“Gesundheit,” say Germans; “Felicità,” say Italians; and the Welsh have to say “dduw bendithia chi” whilst the Arabs clasp hands and reverently bow. Every culture believes in a benediction following a sneeze. The custom goes back to a time when a sneeze was regarded as a sign of great personal danger. For centuries, man believed that life’s essence, the soul, resided in the head and that a sneeze could accidentally expel the vital force. This suspicion was reinforced by the deathbed sneezing of the sick. Every effort was made to hold back a sneeze, and an inadvertent or unsuppressed sneeze was greeted with immediate good luck chants.
Enlightenment arrived in the fourth century B.C. with the teachings of Aristotle and Hippocrates, the “father of medicine.” Both Greek scholars explained sneezing as the head’s reaction to a foreign or offensive substance that crept into the nostrils. They observed that sneezing, when associated with existing illness, often foretold death. For these ill-boding sneezes, they recommended such benedictions as “Long may you live!” “May you enjoy good health!” and “Jupiter preserve you!” About a hundred years later, Roman physicians extrapolated the lore and superstition surrounding a sneeze. The Romans preached the view that sneezing, by an otherwise healthy individual, was the body’s attempt to expel the sinister spirits of later illnesses. Thus, to withhold a sneeze was to incubate disease, to invite debility and death. Consequently, a vogue of sneezing swept the Roman Empire and engendered a host of new post-sneeze benedictions: “Congratulations” to a person having robustly executed a sneeze; and to a person quavering on the verge of an exhalation, the encouraging “Good luck to you.” The Christian expression “ Bless you” has a still different origin. It began by papal fiat in the sixth century, during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great. A virulent pestilence raged throughout Italy, one foreboding symptom being severe, chronic sneezing. So deadly was the plague that people died shortly after manifesting its symptoms; thus, sneezing became synonymous with imminent death. Pope Gregory beseeched the healthy to pray for the sick. He also ordered that well intended phrases such as “May you enjoy good health” be replaced with his own more urgent and pointed invocation, “God bless you!” And if no well-wisher was around to invoke the blessing, the sneezer was advised to shout, “God help me!”
Pope Gregory’s post-sneeze supplications spread throughout Europe, hand in hand with the plague, and the seriousness with which a sneeze was regarded was captured in a new expression, which survives to this day: “Not to be sneezed at.” Which so is something not to be rejected without careful consideration.