The natural instinct of the untutored savage is to regard the act of sneezing as the manifestation of an attack by a demon. Certain African tribes, for instance, are said to believe that whoever sneezes is possessed of an evil spirit, to whose malicious agency is due the violence of the paroxysm and its utter disregard of times and seasons.
Dr. Edward B. Tylor, in his "Primitive Culture" (vol. i. p. 97), asserts that the Zulus have faith in the agency of kindly spirits as well, and says that, when one of these people sneezes, he is wont to exclaim: "I am now blessed; the ancestral spirit is with me. Let me hasten and praise it, for it is that which causes me to sneeze." Thereupon he praises the spirits of the dead, and asks for various blessings. But among most uncivilized peoples sneezing is placed in the category of paroxysmal diseases, and reckoned to be of demoniac origin.
Inasmuch as sneezing is often one symptom of an incipient cold, which is a physical ailment, and as among savage tribes every physical ailment is regarded as a case of demoniacal possession, the use of charms and exorcisms to counteract the efforts of the evil spirits seems a natural expedient.
When an American Indian falls sick, he believes his illness to be the work of some spiteful demon. Therefore, when he gets well, he changes his name, so that the demon may not be able to recognize him again.
The chief aim of the medicine-man, in treating a patient, is the expulsion of the evil spirit; and this is the prime object of the various superstitious ceremonies and incantations which are a prominent feature in medical practice among savages. The medicine-man strives to drive away the demon by frightful sounds and gesticulations, and by hideous grimaces and contortions. Sometimes he makes a small image typifying the spirit of sickness, and this image is then maliciously broken in pieces.
The natives of West Africa believe that the mere mention of unpleasant names suffices to frighten away the demons who cause sickness; and these spirits may moreover be deceived by simply changing the name of a sick child. In the province of Tonquin, a French possession in southeastern Asia, hateful names given to ailing children are likewise thought to terrify the evil spirits; but when the little patients are convalescent, pleasanter names are substituted.
The Indians of Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, attribute physical ailments either to the absence or irregular conduct of the soul, or to the agency of spirits, and medical practice is governed accordingly; therefore the Okanogons of the State of Washington subject patients affected with serious illnesses to the magical treatment of the medicine-man.
The islanders of the South Pacific have their own doctrine about the philosophy of sneezing. They believe that, when the spirit goes traveling about, its return naturally occasions some commotion, as is evident from the violent act of sneezing. They therefore deem it proper to welcome back the wandering spirit, the form of greeting varying in the different islands. The phrase employed by the natives of Raratonga, for example, means "Ha! you have come back!"
The "Sadda," one of the sacred books of the Parsees, counsels the faithful to have recourse to prayer when they sneeze, because at that critical moment the demon is especially active.
The Parsees regard sneezing as a manifestation that the evil spirits, who are constantly seeking to enter the body, have been forcibly expelled by the interior fire which, in their belief, animates every human being. When, therefore, a Parsee hears any one sneeze, he exclaims, "Blessed be Ormuzd!" thus praising his chief deity. The Parsees are forbidden to talk while eating, because at such times demons are on the alert, watching for opportunities to gain admission to the body through the mouth while a person is engaged in conversation.
Pious Brahmins are careful to touch the right ear when they happen to sneeze either during the performance of a religious ceremony or at certain other times specified in the "Shastra," or holy books of the Hindus. Evil spirits were believed to enter the body through the ears, as well as by the nose or mouth, and the object of touching the ear was to prevent their gaining admission there.
In reference to this subject, Gerald Massey says, in the "Natural Genesis" (vol. i. pp. 83-80-):--
Sneezing is not only a vigorous form of breathing, but it is involuntary; hence inspired, or of extraordinary origin. A hearty sneeze, when one is ill and faint, would imply a sudden accession of the breathing power, which was inwardly inspiring and outwardly expelling. The good spirit enters and the bad spirit departs, cast out by the sudden impulsion. The expulsion and repudiation implied in sneezing is yet glanced at in the saying that such a thing is "not to be sneezed at."
The natives of Turkistan consider yawning to be a reprehensible act, originating from an evil place in one's heart, and indicative of a state of preparedness for the reception of demons. When, therefore, they yawn, the hand is placed, palm outwards, before the open mouth, thus barring out the demons.
The once popular opinion, which is still met with today, that the efficacy of a medicine is proportionate to its harshness of flavor, is probably a relic of the ancient theory which attributed illnesses to possession by evil spirits. When one's body was believed to be the abode of such a spirit, the natural desire was to drive out the unwelcome visitor, and to force him to seek some other habitation. Nowadays we have so far abandoned this theory that, while we may have faith in the virtues of bitter herbs, we are ready to welcome also the palatable remedies of the modern pharmacopoeia; but until comparatively recent times the science of therapeutics was dominated by superstition, and physicians prescribed remedies composed of the most repulsive and uncanny ingredients.
In Tibet antiseptics are employed in surgical operations, the rationale of their use in that country being the preservation of the wound from evil spirits; and when smallpox rages in the neighborhood of the city of Leh, capital of the province of Ladakh, the country people seek to ward off the epidemic by placing thorns on their bridges and at their boundary lines. This practice is strikingly analogous in principle to some of the superstitious uses of iron and steel in the form of sharp instruments, of which mention has been made elsewhere in this volume.
The aboriginal Tibetans ascribe illnesses to the spite of demons, and hence a chief object of their religious rites is the pacification of these malignant beings by the sacrifice of a cow, pig, goat, or other animal.
Throughout Christendom it is customary for those present to invoke the divine blessing upon a person who sneezes, and the Moslem, under like circumstances, prays to Allah for aid against the powers of evil. In either case the underlying idea appears to be the same, namely, the doctrine of invading spirits.
In ancient Egypt illnesses were thought to be caused by demons who had somehow entered the patient's body and taken up their abode there; and the Chaldean physicians, actuated by the same belief, were wont to prescribe the most nauseating medicines in order to thoroughly disgust the demon in possession, and thus enforce his departure.
This doctrine of spiritual possession was formerly even supposed to be warranted by Scripture, and especially by a verse of the 141st Psalm: "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips." This passage was interpreted as an entreaty for preservation from evil spirits, who were likely to enter the body through the mouth, especially during the acts of yawning, sneezing, talking, and eating. The Hindus consider yawning as dangerous for this reason, and hence the practice of mouth-washing, which is a part of their daily ritual. Hence also their custom of cracking their fingers and exclaiming "Great God!" after yawning, to intimidate the Bhuts, or malignant spirits. Sneezing is usually accounted lucky in India, except at the commencement of an undertaking, because it means the expulsion of a Bhutt.
Josephus relates having seen a Jew named Eleazar exorcise devils from people who were possessed, in the presence of the Emperor Vespasian and many of his soldiers. His mode of procedure consisted in applying to the demoniacs nose a ring containing a piece of the root of a magical herb, and then withdrawing the evil spirit through the nostrils, meanwhile repeating certain incantations originally composed by Solomon.