The origin of the benediction after sneezing, a custom well-nigh universal, is involved in obscurity. A popular legend says that, before the time of Jacob, men sneezed but once, as the shock proved fatal. The patriarch, however, obtained by intercession a relaxation of this law, on condition that every sneeze should be consecrated by an ejaculatory prayer. According to a well-known myth of classical antiquity, Prometheus formed of clay the model of a man, and desiring to animate the lifeless figure, was borne to heaven by the Goddess Minerva, where he filled a reed with celestial fire stolen from a wheel of the Sun's chariot. Returning then to earth, he applied the magical reed to the nostrils of the image, which thereupon became a living man, and began its existence by sneezing. Prometheus, delighted with his success, uttered a fervent wish for the welfare of his newly formed creature. The latter thence forward always repeated aloud the same benediction whenever he heard any one sneeze, and enjoined upon his children the same practice, which was thus transmitted to succeeding generations.
Famianus Strada, the Italian Jesuit historian (1572-1649), in his "Prolusiones Academicae," relates that one day, when Cicero was present at a performance of the Roman opera, he began to sneeze, whereupon the entire audience, irrespective of rank, arose and with one accord cried out, "God bless you!" or, as the common phrase was, "May Jupiter be with thee!" Whereat three young men named Fannius, Fabalus, and Lemniscus, who were lounging in one of the boxes, began an animated discussion in regard to the antiquity of this custom, which all believed to have originated with Prometheus.
Even in the time of Aristotle, salutation after sneezing was considered an ancient custom; and references to it are to be found in the writings of Roman authors. Pliny narrates in his "Natural History" that the Emperor Tiberius Coesar, who was known as one of the most melancholy and unsociable of men, scrupulously exacted a benediction from his attendants whenever he sneezed, whether in his palace or while driving in his chariot; and Apuleius, the platonic philosopher of the second century, alludes to the subject in his story of "The Fuller's Wife."
Although the fact of the existence of this custom centuries before the Christian era is beyond cavil, yet a very general popular belief attributes its origin to a much later period. The Italian historian, Carlo Sigonio, voices this belief in his statement that the practice began in the sixth century, during the pontificate of Gregory the Great. At this period a virulent pestilence raged in Italy, which proved fatal to those who sneezed. The Pope, therefore, ordered prayers to be said against it, accompanied by certain signs of the cross. And the people were wont also to say to those who sneezed, "God help ye!" a revival of a custom dating back to prehistoric times.
Again, Jacobus de Voragine (1230-98) wrote as follows in the "Golden Legend," a popular religious work of the Middle Ages:--
For a right grete and grevous maladye: for as the Romayns had in the lenton lyved sobrely and in contynence, and after at Ester had receyvd theyr Savyour; after they disordered them in etyng, in drynkyng, in playes, and in lecherye. And therefore our Lord was meuyed ayenst them and sent them a grete pestelence, which was called the Botche of impedymye, and that was cruell and sodayne, and caused peple to dye in goyng by the waye, in pleying, in leeying atte table, and in spekyng one with another sodeynly they deyed. In this manere somtyme snesyng they deyed; so that whan any persone was herd snesyng, anone they that were by said to hym, God helpe you, or Cryst helpe, and yet endureth the custome. And also whan he sneseth or gapeth, bhe maketh to fore his face the signe of the crosse and blessith hym. And yet endureth this custome.
The Icelander, when he sneezes, says, "God help me!" and to another person who sneezes he says, "God help you!" In Icelandic tradition the custom dates from a remote period, when the Black Pest raged virulently in portions of the country, and the mortality therefrom was great. At length the scourge reached a certain farm where lived a brother and sister, and they observed that the members of the household who succumbed to the disease were first attacked by a violent paroxysm of sneezing; therefore they were wont to exclaim "God help me!" when they themselves sneezed.
Of all the inhabitants of that district, these two were the only ones who survived the pest, and hence the Icelanders, throughout succeeding generations, have continued the pious custom thus originated.
In mediaeval German poetry are to be found occasional references to this subject, as in the following passage quoted in Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology: The pagans durst not sneeze, even though one should say, 'God help thee.'" And in the same work allusion is made to a quaint bit of fairy-lore about enchanted sprites sneezing under a bridge, that some one may call out "God help," and undo the spell.
