Sacred Texts  Misc Texts  Index  Previous  Next 


THE ancient Egyptians regarded the head as a citadel or fortress in which the reasoning faculty abode. Hence they especially revered any function seemingly appertaining to so noble a portion of the body, and dignified even the insignificant act of sneezing by attributing to it auguries for good or evil, according to the position of the moon with reference to the signs of the zodiac. The Greeks and Romans also, by whom the most trivial occurrences of every-day life were thought to be omens of good fortune or the reverse, considered the phenomena of sneezing as not the least important in this regard. Homer tells us in the Odyssey that the Princess Penelope, troubled by the importunities of her suitors, prayed to the gods for the speedy return of her husband Ulysses. Scarcely was her prayer ended when her son Telemachus sneezed, and this event was regarded by Penelope as an intimation that her petition would be granted.

Aristotle said that there was a god of sneezing, and that when in Greece any business enterprise was to be undertaken, two or four sneezes were thought to be favorable. If more than four, the auspices were indifferent, while one or three rendered it hazardous to proceed. About this, however, there appears to have been no unvarying rule. Sneezing at a banquet was considered by the Romans to be especially ominous; and when it unfortunately occurred, some of the viands were brought back to the table and again tasted, as this was thought to counteract any evil effects. The Greeks considered that the brain controlled the function of sneezing. They were therefore as careful to avoid eating this portion of any animal as the Pythagoreans were to avoid beans as an article of diet.

It is related that just before the battle of Salamis, B.C. 480, and while Themistocles, the Athenian commander, was offering a sacrifice to the gods on the deck of his galley, a sneeze was heard on the right hand, which was hailed as a fortunate omen by Euphrantides the Soothsayer. Again, it happened once that while Xenophon was addressing his soldiers, referring to the righteousness of their cause and the consequent divine favor which might be expected, some one chanced to sneeze. Pausing in his address, the great general remarked that Jupiter had been pleased to send them a happy omen, and it seemed therefore but right to make an offering to the gods. Then, after all the company had joined in a hymn of thanksgiving, the sacrifice was made, and Xenophon continued with his exhortation.

Among the ancients sneezing to the right was considered fortunate and to the left unlucky. In some erotic verses with the title "Acme and Septimius," by the Roman poet, Catullus (B.C. 87-47), are these lines, twice repeated:--

Love stood listening with delight,
And sneezed his auspice on the right.

The omens of sneezing were thought to be of especial significance in lovers' affairs, and indeed the classic poets were wont to say of beautiful women that Love had sneezed at their birth. The Italian poet, Propertius, while asserting his enduring affection for Cynthia, the daughter of the poet Hostius, thus apostrophizes the chief theme of his eulogies: "In thy new-born days, my life, did golden Love sneeze loud and clear a favoring omen."

The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans regarded the act of sneezing as a kind of divinity or oracle, which warned them on various occasions as to the course they should pursue, and also foretold future good or evil.

Plutarch said that the familiar spirit or demon of Socrates was simply the sneezing either of the philosopher himself or of those about him. If any person in his company sneezed on his right hand, Socrates felt encouraged to proceed with the project or enterprise which he may have had in mind. But if the sneeze were on his left hand, he abandoned the undertaking. If he himself sneezed when he was doubtful whether or not to do anything, he regarded it as evidence in the affirmative; but if he happened to sneeze after any work was already entered upon, he immediately desisted therefrom. The demon, we are told, always notified him by a slight sneeze whenever his wife Xantippe was about to have a scolding fit, so that he was thus enabled opportunely to absent himself. And in so doing Socrates appears to have given proof, were any needed, of his superior wisdom; for Xantippe had been known to upset the supper-table in her anger, and that, too, when a guest was present.

On a column in the garden of the House of the Faun, at Pompeii, there is a Latin inscription which may be freely translated as follows:--

Victoria, good luck to thee and wherever thou wilt, sneeze pleasantly.

Clement of Alexandria, in a treatise on politeness, characterizes sneezing as effeminate and as a sign of intemperance.

Probably the only Biblical reference to the subject of sneezing is in 2 Kings iv. 35, where the son of the Shunamite sneezed seven times and then revived at the prayer of Elisha.

Hor-Apollo, in his treatise on Egyptian hieroglyphics, says that the inhabitants of ancient Egypt believed that the capacity for sneezing was in inverse ratio to the size of the spleen; and they portrayed the dog as the personification of sneezing and smelling, because they believed that that animal had a very small spleen. On the other hand, they held that animals with large spleens were unable to sneeze, smell, or laugh, that is, to be open, blithe, or frank-hearted.

The function of the spleen in the animal economy is not fully understood to-day. If the above theory were correct, we should expect that the removal of a dog's spleen would incite excessive sternutation and render more acute the sense of smell, whereas the only marked result of the operation is a voracious appetite. The theory is certainly unique, as well as illogical and absurd.

St. Augustine wrote that, in his time, so prevalent was faith in the omens of sneezing that a man would return to bed if he happened to sneeze while putting on his shoes in the morning.

The learned English prelate, Alcuin (735-804), expressed the opinion that sneezings were devoid of value as auguries except to those who placed reliance in them. But he further remarked that "it was permitted to the evil spirit, for the deceiving of persons who observe these things, to cause that in some degree prognostics should often foretell the truth."

In an ancient Anolo-Saxon sermon a copy of which is in the library of Cambridge University, England, reference is made to certain superstitions existing among the Saxons before their conversion to Christianity. The writer says: " Every one who trusts in divinations, either by fowls or by sneezings, or by horses or dogs, he is no Christian, but a notorious apostate."

Next: II. Mediaeval Beliefs About Sneezing