Friday the 13th

The superstition that’s the combination of two separate superstitions (and a lot of magical thinking).

Superstitions are ideas that unrelated things are connected in some supernatural way. They’re frequently practices that are thought to bring about good or bad luck. Knocking on wood, walking under ladders, black cats, four leaf clovers, etc. are all classic western superstitions. Astrology and other fortune telling methods have a similar kind of magical thinking. The superstition of Friday the 13th is a combination of two separate superstitions: Fridays + the number 13.

From the Norse gods, to the Last Supper, thirteen people at a table has made 13 an unlucky number.

The unlucky number

One of the earliest examples of 13 being an unlucky number comes from Norse mythology. Loki was the uninvited 13th god to attend a feast following the recent slaying of the god Baldr (who died because Loki had tricked the blind god Höðr into inadvertently killing him). Another unlucky dinner with 13 members was the Last Supper where Judas betrayed Jesus. This spurred a related number 13 superstition that dinners with 13 members are unlucky. The first person to rise from the table will be in store for ill fortune (akin to how Judas was the first to rise from the Last Supper and was met with ill fortune). However various workarounds include dividing the guests across two tables or just having everyone rise at the same time (which seem like pretty simple hacks).

Another reason 13 is considered unlucky is that it throws off the satisfying “completeness” of 12. There are 12 months in the year, 12 signs of the western zodiac, there were 12 gods of Olympus, the 12 labors of Hercules, the aforementioned 12 Nordic gods in attendance at the the meal following Baldr’s death, 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, etc.

Over time western culture’s fear of 13 has spread to a wide variety of outlets. Over 80% of tall buildings skip counting the 13th floor and instead call it the 14th floor. Hotels sometimes skip having 13th rooms, the 13th card in the major arcana of the tarot deck is the card for death, the 13th loaf of bread in a baker’s dozen was sometimes said to be for the Devil, cruise ships tend to skip having a 13th floor, in Florence some houses which should have an address of 13 are given 12 1/2, etc.

The superstition that Friday is unlucky is largely because of the Good Friday crucifixion of Jesus as well as other Bible stories.

It’s Friday I’m in … trouble

The fear of Friday has mostly Judeo-Christian origins. Jesus was said to have been crucified on a Friday (or perhaps it was a Wednesday). The start of the Great Flood and the confusion at the Tower of Babel were both said to have taken place on a Friday. Eve supposedly tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit, and the resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden, took place on a Friday. Further Cain killed Abel on a Friday. Unfortunately the Bible is silent on what calendar system was in use in the Garden of Eden or how they had Fridays at all.

Eating meat on a Friday is considered unlucky because it’s reminiscent of death and the crucifixion (but eating fish is apparently exempt from this bad luck somehow). Cutting your nails on a Friday is also considered unlucky for similar severing of the body related reasons. Over time Fridays became an inauspicious day to begin or finish things. Starting a voyage, starting a new job, finishing the production of an article of clothing, moving house, getting married, giving birth, etc. on a Friday have all been considered unlucky.

That said if you die on a Good Friday there’s a superstition that you go right to Heaven.

The 1868 Friday the 13th death of Rossini is one of the first instances of Friday the 13th being unlucky but the superstition became popular during the 20th century.

Two great tastes that taste great together

Bringing these two superstitions together seemed inevitable, the super-superstition of bad luck on Friday the 13th, but it’s relatively new. Friday the 13th is first mentioned as unlucky in the 19th century with the most famous example being the Friday the 13th, November 1868 death of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini.

Friday the 13th didn’t become more widely unlucky in pop culture until the 20th century. Most people credit the 1907 Thomas Lawson novel Friday, the Thirteenth, about a stockbroker who chooses that date to manipulate (and crash) the stock market, as the popularization of the Friday the 13th superstition.

But like all superstitions, an unlucky day & date combination is inconsistent and culturally specific. While English speaking countries think of Friday the 13th as unlucky, in Spain and Greece it’s Tuesday the 13th that’s supposed to be unlucky, but in Italy it’s Friday the 17th.

