Reasons to be careful

This week sees the 13th of the month fall on a Friday. I’m not particularly superstitious, and yet I do experience mild hesitation when thinking about plans that involve that date. I would probably avoid arranging to travel or do anything else significant unless I absolutely have to. Just in case.

It surprised me to learn that this superstition is relatively modern, and there are no written references to it before the nineteenth century. One early suggestion comes in a biography of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini written in 1869 by Henry Sutherland Edwards who says that ‘If it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday 13th of November, he passed away.’

And then in 1907, American millionaire stockbroker Thomas W Lawson, who had a reputation for being superstitious, wrote the novel ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ in which the protagonist chooses that day to take revenge upon Wall Street. Lawson’s misgivings about the date were compounded when a boat bearing his name sank off the Isles of Scilly at around 1.15am UK time on 14th December 1907. With the time difference, in Boston where Lawson was living, it would have still been Friday the 13th for him. Some believe that it was Lawson’s book that triggered the fear associated with the 13th day of the month landing on a Friday.

But if this was the case, then you would have expected a mention in a 1910 book by T. Sharper Knowlson called ‘Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs’, but there is nothing about it. Connecting bad luck with the number 13 does go back further, as do references to Friday being the unluckiest day of the week, but the two are rarely joined together before the early part of the 20th century.

Some would argue that it does go back much further, attributing it to the Christian belief that there were thirteen people at Jesus Christ’s last supper on Maundy Thursday. Judas is considered to be the unlucky 13th guest who betrayed Jesus to the authorities, sealing his fate to be crucified the next day, a Friday.

And yet, there are no early written references to Friday the 13th specifically being an inauspicious date. Just because we can’t find anything written down does not mean that it didn’t exist though – it could have just been a ‘word-of-mouth’ kind of fear. But conflicting with this is the fact that in the 17th century, the publication of almanacs became very popular. These were books containing information, folklore and superstitions relevant to every date in the year, and no mention of the unlucky Friday the 13th has ever been discovered. Before almanacs, scholarly types would keep diaries detailing their everyday lives and thoughts (Samuel Pepys being the most famous) and yet again, no reference to this unlucky date has ever been found.

So with all that in mind, I can’t be certain when or where this most famous of superstitions originated. And is it actually any more unlucky than any other date in the year? It could be said that it is rather unlucky for the economy as it has been proven that people travel less, spend less and party less on that particular date.

If the month starts on a Sunday, then the 13th will be a Friday and it can happen up to three times in one year. In 2022 there is only one, while in 2023 there will be two (January and October). The next time that three occur in the same year will be 2026. There are four notable unfortunate events that did occur on the date. On Friday 13th, 1307, King Philip IV of France ordered the mass arrest (and later, execution) of hundreds of members of the religious and military order, the Knights Templar, successfully disrupting their power and influence. On Friday 13th September 1940, the Germans bombed Buckingham Palace during World War II, and in November 1970, a cyclone killed 300,000 people in Bangladesh on that date. Then, in 1996, rapper Tupac Shakur was shot dead on Friday 13th September. But that is not a lot of significant events over so many hundreds of years, is it?

Do you think it is worth make any changes to your regular routine to minimise the risk of a calamity befalling you?

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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 13th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 11th May 2022.

Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Second World War on Friday 13th 1941.
Picture by Lucien Smith

A bit of a pig

Residents of Staithes are a ‘superstitious lot’, according to my aunt, whose roots lie in the North Yorkshire fishing village. Picture by Alastair Smith

An aunt of mine who lives up on the North York Moors called me after reading the column I wrote last month about robins and the superstitions associated with them. I’d mentioned that in times gone by, seeing a robin was bad luck and some people, if they received a Christmas card featuring a robin, refused to display it. I wondered if that superstition still prevailed today.

According to my aunt, it certainly persists on the Moors and the east coast. A friend of hers, who died just four years ago and lived in the village of Loftus near Saltburn, would tear up any Christmas cards she received with a robin on them as she believed they were portents of death. My aunt also belongs to a local history group that meets regularly in the picturesque fishing village of Staithes, and she reported that a couple of members still refuse to display cards with robins on them.

My aunt’s paternal side of the family hail from Staithes, and she declared they were a ‘superstitious lot’, as were residents of many of the villages dotting that part of the east coast. She also revealed that some members of her group refuse to say the word ‘pig’ aloud and will either spell it out letter by letter, or refer to them as ‘squealers’. It is well known that seafaring communities have many superstitions that have lasted down the centuries, such as not whistling on a boat as that would ‘whistle down the wind’, encouraging a storm to brew. When your way of life is so hazardous, when your very livelihood, never mind your life, lies at the mercy of unpredictable weather, it is not surprising that you resort to whatever means at your disposal to try to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

But I was mystified as to why the word ‘pig’ was so taboo. I have found a couple of explanations, but none that I would call ‘definitive’. One was that as pigs couldn’t swim, it was considered a temptation of fate to either utter their name or to bring them on board. What confuses me about this theory is that many sailors had never been taught to swim either. So how come their presence didn’t tempt fate too?

Another suggestion is that the pig is one of the most important animals associated with Celtic myths. Manannan was a sea-god heavily associated swine, purportedly being the custodian of a never-diminishing herd. If the numbers reduced for any reason, they would magically and spontaneously replenish. Sows were associated with fertility and wealth, while male boars were symbols of courage. However, they were also associated with deception, disobedience and with bringing about death. So perhaps therein lies the the root of the superstition.

My aunt also mentioned that it was unlucky for seafarers to cross paths with a woman en route to their boats. If they did, they would turn tail, go all the way back home and start their journey again before daring to set sail. Some also believed that having women on board a vessel was unlucky. There were similar beliefs around church ministers too, with one explanation being that this symbol of what they called the ‘new religion’ would earn the wrath of the ancient sea gods.

I found an interesting quote from 1968 in the Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland which goes: “We don’t mention pigs. We call ‘em Grecians, jacks, four-legged dinners, ‘owt but a pig. But the odd thing about Staithes people is that while they won’t speak of pigs, almost every fishing family keeps one.” There were similar beliefs around salmon, which would be replaced with the words ‘fine bit fish’ or ‘reid fish’, while rabbits became ‘bob tail’, ‘fower fitter’ or ‘mappin’. Rats and cats are also said to be unlucky (although I was under the impression that a ship’s cat was an essential member of the crew, its job being to keep the rat population down!).

If by some dreadful misfortune the unlucky word was uttered, the only way to turn fortunes back again was to touch something metal and declare the words ‘cold iron’. Others believed that the only way to undo the curse was to spill the blood of the animal in question.

I hope the same didn’t apply to women and church ministers!

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