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Why do people say, "God bless you," when one sneezes?

Sneezing has been regarded as a sign of good luck or omen of evil since time out of mind, and the custom of bowing, saluting or saying something equivalent to "God bless you" when another sneezes was observed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It has been suggested that the custom arose from the fancied resemblance of the sound of an unrestrained sneeze to "God bless you," but the theory is untenable, because the ancients upon such occasions used exclamatory phrases similar in meaning but entirely different in sound. Carolus Sigonius, in his history of Italy, says a sneeze was invariably a crisis symptom when a pestilence swept the country in the time of Gregory the Great, and some writers inferred from this that the pope enjoined the people to pronounce a blessing when any person sneezed. But Aristotle mentions the custom, and ancient historians tell us that sneezing was a mortal sign during the great plague that depopulated. Athens. That sneezing is a supernatural sign has been believed at one time or another by nearly all peoples. Many of the ancients re­garded the breath and the soul as identical and it may be that they supposed a violent sneeze to indicate that the soul was about to depart [page 70] from the body. Homer's Odyssey contains the following: "As she spoke Telemachus sneezed so loudly that the whole house resounded with it. Penelope laughed when she heard this, and said to Eumaeus, 'Go and call the stranger; did you not hear how my son sneezed just as I was speaking? This can only mean that all the suitors are going to be killed, and that not one of them shall escape.'" Both the Greeks and Romans considered a sneezing on the right side a lucky sign and a sneezing on the left an evil omen. In his life of Diogenes, Diogenes Laertius says: "When a man that was excessively superstitious said unto him, 'I will cleave thy head in two at a blow,' he said, 'But I will sneeze on the left and make thee tremble.'" Plutarch tells us that when Themistocles sacrificed on board his galley before engaging Xerxes in battle a sneezing was heard from the right and the soothsayer from this presaged the victory of the Greeks over the Persians. The superstitions connected with sneezing were elaborate in those days. A Greek would go back to bed if he heard somebody sneeze while he was dressing in the morning, and there is record Of an Athenian navigator who abandoned a voyage because a boatman sneezed as they were weighing anchor. Aristotle refers to a belief that sneezing between noon and midnight was a lucky sign, while it was unlucky to sneeze between night and noon. The Roman emperor Tiberius, it is recorded, was very punctual in saying Absit omen when another sneezed and he insisted that others perform the same rite for him. Petronius, Apuleius and other early writers allude to this custom. "Sneezing will stop a hiccup," wrote Hippocrates 400 years B.C. According to rabbinical legend, sneezing was a sign of death from the time of Adam until the curse was taken from it as the result of a special supplication of Jacob and on condition that in all nations every sneeze should be hallowed by the words "God bless you." When the Spaniards first visited the aborigines of Florida a chief sneezed and every native with him lifted up his hands and implored the sun to avert the calamity that the sign portended. An old English translation of the Golden Legend, the lives of saints compiled in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine, contains the following quaint passage about a pestilence in Rome: "In this manner some snesynge they deyed; soo when ony person was hered snesinge, among they yt were by sayd to him, God helpe you, or Cryst helpe you; and yet endureth the custome. And also whan he snesyth or gapeth, he maketh before his face the signe of the cross, and blysseth hym, and yet endureth this custome." We still say of something that should be taken seriously that it is "not to be sneezed at." Gesundheit (ge-ZOONT-hite) [page 71] is a German word meaning (to your) health, and is often used as an ejaculation when one has just sneezed. When a Hindu sneezes he says, "Live," and expects the reply, "With you" or "May you live," a practice antedating Buddha, who lived in the sixth century B.C. The following passage occurs in the sacred writings of the Buddhists:

One day Buddha, while seated in the midst of a large congregation of disciples to whom he was preaching the law, chanced to sneeze. Thereupon the priests, exclaiming, "May the blessed Lord live; may the Welcome One live," made a loud noise and seriously interrupted the discourse. Accordingly, Buddha addressed them as follows: "Tell me, priests, when a person sneezes, if the bystanders say, 'May you live,' will he live the longer, or die the sooner for it?" "Certainly not, Lord." "Then, priests, if anyone sneezes you are not to say to him, 'May you live'; and if any of you shall say it, let him be guilty of a transgression." From that time forth, when the priests sneezed, and the bystanders exclaimed, "May you live, sirs," the priests, fearful of transgression, held their peace. People took offense at this. "What," said they, "do these priestly sons of Sakya mean by not uttering a word when we say, 'May you live sirs'?" The matter came to Buddha's ears. "Priests," he said, "the laity are the cornerstone of the church; when laymen say, 'May you live, sirs,' I give my sanction to your replying, 'Long life to you.'"

Sneeze is of echoic origin and in its original form was an attempt to describe the sound made by sneezing, which is a sudden, involuntary expulsion of breath through the nose and mouth, generally caused by the inhalation of dust or other particles that irritate the nasal branches of certain cranial nerves. The irritation that causes the rebel action known as sneezing may also be produced by excessive wax in the ear and there have been cases of persons' having their hearing improved after sneezing. A sneeze may be sufficiently violent to crack the ribs.