It’s all in your mind

Ultimately the idea that Fridays, or the number 13, or the combination of Friday the 13th, are in any way unlucky, is nonsense. If they were real they’d be universally held beliefs (not to mention some objective proof). Instead these three superstitions are mostly just inconsistent western ideas – people in the rest of the world are going about their lives unaware of the danger they’re supposedly in (and somehow surviving).

There is no evidence that Friday the 13th brings about an increase in unfortunate incidents or accidents. A 2011 study in the The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reviewed hospital emergency admission rates and found no significant difference between Friday the 13th to other days. In fact a 2008 Dutch study demonstrated the opposite may be true, that people are more cautious on Friday the 13th and as a result there are fewer road accidents.

The Friday the 13th movie franchise capitalizes on the superstition. Interestingly in Spanish speaking countries the movies are sometimes called Martes 13 (Tuesday the 13th) in keeping with the Spanish superstition around Tuesday the 13th, instead of Friday the 13th. Finally, the most important metal band of all time Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

Black Sabbath, the most important metal band of all time, released their debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

There are highs & (many) lows to the Friday the 13th movie franchise, but the disco theme song for Part 3 is something else.

the May 8, 1977 Barton Hall Concert

One of, if not thee, greatest Grateful Dead concert of all time (thanks to taping).

Having over 2,300 concerts to choose from, to try and pick just one Grateful Dead show as the best is both subjective and impossible (as well as controversial). That said, one show that is mentioned over and over as one of (if not thee) best is the May 8, 1977 Barton Hall concert at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

The band were in especially good form during the 1977 tour. The Barton Hall concert is a legendary show partially because the music is accessible – it’s enjoyable for hardcore Deadheads and casual fans alike. But perhaps even more importantly the show is accessible in a more literal sense. Grateful Dead audio engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson recorded over 1,000 tapes of live concerts for the band and the Barton Hall show is one of her most famous recordings. The “Betty Board” recording of the Barton Hall concert is of excellent quality, without which the concert likely would not be held in such high esteem.

The Betty Board recording of the Barton Hall concert by Betty Cantor-Jackson has helped make the concert one of the most famous Grateful Dead shows of all time.

“Everybody’s favorite fun game, move back …”

Recording Grateful Dead concerts, and the Shakedown Street style trade of concert tapes, is an entire sub-culture of the band. More than 2,000 of the estimated 2,300 concerts have been preserved by tapers. The non-profit Internet Archive has an entire section just for Grateful Dead recordings with over 16,000 entries. Instead of being anti-piracy the band embraced tapers, giving them their own space behind the mixing desk. As drummer Mickey Hart said “We can’t be cops.” The decision inadvertently worked like a viral marketing campaign. Fans would record shows, they would trade tapes with other people, and in the process millions more people were exposed to the band’s music. Today the band’s website has a “Taper’s Section” devoted to highlighting taped recordings from each week’s concerts in the band’s history.

In 2017 on the 40th anniversary of the Barton Hall concert Tompkins County, NY (where Cornell is located) declared the day “Grateful Dead Day.” In 2011 the Barton Hall Concert was entered into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress alongside other culturally significant recordings such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, etc.

Added info: you can purchase the Cornell 5/8/77 concert as a 3-CD set, or you can listen to the concert for free on archive.org.

A mini documentary on the magic of the Barton Hall concert.

In 2017 on the 40th anniversary of the concert the Cornell Chimes performed a concert on the bells.

Cinco de Mayo e Jalisco

The holiday celebrating a victorious military battle (not Independence) that’s become a celebration of Mexican culture (and especially Jalisco culture).

In 1861 after multiple wars, a nearly bankrupt Mexico was in debt to Britain, France, and Spain. President Benito Juárez instituted a temporary moratorium on foreign debt payments which France used as a justification for invasion. France wanted to expand their empire by seizing Mexico, and Mexico’s unpaid debt was an excuse to do so. The French fleet launched an invasion at Veracruz and marched westward toward Mexico City. On the way to the capital the Mexican army engaged the French near the town of Puebla.

Despite being outnumbered 2 to 1, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla. This is what Cinco de Mayo celebrates – a Mexican victory over the French. Unfortunately the Mexicans eventually lost the war and in 1864 the French installed the Austrian born Emperor Maximilian I as ruler of Mexico. By 1867 though the Mexicans rose up and took back the country, executing Maximilian on June 19, 1867.

General Ignacio Zaragoza led the Mexican forces to a victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla.

Cinco de Mayo … nos Estados Unidos

Today Cinco de Mayo is more popular in the United States than Mexico. Outside of the state of Puebla most of Mexico pays little attention to the holiday (which in Mexico is not called Cinco de Mayo of course but is “El Día de la Batalla de Puebla” or “The Day of the Battle of Puebla”). One reason for its popularity in the US is that the Mexican-American community uses the holiday as a cultural holiday honoring their Mexican heritage, much like what Irish-Americans do with Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s become more of a celebration of Mexican culture than of a military victory over the French.

Many of the things people associate with all of Mexico really come from just the state of Jalisco.

Jalisco es Mexico

On the Pacific coast of Mexico, sits the state of Jalisco. While Jalisco had little to do with the Battle of Puebla it has a lot to do with modern Cinco de Mayo and what we think of when we think of Mexico. The first mass produced tequila, mariachi music, the iconic folk dresses with large ribboned skirts, jaripeo bull riding, wide-brimmed sombreros, and the national dance “Jarabe Tapatío” (“Mexican Hat Dance”) all come from the state of Jalisco. As a result the state’s motto is “Jalisco es Mexico” (“Jalisco is Mexico”).

Similar to how many of the things people associate with Germany really just come from the Bavarian region, many of the cultural elements that people associate with Mexico are just from the state of Jalisco. As such every Cinco de Mayo Jalisco’s contributions to the Mexican cultural identity loom large as they appear in homes and restaurants around the United States as people celebrate Mexico.

Added info: Mexican Independence day is called “Grito de Dolores” (“The Cry of Dolores”) which is when Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave a speech to his parishioners and rang the church bell as a call to arms. This was the 1810 start of the Mexican War of Independence and is celebrated every September 16th.

Bock Beer / Goat Beer

The German beer whose name is a pun.

In the 14th century the northern town of Einbeck, Germany was producing some great tasting beer with higher alcohol content than typical lagers. The beer was brewed by individual households (in citizen brew houses) but the town owned all of the beer making equipment and hired hundreds of master brewers. This helped maintain a consistently high-quality product throughout town. As Einbeck joined the Hanseatic League they exported their beer around Europe and the popularity of their beer grew. In 1521 Martin Luther said that “The best drink anyone knows is called Einbecker beer” and later served it at his wedding.

In the early 17th century the master brewer Elias Pichler was lured down from Einbeck to Munich by Duke Maximilian to help the Bavarians make the Einbeck beer, or “Ainpöckisch bier”. The Bavarians changed the name a bit and with their southern pronunciation Ainpöckisch bier became “Oanpock bier” which was eventually shortened to just “Bock bier”. Soon the Einbeck style of beer was known by the name created by the brewers in the south.

a collection of bock imagery
Goat imagery has been tied to bock beer for years.

The Goat

As the centuries progressed bock beer posters, signs, and bottle labels tended to have a common visual motif – the image of a goat. No other style of beer has had such a consistently universal visual element. Goats have been used as imagery for bock beer across breweries, across time, and across countries. The reason is that “bock” in German means “male goat” (among other things). So Einbeck could be “ein bock” or “a goat”. Goats selling bock beer is a visual pun. It’s a multi-century dad joke.

Added info: there are different styles of bock beer including Maibock which is a seasonal beer made in the Spring for the month of May (hence the name, “May bock”). The Sly Fox Brewery in Pennsylvania hosts an annual goat race where each year’s Maibock is named for the winning goat.

