Being burnt at the stake after being arrested on Friday 13, 1307, was unlucky for many of the Knights Templar.
Being burnt at the stake after being arrested on Friday 13, 1307, was unlucky for many of the Knights Templar. Tim Howard

Feeling lucky punks? Well it is Friday the 13th

ON A DAY perennially considered a day to avoid black cats, walking under ladders or breaking mirrors, we take a quick at look at the number 13 and why it gets a bad rap.

The first thing to say that in many cultures 13 is not such a bad number. The USA, for example has 13 embedded into its history so deeply, the number is represented in the 13 stripes on the flag.

Sometimes the number 13 came to be considered unlucky just because it was inconvenient. Imagine you're a monk in charge of calendars supposed to show 12 full moons a year and about every third year people notice there's actually 13.

That 13th moon is a problem because it creates a 13th month and upsets the calendar of church festivals.

So make the 13th full moon unlucky and everyone can forget that it might indicate the universe is arranged totally differently to the way the Bible tells you.

Seven centuries of bad luck

FRIDAY the 13th gets a bad rap just because a greedy French king and a Pope decided he could break a few of the Commandments.

On Friday, October 13, 1307, King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of the Knights Templar and most of the knights were tortured and killed.

Phil's story was the Knights Templar practised religious rites that amounted to heresy and needed a good purging.

Most historians say France was just about broke and Philip the Fair, as he was known, coveted the wealth and influence of the order, so he decided, with the help of Pope Clement V to help himself and knock off the owners. On a quick count that's three commandments down: coveting the neighbour's ass, stealing and killing.

Many Knights Templar were burnt at the stake, which was certainly unlucky for them, but within a month, the Pope had died of a "loathsome" disease (probably lupus) and eight months later Philip had a stroke while on a hunting trip and was dead at 46.

Philip's son inherited the throne and it seems his dad's luck and died young and childless, passing the throne to the line of succession to his brother and the House of Valois.

The unlucky 13th guest

THE number 13 itself in Christian countries is associated with Jesus and his 12 Disciples, particularly the Last Supper, where the the 13th disciple Judas Iscariot disgraced himself forever.

Despite being around for more than 2000 years, this idea really only gained notoriety from about the 1890s.

It's lasting legacy has been an idea you never set 13 places at a dinner party because it brings bad luck.

Cults and sects

In ancient cultures, the number 13 represented femininity, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days).

The theory is that, as the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar, the number 13 became anathema.

US history and heraldry

The United States' history is wrapped up in the number 13 from its origins when it was 13 British Colonies.

With the addition of more states, they tried adding more stripes, but by 1818, when five new states joined in, the designers switched back to the original 13-stripe motif, which has stayed the same ever since.

There are other examples of US heraldry where the number 13 is inextricably involved.

The Great Seal of the United States is stacked with images invoking the number, 13 representing the original colonies from which the United States was created.

On the seal's observe, the overhead glory bears 13 stars. The chest shield in front of the spread eagle bears thirteen stripes (seven white and six red).

In the eagle's right talon, it holds the olive branch of peace, bearing 13 olives and 13 olive leaves. In the eagle's left talon, it holds the weapons of war, consisting of 13 arrows.

In the eagle's mouth, it holds a scroll bearing the national motto E Pluribus Unum (which, by coincidence, consists of 13 letters). On the seal's reverse, the unfinished pyramid consists of 13 levels.

The Greeks had a word for it

If all this has you feeling uneasy you won't be surprised the Greeks had a word for it. Or two very long words in this case.

The irrational fear of the number 13 has been given a scientific name: triskaidekaphobia and on analogy to this the fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskevidekatriaphobia.