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Friday 13th: Do Danes believe in ghosts and 'nisser'?

The Local Denmark
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Friday 13th: Do Danes believe in ghosts and 'nisser'?
Black cats are a feature of Danish superstitions. Photo by Phil Baum on Unsplash

Friday the 13th is almost upon us so here's a look at how common it is in Denmark to believe in ghosts (and zombies), why it's a shame people still think black cats are unlucky, and where the phrase "7-9-13" comes from.


Danes are typically considered sensible in nature, but that doesn't mean they don't have their superstitions. 

For instance, did you know that around one in seven people in Denmark believe in ghosts? And that almost 60 percent say "7-9-13" when talking about something that they don't want to happen?

We break down some of the most commonly-held Danish superstitions. 

Though common in Denmark, the belief that a broken mirror brings bad luck is hardly unique to the Danes. In fact, this one has been around since ancient Romans, the very first people to make glass mirrors. They believed that a mirror could capture one’s soul and thus an image distorted by a broken mirror would also mean that the viewer’s very soul had been corrupted. 

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Coming to Copenhagen to spend a night in the city's most exclusive hotel? Don’t expect to stay in room 13. Like most Danish hotels, you won’t find a room 13 in Hotel D’Angleterre, where a spokesperson told in 2013 that “everyone should have a good experience when they stay with us and there are still people who don’t think it’s fun to sleep in room 13”. 

Similarly, airline SAS has neither a row nor seat numbered 13 on its aircraft, apart from a few smaller planes, it said at the time. The decision was made out of "commercial considerations" to passengers, a spokesperson said.

Hotel d'Angleterre in Copenhagen during the 2022 Tour de France. Photo: Martin Sylvest/Ritzau Scanpix


While many cultures have superstitions about the number 13, Danes have one that adds two extra numbers to the equation.

When a Dane says something like “I’m so glad my grandmother still has her health” or “I think I really aced that job interview today”, they might follow it up by saying “7-9-13" (syv-ni-tretten) and three knocks on wood – one for each number.

Where does this superstition come from?

Science media Videnskab wrote in 2012 that the phrase is “a strange combination of lucky and unlucky numbers that were put together for a reason that no one knows by unknown people", but is a relatively new superstition which probably doesn't date further back than the early 20th century.


"The expression possibly came about because we know of the expression 'neither 7 or 9' from the mid-1800s, meaning 'neither lucky nor unlucky'. Back then, 7 was considered lucky and 9 unlucky," language researcher Ebba Hjorth said at the time.

The more universal 13 was possibly added later.

Small mythical creatures known as nisser (elves) are quite popular in Denmark, especially around Christmas time when they come to play tricks and eat your porridge. Nisser are taken seriously enough that funding was given in 2014 to a research project into 'under-earthlings' rumoured to inhabit the island of Bornholm.

Photo: Anne Bæk/Ritzau Scanpix

According to a 2008 Gallup survey, 37 percent of Danes believe in the existence of ghosts or spirits, although an Aarhus University report reached a figure of 14 percent more recently, in 2018. The latter figure means a smaller proportion of the population in Denmark believes in ghosts than in the UK or USA, where 40 and 37 percent respectively said they believed in supernatural beings in compared studies.

Around 30 percent of Danes told researchers from Aarhus University that they believe humans have souls or psychic "essences".

Perhaps reassuringly, a much smaller number -- 0.64 percent -- said they believe zombies exist.

In ancient Egypt, black cats were sacred and valued creatures, but by the Middle Ages, cats – and particularly black ones – were seen as accomplices of devils and witches.


Even today, in a modern society filled with people who go around watching cat videos on their phones, it’s considered bad luck if a black cat crosses one’s path. 

Denmark is no exception here, with as many as one in three reported to consider it a portent of ill fortune if they see such a feline on their way.

Charity Animal Protection Denmark has said that black cats usually spend longer at their shelters before finding a new home, suggesting the superstition really can influence people's decisions.

"It's a real shame that black cats are left at our shelters longer than other cats. They are lovely animals in just the same way as other animals," the charity's head of family pets Jens Jokumsen says on the organisation's website.

An earlier version of this article was first published in February 2015


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