Also Doppelbock (“double bock”) is an even stronger bock brewed for Lent and the strong beer season.

Persian Decision Making

The idea that ancient Persians would make a decision drunk then make it sober to see if the two match.

Herodotus was a 5th century BCE Greek whose Histories changed how world history is recorded and earned him the title of the “Father of History”. Histories contains a record of the Greco-Persian Wars as well as other stories and information from around the ancient world. Some things he got right, some he got wrong. He did the best he could, but he also wasn’t an impartial recorder of events which meant some things became exaggerated or biased. One such example is his account of how Persians would make important decisions.

Drunk History

In Histories Herodotus reported that the Persians had a peculiar method of decision making. Supposedly they would get drunk on wine and come up with a solution to a problem. Then, the following day while sober they would think about the problem again and consider if the previous night’s decision was still a good idea. This process could also be done the other way around – sober first, then drunk. In either order, if the two decisions agreed then the decision was adopted. If they did not, the Persians would have to think on the matter some more.

At face value this a Persian version of the Latin phrase In vino veritas or “In wine, there is truth”. It’s also a bit like an ancient version of the misattributed Hemingway quote “Write drunk, edit sober” (which is actually by humorist Peter De Vries). The Persians would use wine to come to the truth of a dilemma and confirm the truth when sober. While a fun anecdote, it seems unlikely they did this in the way Herodotus describes.

To start, it’s improbable that the Persian empire was in the regular habit of making all important decisions twice. Further this story says more about Herodotus than it does about the Persians. The Greeks drank their wine diluted with water but the Persians drank their wine undiluted (as we do today). Drinking undiluted wine was seen by the Greeks as decadent and even barbaric, and Herodotus uses this story to depict the Persians as less civilized than the Greeks. There’s also a double standard in how he portrays Persia’s wine & wealth as a negative (again as decadent), even though a similar wealth amongst the Greeks would be seen as a positive. Further, while they may have drank wine differently, the Greeks enjoyed wine just the same as the Persians did. More than anything though, this is an account of Persian culture by a Greek. To get a more accurate portrayal of Persian culture we should look to the Persians themselves.

Persian Wine

Wine has been an important part of Persian culture for thousands of years (far longer than its recent prohibition). One of the world’s earliest known wine-making artifacts originates in Neolithic Persia (in modern day Hajji Firuz, Iran) from around 5,000 BCE. According to Persian folklore the legendary Shah Jamshid (who lived for 700 years) is said to have inadvertently discovered wine after one of his harem women found and drank from a jar of old fermented grapes.

At the time of Herodotus wine was a staple of Persian society. It was safer to drink than water (which was true around the ancient world), but more importantly people enjoyed it just like we do today. Wine was enjoyed at all levels of society from royalty to commoners, at social gatherings, meals, and political meetings. Given how common wine was in Persian society, perhaps the wine being drunk while making decisions was incidental to the decision making and not the focal point as Herodotus would lead us to believe.

Added info: the Persian region of Shiraz had a long history of wine production and was once Iran’s “wine capital”. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution however, alcohol was banned throughout the country and Shiraz no longer makes wine. Also the wine type of Shiraz is not named for the region, and Shiraz and Syrah wines are the same thing.

the Myth of 8 Glasses of Water

You don’t need to drink 8 glasses of water a day.

In short: you only need to drink water when you’re thirsty. For millions of years humans and our human ancestors survived using thirst as an indicator that it’s time for more water. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the idea of drinking 8 glasses of water a day began.

We all need water to live but liquid water isn’t our only source. Coffee, tea, juice, soft drinks, fruits, vegetables, etc. all contain water. Depending on your diet you can get around 20% of the water you need just from food. Then because coffee, milk, juice, tea, etc. are mostly water, you’re probably already getting all the water you need each day without having to drink 8 more glasses of it.

… But Maybe You Do Need More Water

Daily water consumption is about maintaining balance: you need to replace the water you lose. If you live in a hot climate, or you’re sweating from exercise, you lose water faster than someone sitting still in a temperate climate. As such you need to replace water faster than normal which means drinking more water.

