Today is Friday the 13th! For most this is just another day, but for many it is one of the most frightening days of the year. Not just those who suffer from triskaidekaphobia or parakevidekatriaphobia, but also those who are superstitious without being phobic. The question some of us may be asking is: why?
People grow up fearing what they are told is scary. If you hear every Friday the 13th all your life that it’s a day of bad luck then you are likely to believe it. The dark side of the day is mostly in our minds, or at least that’s the theory of Stuart Vyse, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College in New London. If you think about it further that’s really how all culture is passed down through the generations. Associating bad luck and fear with the number 13 and Friday the 13th is just one part of Western Culture which has been carried through the generations.
Western culture actively avoids the number by skipping it in high rise buildings when labeling the floors or (sometimes) in street addresses. The ever growing number of films dedicated to making this date scary hasn’t exactly helped anyone forget about this custom either.
There were 13 guests present at the Last Supper where Judas betrayed Jesus. The Last Supper was on a Friday. Merging the two statements gives us one reason for fearing the day.
Other theories with biblical origins also exist. Some believe that Adam and Eve shared their first taste of forbidden fruit on a Friday. It’s also said that Abel was slain by Cain on Friday the 13th.
One of the largest factors contributing to the wide spread fear of Friday the 13th are the number of awful events (real or mythological) which have been associated with the date.
In Norse mythology there is a tale of a doomed dinner in Valhalla. 12 gods were assembled when Loki entered as the 13th member. He convinced the blind god of darkness, Hoder, to shoot the goddess of joy and gladness, Balder, with an arrow laced with mistletoe. Balder died plunging the morning world into darkness.
King Philip IV of France torture the Knights Templar on Friday the 13th. Apparently he wanted the riches they were supposedly hiding. In Roman culture witches we said to gather in groups of 12 with the devil being the 13th guest. Friday was once know as the hangman’s day in Britain. This was the day when most executions took place. The gallows had exactly 13 steps.
According to the theory of numerology 12 is a complete number. There are 12 signs in the zodiac, 12 apostles, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 months in the year, 12 gods of Olympus, the list goes on. 13 in comparison is not a complete number and therefore makes people uncomfortable. For me it’s the opposite, 12 is a strange number for me and 13 makes perfect sense. Maybe its from years of consciously embracing 13 and refusing to fear the number. Now 12 is just awkward for me, it feels like it falls just short of the number comfortable 13.
Many people, myself included, succumb to various superstitions. Practices like avoiding walking under ladders or touching wood to prevent bad luck have a wide range of origins from religious beliefs to old world common sense (umbrellas used to be very hazardous to open indoors). Here are some of the origins I find most interesting.
Salt has a long rich history is most cultures around the world. You can find it in nearly every kitchen worldwide. It is has been used in religious ceremonies for centuries. Due to how expensive it was to the Romans the word salary was born. It seems obvious that spilling anything so expensive would be frown upon. There is more to the story than just the price. Some cultures saw salt as a symbol of friendship and to spill it was to hurt that bond. In DaVinci’s Last Supper painting Judas is shown having spilled salt. This is likely where the idea that spilling salt was a bad omen. So what do you do to combat a bad omen brought on by spilled salt? You throw a pinch over your left shoulder to blind the devil who lurks there.
I have also know people who refuse to take salt directly from another persons hand, it must be placed on the table first. Some believe that placing a salt shaker directly in someones hand means you will get into a fight with that person. To others it is more serious meaning your relationship with that person will end completely.
Touching or knocking on wood to ward off bad luck is very common in the US and Europe. If wood is not available some people knock on their heads just in case. Wood has been a sacred symbol to ancient religions since the beginning of time. Many of these religions believed that spirits lived in trees and touching or knocking on the trees would call upon them for protection. There is also a theory that the custom is tied to christians touching the crucifix when taking an oath or that the loud knocking should would scare off evil spirits.
Cats have been seen as both a good omen and a bad one. The color associated with good or bad changes depending on the culture. Egyptians revered all cats of any color. In Japan it is said to be lucky for a single woman to own a black cat. In Great Britain black cats are considered so lucky that they are given as bribes. The idea that black cats are bad luck is likely to have started in the middle ages when people believed they were familiars or witches in disguise. It was later believed that these cats were the devil and that if one crossed your path the devil was watching you. I have a hard time believing the devil could hide behind such cuteness.
The Number 13
Triskaidekaphobia is the formal name for fear of the number 13. It is so common to avoid the number 13 in the US that most high rise buildings do not have a 13 button in their elevators. This is another superstition related to the last supper where there were 13 people seated at the table and Judas was the 13th to be seated. A similar situation happens in Norse mythology where Loki is the 13 member seated at a dinner between the gods and causes the death of the god Balder.
