for the more prominent cultures. But, we also know it for prehistoric humans. Anthropologists and others have recorded and analyzed extant “primitive” cultures for many years and by extrapolation, we can describe what it was like before the written record.
Briefly, the fairly recent Friday the 13th superstition may be an amalgamation of two other superstitions: Friday and the number 13 each being unlucky. For centuries, Friday has been considered unlucky. It was unlucky to travel, or start something new on a Friday. This might have something to do with attribution of the crucifixion of Jesus and commemoration by Christians on the Friday before Easter, making Friday an unpopular day of the week. In numerology, 12 is the number of divine organization and 13 is considered to be an irregular number and notoriously unlucky. Together, Friday and the 13th make up a very potent superstition for those, in particular, who feel they have no control over their lives.
I have my superstitions, though. They could be termed quirks. I have to add up all numbers: there are some people I never telephone because their number adds up to an unlucky figure. Or I won’t accept a hotel room for the same reason. I will not tolerate the 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 from obeying these primitive concepts. — Truman Capote