Also, should you be lost on a hike somewhere, you should ration sweat not water. Try to limit your physical exertion and sweat less but drink when you need to. A common mistake is that you should ration your water which, while it’s true you don’t want to waste a limited resource, if you’re thirsty you should drink. Your water isn’t doing you any good sitting inside a bottle.

Water water everywhere

On the flip side it’s possible to drink too much water. Exercise-associated hyponatremia is where you’re engaged in an endurance activity such as running a marathon, you sweat out water and sodium, but then you only drink water. In drinking regular water you manage to replenish your lost water but not your sodium. The result is low blood-sodium levels. This imbalance can cause poor nerve communication which leads to poor muscle control, poor performance, etc. Athletes with hyponatremia can feel nauseous, develop muscle cramps, and become confused leading some to think they’re dehydrated and drink even more water (making the situation worse).

Hyponatremia is becoming more prevalent in sports as an increasing number of novice athletes participate in long-distance endurance activities. For example in the 2002 Boston Marathon 13% of runners were found to have hyponatremia from drinking too much water. Athletes need to replenish their sodium levels along with their water. Part of the solution (pardon the pun) is to drink sports beverages that contain electrolytes (which are salts and can replenish sodium levels). This is why sports drinks boast about having electrolytes.

So, if you’re thirsty, drink some water and if you’re engaged in an endurance sport remember to get some electrolytes along with your water.

Added info: to bust another myth, consuming caffeinated beverages won’t dehydrate you. While excessive caffeine has a number of downsides, drinking coffee or tea is an acceptable a way to hydrate.

Adam Ruins Everything dives into the myth of 8 glasses of water a day.

the Gibson 1959 Les Paul Standard

One of the most legendary and sought-after guitars in the world.

In 1952 the Gibson Guitar company began to sell a solid-body guitar. The guitar was a collaboration with “The Wizard of Waukesha” guitarist & inventor Les Paul. The Gibson Les Paul guitar was created as an answer to the Fender Telecaster, created two years earlier becoming the first mass produced solid-body guitar. Despite some initial success Gibson sold fewer and fewer Les Pauls over the next 5 years. By 1958 Gibson decided to redesign the style of the guitar and turned to the sunburst finish of their hollow-body electric guitars for inspiration. They replaced the Les Paul’s gold painted finish with a cherry sunburst finish. This was the dawning of “the Burst”, some of the most famous guitars ever made.

Golden Gods

The 1958-1960 era of Gibson Les Pauls are some of the most collectible guitars in the world but they didn’t start out that way. Officially called the Gibson Les Paul Standard, but nicknamed the “Burst”, the guitar went relatively unnoticed until 1964 when a young Keith Richards bought a 1959 Burst from Selmer’s Music in London. He used it to record many of the Rolling Stones’ early hits including Satisfaction, Get Off My Cloud, and Let’s Spend the Night Together. Perhaps as importantly Richards was also seen with the guitar – in publicity photos, on tour, and in 1964 during the Rolling Stones appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Because of the great sound the guitar produced, other early blues-rock guitarists wanted to try it. Richards lent his 1959 sunburst to Jimmy Page (then a studio musician, pre-Led Zeppelin) as well as to Eric Clapton. Later the classic combination of Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall amp was created by Clapton who used the combo on the highly influential 1966 album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. Whether Clapton used a 1960 sunburst or a 1959 is an item of debate.

Soon other musicians wanted the sound & style of the 1959 sunburst. The problem was supply. In 1959 Gibson only made 643 Les Paul sunbursts. Even the whole of the sunburst run from 1958-1960 only produced somewhere around 1406-ish guitars. So by the late 1960s lots of musicians wanted one, but there weren’t enough to go around. This began a storied history of 1959 sunbursts being bought & sold, changing hands, and creating some very famous (and extremely valuable) guitars.

It’s who’s who of rock royalty who have played a 1959 burst.