Hearses & Cemeteries
I have often felt like I should do something when seeing a hearse or passing a cemetery, but I couldn’t figure out what. Perhaps it steams from hearing the old rhyme “never laugh when a hearse goes by or you will be the next to die”. Turns out that it’s common for people to touch a button when they see a hearse or hold their breath when passing a cemetery. Some believed that if you breathe near the dead you might inhale a soul. The most cautious in Victorian society would hold their breath and lift their feet when a hearse went by. Perhaps that’s where the habit of touching a screw and lifting your feet when driving over railroad tracks originates. Why people chose to touch or hold buttons is unclear. However the origins of these superstitions are pretty obvious, people fear death.
Arachnophobia is an intense and debilitating fear of spiders. It commonly starts in childhood due to a traumatic incident. Approximately 30% of the US population suffers from this disorder. I am not one of those people.
When I was little, around 7 or 8, I developed a bond with spiders. I was assisting my mother with some yard work and found a spider’s egg sack. While I was inspecting it, it burst open in my hand and I found myself covered in hundreds of tiny baby spiders. My mother freaked out and hosed me down to get them off. Given the location of the sack my mothers panic was understandable, it was highly likely that these were highly venomous baby black widows. The baby’s were all washed away easily and I was left completely unharmed. Not a single bite. You could say this was my bat cave moment.
Spiders are one of the most misunderstood creatures in the animal kingdom. This is part of why I identify with them so closely. People seem to think that they are scary and dangerous and gross. In reality they are creative and beautiful and beneficial. Here are some facts you may not know about my favorite little critters.
I’m speaking here about average and basic benign spiders which make up about 98% of the spider species on the planet. There are some highly dangerous ones like black widows, brown recluses and Sydney funnel-webs, you should avoid those guys.
While not every species of spider builds a web many of them do. If you have ever stopped to watch one of these in progress I’m sure you understand the amazing feats that these webs truly are. It would be like you building your whole house by yourself while hanging in mid-air like a cirque de soleil performer. With materials you literally pull out of your butt. And that house also gets take out for you.
There are more types of webs beyond the classic orb web. There are funnels and trap doors and specialized fishing lines or nets. Some spiders use their silk as a tether in case they fall and others make little balloons and fly.
To learn more fascinating facts about spider webs and silks check out this site.
Spiders have often been a source of inspiration for horror movies and urban legends, but they have also inspired positive stories. Most American students were required to read Charlotte’s Web where an intelligent spider saves a pig from slaughter. There are more stories from around the world.
In Africa and the Caribbean there are many tales of Anansi, a mythical figure who takes many forms and appears in many tales. He is sometimes a spider and sometimes a man or somewhere in-between. Depending on the culture the characteristics of Anansi vary. Basically Anansi is a wise and cunning figure who keeps all the worlds stories/knowledge and created the sun, moon and stars. He also appears in modern novels, comic books and music.
In China spiders are seen as good omens. It is thought that wearing a spider amulet will help you gain and keep wealth. If you find one in your house you should never kill it, you should put it outside.
Some Native American tribes saw the spider as the creator of the world known as Spider Grandmother.
Thanks to an old European folk tale of the Christmas spider people world wide put tinsel on Christmas trees.
Check out this link for even more cultural depictions of spiders, though not all are as positive.
Spiders are one of the best forms of natural pest control. Without them our homes would be over run with cockroaches and mosquitos. This not only helps keep our homes clean and pest free, but helps control the spread of deceases like malaria. They even eat centipedes which are awful vial creatures that need to be eradicated. (I happen to hate/fear centipedes. I see no redeeming qualities of them outside of being spider food.) Also, without spiders, our food crops would likely be non-existent having been ravaged by grasshoppers and other herbivorous insects. Some forms of spider venom is also being studied as a new form of commercial insecticide.
For some reason that I will never understand people think spiders are ugly and gross. Their bilateral symmetry makes my OCD feel warm and fuzzy. Speaking of fuzzy, jumping spiders are tiny, fluffy and just as cute as little bunnies who sometimes where water droplets as hates. How can anyone fear all those big eyes? Happy face spiders each have their own unique smily face design on their backs. They live in the tropics so of course they are happy.
They Are Terrified of You
Spiders do not want to be near you or on you. They enjoy living in our comfortable homes and in return for our hospitality keep the pests away. They don’t want to be any closer to you than the shadowy corners in which they hide.
I recently heard that some people think spiders feed on people when they bite. Spiders do not hunt or feed on people. They do not derive any nutrients or pleasure from biting us. If you are bitten it is because the little guy felt threatened and needed to defend himself. It’s the same reason honey bees sting, out of fear.
Despite the random statistics that people spread it is highly unlikely that you eat spiders in your sleep. The wet loud windy cave you call a mouth is exactly the type of environment spiders hate, they aren’t going to crawl in there. If they end up on you it is purely by mistake and they don’t want to be there any more than you want them there. A simple flick will make you both feel better.
Bottom line: spiders are awesome, but I can understand if you don’t love them. Please respect that they are misunderstood introverted artists just trying to help keep the mosquitos out of your home in exchange for a dry place to sleep. So give them a break instead of breaking their exoskeletons.