Where in the world did we get the custom of saying ‘bless you’ or ‘gesundheit’ every time someone sneezes?
Bless me doctor, for I have sneezed
Ahhhh… CHOO! “Bless you.”
It’s just automatic, isn’t it? Someone sneezes and we say “bless you” almost immediately. Some people even consider it rude to not say it after a sneeze. But how many people ever stop and wonder where this custom came from?
The blessed truth
Numerous sources indicate the practice dated at least as far back as 77 A.D. According to this analysis of writings of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, the ancient Latins said “salvere jusserunt,” or “save you” after a sneeze, which was generally believed to have come about due to some disease which was invariably fatal.
On the other hand, according to the Odyssey, sneezing was considered an auspicious omen as seen in this passage:
She spoke — Telemachus then sneez’d aloud;
Constrain’d, his nostrils echoed through the crowd;
The smiling queen the happy omen bless’d;
So may these impious fall by fate oppress’d.
In this context, the blessing is not in response to the sneeze — the sneeze itself is the portent of a blessing to come.
More about the origins of blessings & gesundheit
Our friends at ClickAmericana.com helped us find more insight into why people commonly bless you after a sneeze. This information came from an ols article by Dr Howard Harper, as published in The Paducah Sun (Paducah, Kentucky) back on February 19, 1965.
Harper said that the custom of saying “God bless you” is sometimes said to have started during an epidemic in Rome in the sixth century. A sneeze was usually the first sign a victim got when the plague came upon him.
The “God bless you” was a prayer for his health — his friends were asking that God prevent any further development of the horrible illness.
Although this story makes sense, it is known that a sneeze was regarded with considerable alarm long before the epidemic in Rome. A thousand years earlier, the Greeks, who used the same word for both breath and soul, did not look lightly upon such a violent expulsion of breath. A man might be sneezing a large part of his spirit away.
But even before the Greeks, primitive peoples, with their belief in evil spirits, took sneezing very seriously. It was usually thought to mean that a demon was trying to get into the body. There was general agreement that spirits come and go through the nose. But a sneeze might also be a good omen — maybe a devil was trying to get out.
In all cases, from the primitive days right down to the present, it has been customary for friends who happen to be present when the sneeze occurs to extend good wishes of some sort to the sneezer.
This is what “gesundheit” is about. In German, it literally means “may you be in a condition of good health,” and it enables the fastidious to avoid using the name of God.
Old myths and sayings about sneezes
— A newborn baby is in the spell of the fairies until it sneezes, after which it is safe.
— If you sneeze before breakfast, you will receive a present within a week.
— When a ship is putting out to sea, if a sailor on the starboard side sneezes, the voyage will be lucky; but if one on the port side does so, the weather will be foul.
— If you sneeze at a meal, you will hear of a death.
— It is bad luck to sneeze while putting on your shoes.
— It is bad luck to sneeze at the threshold of a house.
— If you sneeze during a conversation, it is a sure sign the last thing you said was true.
— A rhyme about sneezing: Sneeze on a Monday, sneeze for danger. Sneeze on a Tuesday, kiss a stranger. Sneeze on a Wednesday, get a letter. Sneeze on a Thursday, something better. Sneeze on a Friday, sneeze for sorrow. Saturday — see your true love tomorrow. No line is given for Sunday.
It must be remembered that all the signs and omens apply only to a completely unexpected and uninduced sneeze, Harper said. Sneezes that come from a cold in the head or a whiff of pepper don’t count.