Rock Provenance

While the guitar itself is a great guitar, the who’s who of rock guitarists who have played 1959 sunbursts adds to their value. The provenance of these guitars is what makes them famous.

  • Keith Richards: In 1967 Keith sold his sunburst to Mick Taylor, who had replaced Peter Green in John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers (… who had replaced Eric Clapton in the Bluesbreakers). The “Keith Burst” would rejoin the Rolling Stones two years later when Taylor was brought in to replace Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones. In 1971 the guitar was either stolen, or maybe sold, but around 1977 it was sold to Bernie Marsden of Whitesnake who held onto it for about a week before selling it to Mike Jopp. In 2004 it went to an anonymous Swiss collector who supposedly paid $1 million for it.

  • Peter Green: Purchased around 1965 from the same shop as Keith Richards’ sunburst, Peter Green’s 1959 sunburst “Greeny” can be heard on 1967’s A Hard Road by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. The guitar went with him to the newly formed Fleetwood Mac and can be heard on their early blues-based albums including 1969’s Fleetwood Mac in Chicago. In the early 1970s he sold it to Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy where it can be heard on their albums. Moore sold it in 2006 for perhaps £300,000 or somewhere between $750,000-1.2 million, depending on the story. It further traded hands and most recently was sold in 2014 to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. As for the price, it’s been reported that Hammett bought the guitar for $2 million but he’s said “I made a deal with the person I bought it from that I would never say what I paid for it. But it wasn’t $2 million. It wasn’t $1 million. It wasn’t even $500,000. That’s all I’ll say about it.”

  • Jimmy Page: The guitar that Jimmy Page calls his “Number One” is the 1959 sunburst that he bought off of Joe Walsh in 1969 while on tour in America. Incidentally after Joe Walsh joined the Eagles in 1975 he and Don Felder both played sunbursts including on the band’s biggest hit Hotel California. As for Jimmy Page his “Number One” has become one of the most iconic versions of the guitar. It can be first heard on 1969’s Led Zeppelin II. Page went on to own more than one 1959 sunburst and used them throughout the band’s career, part of which can be seen in their 1973 concert film The Song Remains the Same.

  • Billy Gibbons: Founder and front man of ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons purchased “Pearly Gates” from a rancher outside of Houston, Texas in 1968. After hearing Eric Clapton play a Les Paul sunburst he knew he had to have one. Gibbons named the guitar after a former car which in turn was named because it miraculously survived a drive from Texas to Hollywood. He’s played “Pearly Gates” on every ZZ Top album since. At one point he was offered $5 million for the guitar but declined.

  • Duane Allman: While Allman was more famous for his 1957 gold top Les Paul, he sold it in a deal to buy a 1959 sunburst. That sunburst is most famously heard on the Allman Brothers Band’s 1971 live album At Fillmore East. Today it sits in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

  • Joe Perry: Unsure exactly who he traded guitars with, or when, Joe Perry ended up with a 1959 sunburst at some point in the 1970s. He played it on the early Aerosmith albums and can be seen playing it on the album art for Aerosmith’s Live! Bootleg album. Around 1982 Perry needed money and sold it for $4,500. It changed hands a few times, eventually going to Eric Johnson who offered to sell it back to Perry for what he paid for it, but Perry didn’t have any money and declined. It was sold again and by the time Perry had the money and went in search of his old guitar it was owned by Slash of Guns N’ Roses. The Joe Perry Les Paul can be seen in the November Rain video. In 2000 as a surprise 50th birthday present, Slash gave Perry back his old guitar.

Because of their iconic status the 1958-1960 Les Pauls have inspired many knock-offs. Some 1957s were refinished to look like 1958s, while others are just very convincing fakes. This leads to variations of the joke that between 1958-1960 Gibson made around 1,500 sunbursts and there are only about 3,000 left.

Of the sunbursts the 1959 is still the most valuable. The “Holy Grail” of guitars, the 1959 sunburst is so popular that Gibson currently makes a reissued version of it which you can buy new for just around $7,000. This is relatively inexpensive given that original 1959 sunbursts, even those with no particularly interesting provenance, sell for a few hundred thousand dollars each.

