Friday the 13th Folklore, magic and myth

Friday the 13th Folklore, magic and myth

Peter Hewitt, co-manager of the Museum, was approached by the Cornish Guardian to write a piece for publication about Friday the 13th (today!)  Here is what he wrote…

The idea of Friday the 13th being unlucky has been made famous by horror films but the fear itself is much older.

Some historians suggest it is because ‘Good Friday’ was the day when Jesus Christ was crucified.  In some parts of Western Europe during the medieval period, a dislike of Jews (who, together with the Roman authorities, had been responsible for the death of Christ) led some Christians to accuse Jewish communities of various scandals.  Jews were accused of the kidnap and murder of Christian children; in Germany it was thought that Jews even made wax images of Christ, and stuck them with pins like a ‘voo doo’ doll or poppet.  This demonstrates a medieval fear both of Jews but also of ‘image magic’, in which wax effigies of human beings could be used for magical purposes.  Examples of modern British ‘poppets’ can be seen on display in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle.  They were used for various reasons:  to focus healing energies to certain part of the body, to ‘prick the conscience’ of a wrongdoer, and to curse.  

Object 517 Wax Cursing Poppet: A poppet created to cause victim to develop a hernia.  The charge made for this charm was one old red ten-shilling note.

Before the 1400s, ‘ritual magic’ was widely practised among the elites of Europe, and Friday was an important day.  Friday belonged to the goddess Venus, and her name, as well as the names of angels, were invoked to help magicians attain their ends.  Rituals were often accompanied with the sacrifice of animals or birds – the Picatrix (a magical text written in the 10th or 11th century) instructs its users to behead a dove on a Friday.  The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic has a number of items associated with ritual magic.  As a practice is was revived and reconvened in the early twentieth century by societies like the Golden Dawn.  Various rituals and rites were used to prepare initiates to receive visions of the future and to gain wisdom 

Object 942, Argentium Astrum Robe

The number ‘13’ is seen as unlucky in the West because it suggests disorder and excess.  Judas was the thirteenth disciple and the betrayer of Jesus.  ‘12’ on the other hand has been traditionally used to order religious ideas (12 Tribes of Israel, 12 Labours of Hercules) and historical time (months and signs of the Zodiac).  Interestingly, NASA has recently outlined a thirteenth astronomical zodiac:  Ophiuchus, which represents a man struggling with a snake (Nov. 29 – Dec. 17).  The Greeks equated this with the god Apollo who struggled with the snake that guarded the Delphic Oracle.

Ophiuchus in a manuscript copy of Azophi’s Uranometry, 18th-century copy of a manuscript

The most famous ‘13’ is probably the witches’ coven:  in 1662 the Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie said that she practised magic in a group numbering 13 – these witches were reported to have made a pact with the Devil. 

Woodcut from Joseph Glanvil’s, Saducismus Triumphatus 1681.

A staple among cunning folk was to protect people from bad luck.  In fishing villages across Cornwall, a well known charm was the hagstone:  hung up at the cottage door and touched before going to sea.  One hagstone from the collection was carried by an old lady from Dorset to the day of her death in 1897 as a protection against witchcraft.


Another familiar charm was the horseshoe.  The iron was perhaps a type of protection charm against those spirits of mischief known in Cornwall as ‘piskies’, but the shape of the shoe was also thought to capture luck for the owner especially if placed above a door.

Cat and Horseshoe Postcard, London, c. 1900.

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