Irish Mythology | Friday 13th… Unlucky for Some?
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
There is a deep-rooted fear in many cultures that Friday 13th is a very unlucky day, yet no one knows where this superstition has come from, or why it is so widespread.
It is certainly true that some pretty rotten things have happened in the past on this day, which have earned it such a terrible reputation. For example, on Friday 13th October 1307, hundreds of Knights Templar were rounded up and put to death in France.
In the Bible, Judas was the thirteenth person present at the Last Supper. Jesus was crucified the very next day, which was a Friday.
In numerology, the number 12 is considered to be a number of ‘completeness’; there are 12 months in year, 12 hours in a day followed by 12 hours of night, there are 12 signs of the zodiac, etc. In comparison, the number 13 is seen as irregular, imbalanced.
There is a Norse myth which tells that twelve Gods were dining in the great hall of Valhalla, when the trickster-God Loki turned up uninvited. He proceeded to convince the blind God of Darkness, Hoder, to shoot Baldur the Beautiful, God of Joy with a mistletoe-tipped arrow, thus we have another example indicating why the ancient people may have believed the number 13 to be unlucky.
By contrast, the ancient Egyptians actually believed the number 13 to be very fortunate indeed. They thought that man experienced twelve phases during his mortal life, but the 13th was to ascend to eternal after-life, which was considered a joyous event, even though achieved through death.
In the ninteenth century, a man named William Fowler set up the Thirteen Club, in an effort to disprove the fear of Friday 13th. They met in groups of 13 for dinner, walked under a ladder before sitting down to eat in Room no 13, which was decorated with open umbrellas, ensuring much salt was spilled on the table, which no one bothered to throw over their shoulders. Their first meeting was held on Friday 13th January 1881. Interestingly, there is no record of anything remotely unlucky having ever happened to any of the club’s members.
The moon is associated with the divine feminine as the female cycle was linked to the phases of the moon. In Ireland, Aine was Goddess of love, growth, cattle and light. Her name means “bright” as she lights up the dark. Although the origins of this superstition cannot now be traced, some say it goes right back into our distant pagan past. Ancient pagan religions were matriarchal; they believed in the Goddess and Mother Earth, and venerated the ability of the female to bring forth life. The year was counted by lunar cycles, unlike today’s Gregorian calendar, of which there were thirteen, and also thirteen menstrual cycles in a year.
As the priests of the new religion, Christianity, tried to wrest control from the pagans, they suppressed the power of the female; fertility and the sexual act was seen as unclean. Where childbirth was once seen as joyous and miraculous, the new religion considered the new mother unclean and she was not allowed into the church until she had been ritually purified forty days later.
Over time, this dislike of the number 13 may have adopted a more sinister tone, as the pagans associated with it became thought of as evil devil-worshippers.
For the ancient Celts, everything was interconnected, even numbers. All numbers had meanings, or associations, here are just a few:
No2 represented service and commitment, ie the loyalty as shown by Fionn mac Cumhall’s two hounds, Bran and Sceolán.
No3 we know was considered a very sacred number, and seen in such concepts as birth-life-death; mind-body-spirit; beginning-middle-end; sun-moon-earth; thought-word-deed; past-present-future, and of course the Triple Goddess maiden-mother-crone.
No4 was connected with wholeness, as represented by the four seasons; the four winds; the four directions; the four elements, and even the four provinces of Ireland.
To the ancient Celts, trees were very important, and were also associated with particular qualities which could be interpreted to be of good or bad fortune. The oak and the hazel were considered trees of knowledge.
There were nine hazel trees around Nechtan’s Well at the Source of the Boyne. They would blossom and bear fruit at the same time. These fruit, the hazel nuts, would drop into the water where they would be eaten by waiting salmon. If one was to eat the flesh of the Salmon of Knowledge, one would acquire all of his wisdom, but they weren’t easy to catch. The old Druid Finegas tried in vain for many years, only to be cheated out of his reward by the boy-hero Fionn mac Cumhall.
The ash and the rowan were esteemed for their powers of protection. Eating rowan berries were thought to induce longevity, and brought youth and happiness. In old Irish, the rowan was called Fid na nDruad, ‘Tree of the Druids’. Later, Christians adopted the habit of putting branches in their homes on Good Friday to ward off evil.
Fairy Tree on the way up to the burial mounds of Loughcrew
The hawthorn tree was thought to guard the entrance to the fairy realm, and it was thought to be very bad luck to cut one down. Even today, you will often find hawthorns known as ‘fairy’ or ‘rag’ trees at holy wells and other ancient sites, where people leave a small gift, rag or prayer attached to the tree as a votive offering to the ancient gods of that place.
Today’s popular saying ‘Touch wood’ to invoke good luck stems from this ancient Celtic respect of the trees.
Many cultures still consider the rabbit to be a symbol of good luck, and this goes back also to Celtic times. In Ireland, the rabbit was thought to have special powers to thwart those of the Tuatha de Danann, as like them, it lived below ground. Therefore, carrying a part of a rabbit, such as its foot, on one’s person at all times was considered to ward off fairy evil. Not so lucky for the rabbit, I think.
There are many examples of the hare having connections with the Otherworld in Irish mythology and folklore. Hares are associated with spring, thus with the Goddess of the season, and represented love, fertility and growth. In Europe, that Goddess was Eostre, after whom Easter is named, but in Ireland Brigid is the Goddess of Spring, or Imbolc, which starts on February 1st. February is when the hares start racing through my garden, driving poor old Indi wild!
I came across a story of a huge red-eyed hare which used Loughanleagh as its entry point into the magical realm. Oisin was once said to have hunted a hare, wounding its leg before it disappeared through a doorway into the ground. He followed it through a long passage, eventually emerging in a great hall where he found a beautiful woman bleeding from her leg. Not only does this story show a connection between the Sidhe and the hare, but also indicates a belief in transmigration. Perhaps these fears and superstitions are behind the origin of the cruel sport of hare coursing which still goes on in Ireland today.
Apparently, in order to ensure victory, Boudicca was said to have carried a hare into battle under her cloak, from where it proceeded to scream like a woman (or perhaps a banshee?) throughout the duration of the conflict.
Eventually, Christian superstition was to work its transformative magic over pagan traditions yet again, for the threatening spring hare was reinvented as the much less fearful Easter Bunny… although the notion of a bunny laying chocolate eggs around the garden seems infinitely more scary to me.
When it comes to the black cat, messages are somewhat confused. We all know how highly the ancient Egyptians thought of their moggies, but around the rest of the world, it was a different story. Once, the cat was much admired for its independence, stealth and hunting prowess. In medieval times, this love of cats, particularly black cats, was considered a sign of witchcraft, and the cats were burned alive, along with the women who owned them, or were thought to own them.
The mythical Cait Sidhe is a large black cat said to be the size of a dog. It was thought that witches could transform themselves into a Cait Sidhe eight times, but that on the ninth, they would remain in their cat form. Thus we have the origin of the cat with nine lives, and the fear of black cats and their associated witchy owners.
So this Friday, keep away from witches, black cats, and spring hares; don’t tempt fate by walking under ladders, spilling salt, or opening your umbrella before you leave the house; try carrying a piece of wood around with you instead of a rabbit’s paw, and you might, just might, avoid any bad luck that’s whirling around in the ether.
May the luck o’ the Irish be with you!