In the year 1542 the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, received a visit in Florida from a native chief named Guachoya, and during their interview the latter sneezed. Immediately his attendants arose and saluted him with respectful gestures, at the same time saying: "May the Sun guard thee, be with thee, enlighten thee, magnify thee, protect thee, favor thee," and other similar good wishes. And the Spaniards who were present were impressed by the fact that, in connection with sneezing, even more elaborate ceremonies were observed by savage tribes than those which obtained among civilized nations. And hence they reasoned that such observances were natural and instinctive with all mankind. We have the testimony of the earliest English explorers that the custom of salutation after sneezing was common in the remotest portions of Africa and in the far East. Speke and Grant were unable to discover any trace of religion among the natives of equatorial Africa, except in their practice of uttering an Arabic ejaculation or prayer whenever a person sneezed.
The Portuguese traveler, Godinho, wrote that whenever the emperor of Monomotapa sneezed, acclamations were universal throughout his realm; and in Guinea in the last century, whenever a person of rank sneezed, every one present knelt down, clapped their hands, and wished him every blessing. The courtiers of the king of Sennaar in Nubia are wont on the occasion of a royal sneeze to turn their backs on their sovereign while vigorously slapping the right hip. Among the Zulu tribes, sneezing is viewed as a favorable symptom in a sick person, and the natives are accustomed to return thanks after it. In Madagascar, when a child sneezes, its mother invokes the divine blessing, conformably to European usage; and in Persia the sneezer is the recipient of congratulations and good wishes.
In the "Zend-Avesta," or sacred writings of the Persian religion, is the injunction: "And whensoever it be that thou hearest a sneeze given by thy neighbor, thou shalt say unto him, Ahunavar Ashim- Vuhu, and so shall it be well with thee." In Egypt, if a man sneeze, he says, "Praise be to God!" and all present, with the exception of servants, rejoin, "God have mercy upon you!"
The Omahas, Dakotas, and other Sioux tribes of American Indians attach a peculiar importance to sneezing. Thus, if one of their number sneeze once, he believes that his name has been called either by his son, his wife, or some intimate friend. Hence he at once exclaims, "My son!" But if he sneeze twice, he says, "My son and his mother!"
In France the rules of etiquette formerly required that a gentleman who sneezed in the presence of another should take off his hat, and on the subsidence of the paroxysm he was expected formally to return the salutes of all present. The salutation of sneezers by removal of the hat was customary in England also. Joseph Hall, who was Bishop of Exeter in 1627, wrote that when a superstitious man sneezed he did not reckon among his friends those present who failed to uncover.
The Italians are wont to salute the sneezer with the ejaculation Viva, or Felicit; and it has been reasoned that the latter expression may have been sometimes employed under like circumstances by the ancient Romans, because an advertisement on the walls of Pompeii concludes by wishing the people Godspeed with the single word Felicitas!
So, too, in Ireland the sneezer is greeted with fervent benedictions, such as, "The blessing of God and the holy Mary be upon you!" for such invocations are thought to counteract the machinations of evil-disposed fairies.
The Siamese have a unique theory of their own on this subject. They believe that the Supreme Judge of the spiritual world is continually turning over the pages of a book containing an account of the life and doings of every human being; and when he comes to the page relating to any individual, the latter never fails to sneeze. In this way the Siamese endeavor to give a plausible reason for the prevalence of sneezing among men, and also for the accompanying salutation. In Siam and Laos the ordinary expression is, "May the judgment be favorable to you."
In the Netherlands a person who sneezes is believed thereby to place himself in the power of a witch, unless some one invokes a divine blessing; and such notions afford a plausible explanation of one theory of the origin of this custom.
Grimm (vol. iv. p. 1637) refers to a passage in the "Avadanas," or Buddhist parables, in which the rat is represented as wishing the cat joy when she sneezes. And in the department of Finistêre in northwest France, when a horse sneezes or coughs the people say, "May St. Eloy assist you!" St. Eloy was the guardian of farriers and the tutelar god of horses.
The natives of the Fiji Islands exclaim after a sneeze, "Mbula," that is, "May you live!" or "Health to you!" And the sneezer politely responds with "Mole," "Thanks." Formerly Fijian etiquette was yet more exacting and required the sneezer to add, "May you club some one!" or "May your wife have twins!"
A Spanish writer, Juan Cervera Bachiller, in his book "Creencias y superstitiones," Madrid, 1883, says that this widely diffused practice appears to have originated partly from religious motives and partly from gallantry, and that it is as obviously a relic of pagan times as are the various omens which have ever been associated with sneezing.
The apparently independent origin of the custom of salutation after sneezing among nations remote from each other, and its prevalence from time immemorial alike in the most cultured communities and among uncivilized races, have been thought to furnish striking evidence of the essential similarity of human minds, whatever their environment.