The advance of modern physiology has all but killed the sneezing superstition, at least in civilised countries. Among peoples who have not emerged from savagery, or whose intellectual equipment, in spite of contact with superior races, is still meagre in the extreme, sneezing is an omen whose significance they dare not disallow. It might not be too much to say that there are white races who look upon the sneeze of a sick child as an omen. Even the Christian world at one time was a devout supporter of the sneezing superstition. Probably there are people living to-day who can remember the "God bless you," which was usually addressed to a person after a sneeze. The origin of the saying is found by some authorities in the fact that "violent sneezing was once an epidemic and mortal distemper from whence the custom took its rise. In one of Martial's epigrams we find the Romans had the same custom, and not improbably derived from the same reason." But the real origin lies in the doctrine of the soul as understood by primitive man. Some approach to this fact is attained in the translation by Sir Henry Ellis of a section from Garnier's History of France:--
"The year 750 is commonly reckoned the era of the custom of saying 'God bless you' to one who happens to sneeze. It is said that, in the time of the pontificate of St Gregory the Great, the air was filled with such a deleterious influence that they who sneezed immediately expired. On this the devout pontiff appointed a form of prayer, and a wish to be said to persons sneezing for averting them from the fatal effects of this malignancy. A fable contrived against all the rules of probability, it being certain that this custom has from time immemorial subsisted in all parts of the known world. According to mythology, the first sign of life Prometheus's artificial man gave was by sternutation. This supposed creator is said to have stolen a portion of the solar rays; and filling with them a phial, which he had made on purpose, sealed it up hermetically. He instantly flies back to his favourite automaton, and opening the phial, held it close to the statue; the rays, still retaining all their activity, insinuate themselves through the pores, and set the fictitious man a-sneezing. Prometheus, transported with the success of his machine, offers up a fervent prayer with wishes for the preservation of so singular a being. His automaton observed him, remembering his ejaculations, was very careful on the like occasions to offer these wishes in behalf of his descendants, who perpetuated it from father to son in all their colonies.
"The Rabbies, speaking of this custom, do likewise give it a very ancient date. They say that, not long after the Creation, God made a general decree that every man living should sneeze but once, and that at the very instant of his sneezing his soul should depart without any previous indisposition. Jacob by no means liked so precipitate a way of leaving the world, as being desirous of settling his family affairs and those of his conscience: he prostrated himself before the Lord, wrestled a second time with him, and earnestly entreated the favour of being excepted from the decree. His prayer was heard, and he sneezed without dying. All the Princes of the universe, being acquainted with the fact, unanimously ordered that, for the future, sneezing should be accompanied with thanksgivings for the preservation, and wishes for the prolongation, of life. We perceive, even in these fictions, the vestiges of tradition and history, which place the epocha of this civility long before that of Christianity. It was accounted very ancient even in the time of Aristotle, who, in his 'Problems,' has endeavoured to account for it, but knew nothing of its origin. According to him, the first men, prepossessed with the highest ideas concerning the head, as the principal seat of the soul, that intelligent substance governing and animating the whole human system, carried their respect even to sternutation, as the most manifest and most sensible operation of the head. Hence those several forms of compliments used on similar occasions amongst Greeks and Romans: Long may you live! May you enjoy health! Jupiter preserve you!"
But the true story of the sneezing superstition is told by Professor E. B. Tylor, who says:--
"In Asia and Europe the sneezing superstition extends through a wide range of race, age, and country. Among the passages relating to it in the classic ages of Greece and Rome, the following are some of the most characteristic: the lucky sneeze of Telemachus in the Odyssey; the soldier's sneeze and the shout of adoration to the god which rose along the ranks, and which Xenophon appealed to us a favourable omen; Aristotle's remark that people consider a sneeze as divine, but not a cough; the Greek epigram on the man with the long nose who did not say Zeu Soson when he sneezed, for the noise was too far off for him to hear; Petronius Arbiter's mention of the custom of saying 'Salve' to one who sneezed; and Pliny's question 'Cur sternutamentis salutamus?' a-propos of which he remarks that even Tiberius Caesar, that saddest of men, exacted this observance. Similar rites of sneezing have long been observed in Eastern Asia. When a Hindu sneezes, bystanders say 'Live!' and the sneezer replies, 'With you!' It is an ill omen to which among other things the Thugs paid great regard on starting an expedition, and which even compelled them to let the travellers with them escape." But this does not show us the real origin of the sneezing superstition; although it adequately shews the extent of its operations. Tylor traces the first beginnings of the habit in the savage idea of souls. "As a man's soul is considered to go in and out of his body, so it is with other spirits, particularly such as enter into patients and possess them or afflict them with disease. Among the less cultured races the connection of this idea with sneezing is best shewn among the Zulus, a people firmly persuaded that kindly or angry spirits of the dead hover about them in dreams, enter into them and cause disease in them. When a Zulu sneezes he will say, 'I am now blessed. The ldhlozi (ancestral spirit) is with me; it has come to me. Let me hasten and praise it, for it is it which causes me to sneeze.' So he praises the manes of his family, asking for cattle, and wives and blessings."
Thus from the far past, as seen in the customs of uncivilised races in the present, must we draw the solution of a curious superstition, one which, better perhaps than any other that could be mentioned, is a good illustration of the power of ignorance to create and foster a delusion. Even the great Aristotle indulged in the problem as to "why sneezing from noon to midnight was good, but from night to noon unlucky." If "the master of those who know" could be puzzled by a physiological simplicity, shall we be amazed at the extent of the sneezing superstition throughout the long centuries of pagan and Christian history?