austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Don't want a four-leaf clover

Now that Fridays the 13th are regarded as unlucky it's hard to believe in humanity's long happy association with them. Many anthropologists believe Friday the 13th was the first day domesticated by humans. Fridays the 13th lived with humans 45,000 years ago. In contrast, other days -- such as Tuesdays the 31st -- are only partly domesticated, and many say that Thursdays the 4th will always be feral.

Calendar biologists argue whether Friday the 13th evolved from Thursday the 12th, Thursday the 13th, or from a Saturday the 14th that re-crossed the Bering Strait from the Yukon back into Siberia. Fossilized dates tend to be around watering holes or natural breeding grounds, scrambling the record. But all agree Friday the 13th was kept by Babylonians, and the awesome, lumbering days were shown in the famed Hanging Gardens. They so impressed Greek and Roman traders as to be identified as the mythical ``ides'', and before long the ides were the 13th of nearly every month, whether a Friday or not. (The ides of March were moved to the 15th after the Gauls sacked the city in 390 BC.)

In the New World, Friday the 13th diversified into dozens of breeds. Many were used to build the pyramids of the Aztecs and Maya, as a single Friday the 13th can bear one and a half times the load of the next-strongest day, Monday the 22nd. Sadly most of these native breeds died out from the diseases borne by parasitic fleas carried by their English and Iberian cousins in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Today the largest population of ``wild'' New World Fridays the 13th huddles in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Despite their role in taming five continents (South America still gets a bit rowdy) the popularity of Friday the 13th dropped as canals and railroads made their large food and supply budgets less economical. Cynical herd owners deflected the bad publicity of their culling by painting Friday the 13th as unpredictable, hostile, even dangerous. The growing mass media in the late 19th century these stories became deeply popular, sparking a brief ``Friday the 13th Fear'' genre of adventure stories in the United States and United Kingdom, including a hoax story in The New-York Herald of a Friday the 13th escaping a zoo and rampaging through downtown, complete with `casualty' lists. The phobia reached its peak with Berwick-Upon-Tweed's declaration in 1887 that it would no longer have Friday the 13th, and would instead have an extra Thursday the 12th. (In 1932 this was changed to an extra Saturday the 14th to allow more shopping days, until the ordinance was completely swept away in legislative reforms in 1969.) Today the original economic motives of this legend has been forgotten, and we are left with the stereotype.

Since 1980 some have tried to rebuild the day's reputation, by recounting its history, by publicizing the economic forces that drove its defamation, or just by holding parties. Unfortunately, the only day everyone was free for a party was Saturday. Life's like that sometimes.

Trivia: The last word defined for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was `wyzen'. Source: The Meaning of Everything, Simon Winchester.

Currently Reading: Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud, Peter Watson.


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