Sneezing at the commencement of an undertaking, whether it be an important enterprise or the most commonplace act, has usually been accounted unlucky. Thus, according to a modern Teutonic belief, if a man sneeze on getting up in the morning, he should lie down again for another three hours, else his wife will be his master for a week. So likewise the pious Hindu, who may perchance sneeze while beginning his morning ablutions in the river Ganges, immediately recommences his prayers and toilet; and among the Alfoorans or aborigines of the island of Celebes in the Indian archipelago, if one happens to sneeze when about leaving a gathering of friends, he at once resumes his seat for a while before making another start.
When a native of the Banks Islands, in Polynesia, sneezes, he imagines that some one is calling his name, either with good or evil intent, the motive being shown by the character of the sneeze. Thus a gentle sneeze implies kindly feeling on the part of the person speaking of him, while a violent paroxysm indicates a malediction.
In the latter case he resorts to a peculiar form of divination in order to ascertain who it is that curses him. This consists in raising the arms above the head and revolving the closed fists one around the other. The revolution of the fists is the question, "Is it such an one?" Then the arms are thrown out, and the answer, presumably affirmative, is given by the cracking of the elbow-joints.
In Scotland even educated people have been known to maintain that idiots are incapable of sneezing, and hence, if this be true, the inference is clear that the act of sternutation is prima facie evidence of the possession of a certain degree of intelligence.
British nurses used to think that infants were under a fairy spell until they sneezed. "God sain the bairn," exclaimed an old Scotch nurse when her little charge sneezed at length, "it's no a warlock."
The Irish people also entertain similar beliefs. Thus in Lady Wilde's "Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland" (p. 41) is to be found the following description of a magical ceremony for the cure of a fairystricken child. A good fire is made, wherein is thrown a quantity of certain herbs prescribed by the fairy women; and after a thick smoke has risen, the child is carried thrice around the fire while an incantation is repeated and holy water is sprinkled about liberally. Meantime all doors must be closed, lest some inquisitive fairy enter and spy upon the proceedings; and the magical rites must be continued until the child sneezes three times, for this looses the spell, and the little one is permanently redeemed from the power of witches.
Among uncivilized peoples the sneeze of a young child has a certain mystic significance, and is intimately associated with its prospective welfare or ill-luck. When, therefore, a Maori infant sneezes, its mother immediately recites a long charm of words. If the sneeze occurs during a meal, it is thought to be prognostic of a visit, or of some interesting piece of news; whereas in Tonga it is deemed an evil token.
So, too, among the New Zealanders, if a child sneeze on the occasion of receiving its name, the officiating priest at once holds to its ear the wooden image of an idol and sings some mystic words.
In a note appended to his "Mountain Bard," the Ettrick Shepherd says, regarding the superstitions of Selkirkshire: "When they sneeze in first stepping out of bed in the morning, they are thence certified that strangers will be there in the course of the day, in numbers corresponding to the times they sneeze."
It was a Flemish belief that a sneeze during a conversation proved that what one said was the truth, a doctrine which must have commended itself to snuff-takers.
In Shetlandic and Welsh folk-lore the sneeze of a cat indicates cold north winds in summer and snow in winter; and the Bohemians have an alleged infallible test for recognizing the Devil, for they believe that he must perforce sneeze violently at sight of a cross.
According to a Chinese superstition a sneeze on New Year's Eve is ominous for the coming year; and, to offset this, the sneezer must visit three families of different surnames, and beg from each a small tortoise-shaped cake, which must be eaten before midnight.
In Turkistan, when a person to whom a remark is addressed sneezes, it is an asseveration that the opinion or statement is correct, just as if the person accosted were to exclaim, "That is true!" In the same country three sneezes are unlucky. When, also, any one hiccoughs, it is etiquette to say, "You stole something from me," and this phrase at such times is supposed to produce good luck.
The Japanese attach significance to the number of tunes a man sneezes. Thus, one sneeze indicates that some one is praising him, while two betoken censure or disparagement; a triple sneeze is commonplace, and means simply that a person has taken cold. In Mexico, also, it was formerly believed either that somebody was speaking evil of one who sneezed, or that he was being talked about by one or more persons.
Sussex people are prejudiced against cats which develop sneezing proclivities, for they believe that, when a pet feline sneezes thrice, it augurs ill for the health of the household, and is premonitory of influenza and bronchial affections.
In an interesting article in "Macmillan's Magazine," entitled "From the Note-book of a Country Doctor," a physician practicing in a remote part of Cornwall tells of a peculiar cure for deafness which recently came to his notice.
One of his patients, an elderly woman whose name was Grace Rickard, complained that she could no longer hear the grunting of her pigs, a sound which, from childhood, had roused her from sleep in the early morning. The doctor was obliged to tell her that the difficulty was due to advancing years.
A short time after, on calling at her house, he found her sitting before the fire with a piece of board in her lap, and deeply absorbed in thought. Just as the door opened, she exclaimed: "Lord, deliver me from my sins," and this petition was followed by a peculiar noise which sounded like an abortive sneeze. "Don't be frited, zur," she said, "'tes aunly a sneeze." "It's the oddest sneeze I ever heard," said the doctor; "why can't you sneeze in the ordinary way?" "So I do, when I can," she explained; "but now 'tes got up to nine times running, and wherever to get nine sneezes from is moor'n I knaw."
It appeared that Grace was making trial of an infallible cure for deafness, the necessary apparatus for which consisted of a piece of board and some stout pins. One of the latter is stuck into the board every morning, the patient's forefingers being crossed over the pin, while the pious ejaculation above mentioned is repeated simultaneously with a vigorous sneeze. On the next morning two pins must be stuck in the board, the petition and sneeze being once repeated; on the following morning three pins, three prayers, and three sneezes, and so on up to nine times.