Five Watt World gives an excellent history of the Burst Les Pauls.

Clapton’s sunburst Les Paul combined with a Marshall amp, as heard on the album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, helped set the template for what blues-rock should sound like.

You can hear Peter Green’s “Greeny” burst on Watch Out by Fleetwood Mac.

ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons demonstrates the sound of his 1959 Les Paul, “Pearly Gates”.

Jimmy Page’s “Number One” burst is one of the most iconic 1959 Les Pauls in rock.

MacGuffins

The thing that drives the plot but doesn’t really matter.

In storytelling, a MacGuffin is something that drives the plot but exactly what the thing is doesn’t really matter. It’s a catalyst that gives the characters something to pursue, something to destroy, something to protect, all while revealing their morality, their motivations, etc. A MacGuffin helps to generate action and suspense but ultimately doesn’t directly affect the plot. It has theoretical value to the characters but has no real value to the story. The moment a MacGuffin significantly changes the plot it ceases to be a MacGuffin.

The term was created by screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock (who in turn made the concept famous by using it in several of his films). While the term is new the idea of the MacGuffin is as old as storytelling itself. For example Helen of Troy prompting the siege of Troy in The Iliad, Sleeping Beauty and other classic damsels in distress in need of saving, the Holy Grail motivating the The Knights of the Round Table, etc. are all MacGuffins driving the story but having little impact on the plot.

One of the best examples of a MacGuffin is the statue in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon. The search for the Maltese Falcon statue drives the plot but the fact that it’s a statue of a bird is irrelevant – it just needed to be something of value/importance to the characters. Whether it was a statue, a painting, secret plans, etc. it just had to be something to motivate the characters.

From the Maltese Falcon statue to the Dude’s rug, MacGuffins help drive the story.

Let’s chase some MacGuffins

There are many examples of MacGuffins, as well as classifications of MacGuffins, but the following are a few examples found in popular media:

  • It’s the secret military plans in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
  • the stolen $40,000 in Psycho
  • the microfilm in North by Northwest
  • It’s basically everything Indiana Jones chases after such as the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • the sacred Sankara Stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • It’s the glowing suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly, which in turn inspired …
  • the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction
  • George Lucas said that R2-D2 with the Death Star plans in Star Wars is a MacGuffin
  • It’s the Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski
  • the Horcruxes in Harry Potter
  • “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane
  • It’s Pauline from Donkey Kong and Zelda in the Legend of Zelda
  • Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) in the first season of The Mandalorian
  • Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan
  • etc.

Not a MacGuffin

The ring in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is frequently thought of as a MacGuffin, but this is incorrect. While the ring could be exchanged for some other object the fact that it has a direct effect on the characters who encounter it, that Bilbo and Frodo both use it numerous times for its magical power of invisibility, and in doing both of these directly changes the plot throughout the story, means it isn’t a MacGuffin.

Added info: lest you think their bar was Scottish themed, the concept of the MacGuffin is so pervasive in film that AMC Theatres named their chain of theater bars MacGuffins Bar.

Alfred Hitchcock explains what a MacGuffin is on The Dick Cavett Show.

A Trope Talk deep-dive into MacGuffins.

When is Easter?

Easter if a floating holy day whose date has been a moving target for millennia.

The modern confusion over when to celebrate Easter goes back to the earliest Christians. To start, it’s not entirely clear what day of the week the crucifixion of Jesus took place on. The Bible can be interpreted to say that the Sunday resurrection took place three full days after the crucifixion, meaning the crucifixion took place on a Wednesday. Or the resurrection was simply “on the third day” (not three full days) and as such the crucifixion took place on a Friday. As for celebrating the resurrection some early Christians chose to celebrate on the first day of Passover (the holiday during which Jesus was crucified) while others celebrated on the Sunday of Passover when the tomb was found empty.

