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April 17, 2014

Superstition and The Origins Of Friday the 13th

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When you looked at your phone this morning (or newspaper and/or calendar if you’re my 88-year old grandpa) did you happen to notice what today was? I’d be willing to say that you likely did. I’d also venture that for a the briefest of moments, a twinge of fear swept over you… because today is…. dun dun duh… FRIDAY THE 13TH!

Then, after that vignette of terror, you probably used your modern rationale, dismissed the foreboding omen as superstition, and went on with your day. But, if you get a flat, or tear your shirt, or spill your coffee, you’ll tell everybody “this stuff always happens to me on Friday the 13th”…

And then you are another victim of paraskavedekatriaphobia.

So obviously, Friday the 13th is said to be the most unlucky day, but have you ever thought where this superstition was started and why? The history behind the superstition has a very Christian origin, even if we are called to resist superstition.  

The roots of Friday the 13th are often thought to come from a few main events, that in the popular Christian psyche. have had the overwhelming, accumulated dog-piling effect of making Friday the 13th that all renowned day of “bad luck”.

Early Christians believed that “The Fall” of mankind, when Eve tempted Adam to eat the apple happened on a Friday. Now, I am not sure of the biblical exegesis that went into making that determination, but I can certainly understand why our ancestors would rue the day the original sin was unleashed. It was also held that death, the fruit of the Fall, was first tasted by Adam and Eve on a Friday.

Looking further into Genesis, early Christian and Jewish traditions also placed the day of the Great Flood and the confusion at the Tower of Babel both began on Fridays. The Destruction of the Temple of Solomon was also said to happen on a Friday. To understate the obvious, all of these days were pretty bad days for us humans… all on Fridays.

But that’s Fridays, what about the whole “13th” aspect? This where we now move on to the New Testament, where connections between rueful things and the number 13 were made by early Christians. There were 13 people present at the Last Supper, with the 13th being the traitor Judas. 13 was also viewed as a perversion of the very biblically significant number 12 (apostles, tribes, etc.)

Then with the crucifixion of Our Blessed Lord on Good Friday, the day Friday would forever marked for all of history…

So with all of those events marking the significance of both the number 13 and the day of the week, Friday, both had become viewed as especially unlucky when in conjunction.

This fear of Friday the 13th was perhaps cemented even more in the Middle Ages when it is said that the French King Philip IV gave orders on Friday, Oct. 13, 1307, to arrest the Knights Templar and destroy the order and seize their land and wealth.

But as Catholics, while it can be easy to fall into superstition (ask anyone with a devoutly Catholic, ethnic grandmother), we have to remember that superstition is folly and can actually be sinful.

The old Baltimore Catechism (lesson 16, #212) reads

“A person sins by superstition when he attributes to a creature a power that belongs to God alone, as when he makes use of charms or spells, believes in dreams or fortune-telling, or goes to spiritists.

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in the divine providence of God and, as such, is a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments, defining superstition as “a perverse excess of religion” (para. #2110). The Catechism attempts to dispel commonly held preconceptions or misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:

Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary.

On the nature of superstition in the life of a Catholic, the Catholic Encyclopedia says it well:

“The source of superstition is, in the first place, subjective. Ignorance of natural causes leads to the belief that certain striking phenomena express the will or the anger of some invisible overruling power, and the objects in which such phenomena appear are forthwith deified, as, e.g. in Nature-worship. Conversely, many superstitious practices are due to an exaggerated notion or a false interpretation of natural events, so that effects are sought which are beyond the efficiency of physical causes”

“The apparent success which so often attends a superstition can mostly be accounted for by natural causes, although it would be rash to deny all supernatural intervention (e.g. in the phenomena of Spiritism). When the object is to ascertain, or to effect in a general way, one of two possible events, the law of probabilities gives an equal chance to success and failure, and success does more to support than failure would do to destroy superstition, for, on its side, there are arrayed the religious instinct, sympathy and apathy, confidence and distrust, encouragement and discouragement, self-suggestion and — perhaps strongest of all — the healing power of nature.”

“Superstition of any description is a transgression of the First Commandment: “I am the Lord thy God,– thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath . . . thou shalt not adore them nor serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5). It is also against the positive law of the Church, which visits the worst kinds of superstitions with severe punishments, and against the natural law inasmuch as it runs counter to the dictates of reason in the matter of man’s relations to God.”

“Such objective sinfulness is inherent in all superstitious practices from idolatry down to the vainest of vain observances, of course in very different degrees of gravity. With regard to the subjective guilt attaching to them it must be borne in mind that no sin is mortal unless committed with full knowledge of its grievous wickedness and with full deliberation and consent. Of these essential factors the first is often wanting entirely, and the second is only imperfectly present. The numerous cases in which the event seemed to justify the superstitious practice, and the universality of such incongruous beliefs and performances, though they may not always induce inculpable ignorance, may possibly obscure the knowledge and weaken the will to a point incompatible with mortal sin. As a matter of fact, many superstitions of our own day have been acts of genuine piety at other times, and may be so still in the hearts of simple folk.”

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