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, established that the resurrection would be celebrated not just on a Sunday but on the Sunday following the full moon after the March (northern Spring) equinox. This kept the holiday near Passover, which is also around the Spring equinox, but not necessarily on Passover. This helped to standardize the observance of the resurrection … until the change of calendars confused things again.

East meets West

Introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, the Gregorian calendar was used by western churches to (among other things) calculate the annual observance of the resurrection. Orthodox churches however continued using the Julian calendar (which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar). The use of two different calendar systems is why there are usually two different dates for Easter each year – falling near one another but not usually on the same Sunday.

Another confusing detail is what to call the holiday. Given the holiday’s connection to Passover many languages and church denominations call the holiday some translated variation of the word Passover (which in Latin & Greek is “pascha” which also gives us the word “paschal” the term for things pertaining to Easter or Passover). In German and English however, the names “Ostern” and “Easter” are used which come from a pagan goddess.

Easter / Ēostre pagan goddess

The Germanic goddess Ēostre (aka Ôstara or Austra) was a Spring deity … probably. There is very little documentation of Ēostre. It is unknown how widespread the worship of her may have been or for how long. The primary source we have is The Reckoning of Time written by the English monk Saint Bede the Venerable in 725 CE. Bede writes about calculating the date of the resurrection and mentions that it took place around the Spring equinox, the same time of year that the Anglo-Saxons used to hold a feast in honor of Ēostre. From this timely reference to Ēostre the name “Easter” came to be the English name for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus (even though she had nothing to do with it).

Added info: Constantine not only helped to standardize when to celebrate Easter but he was also the reason the Chi Rho became the symbol of the Roman empire as well as the early Catholic church.

the Imp of the Perverse

The urge to do the wrong thing at the worst possible time.

The imp of the perverse is the phenomenon where you have the urge to do the wrong thing at the worst possible time. The name comes from the 1845 Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name which is part essay part short story. Poe lays out his theory that humans sometimes have a destructive drive that works against their best interests. It then goes on to be a short story of murder (as Poe stories tend to do).

What if I …

Like the imps of folklore, or maybe the cartoon devil on your shoulder, we each have a mischievous side that tells us to do something wrong just because we can. It can be something benign like the urge to shout in a quiet concert hall, or maybe to throw a coin off the top of a building, to jump out and scare someone, or maybe to tip over a carefully arranged stack of cans in the grocery store. Sometimes the ideas are more dangerous like thinking about driving your car off the road, pushing someone, etc. We don’t do it, but that little thought pops up sometimes.

A special kind of imp of the perverse is the French concept of “L’appel du vide” or “the call of the void”, where you stand at the edge of a precipice and think “I could just jump right over the edge” but then quickly back away. Studies of L’appel du vide (aka High Place Phenomenon) suggest that it isn’t suicidal – quite the opposite. Researchers believe that this is your brain warning you to be careful. It’s driven by a desire to continue living rather than the other way around.

Choices and ideas

It’s not fully understood why we have these thoughts, why the imp of the perverse pops up from time to time. One possible explanation is that we like to have options even if we know we would never choose some of them. Just knowing that we could do/say something is satisfying enough without actually doing/saying it. Another possibility is that these thoughts are part of an internal rebellious drive, part of what psychoanalyst Otto Rank called our “counterwill”, where we oppose feeling confined/controlled and so we try and assert our own individuality. It could be an internal way of feeling like an individual by thinking counter to what is expected & acceptable.

That said, some of these wild ideas are useful. They might be long shots, but occasionally one of these ideas is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that’s necessary for innovation. Sure most of these ideas are “hold my beer” bad but a few come along which might just be crazy enough to work. Purely rebellious ideas like dropping a coin off the top of a tall building isn’t going to do much but thinking outside of the norm is where big innovative ideas come from.

Thinking these thoughts is normal. Our prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control, helps us follow social norms and not follow through on these ideas. Still, every now and then the imp of the perverse manages to serve up something helpful.

Following the imp of the perverse, Jerry sets up Elaine for disaster.