With the season for colds and flu upon us, we're likely to be greeting more than one sneeze with the words "Bless you!" But if we think about it, it's a peculiar custom. After all, we don't bless people who cough, belch or hiccup, who trip or stub their toes. How did this tradition of blessing sneezers begin?
Various explanations have been suggested. One theory links the custom to an old belief that the heart stopped beating during a sneeze and needed a blessing to keep it pumping. In another popular account, the custom began even earlier, in A.D. 590, during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great. When a plague swept through Rome, the Pope supposedly called for a blessing on sneezers to protect them from serious illness.
But in fact, the custom is much older than that. Pre-Christian writers mentioned a Roman tradition of extending good wishes to sneezers. Pliny the Elder wrote that even the gloomy Tiberius Caesar insisted on this ritual. Typical Latin expressions were Salve (Be healthy!) or Tibi Jupiter adsit (May Jupiter preserve you!).
Meanwhile, the Greeks had the same custom. A Greek rhyme from the 1st century B.C. pokes fun at a long-nosed man who failed to recite the usual Zeu soson (May Zeus save me!) after sneezing. (Apparently, he couldn't hear the sneeze because his nostrils were so far away from his ears.) And hundreds of years before that, the Persian prophet Zoroaster recommended reciting a short prayer when someone sneezed.
As you can see, the practice of safeguarding sneezers was common even in ancient times. The most likely origin for this custom lies in the connection early peoples made between breath, life and spirit. Interestingly, many ancient languages have the same word for both breath and spirit (for example, atman in Sanskrit, ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek and spiritus in Latin). To "breathe one's last" at death was equated with breathing out one's spirit or life force. No doubt it seemed to early peoples that the spirit could also be expelled suddenly and violently through a sneeze. Calling upon divine protection would have been a tactic to preserve the spirit from harm and ensure its rapid return to the body.
Today we keep up the ancient custom of blessing sneezers out of tradition rather than superstition. For those who feel uncomfortable with a benediction, the German or Yiddish expression Gesundheit (Good health!) or the French À tes souhaits (May your wishes come true!) are possible alternatives to Bless you! But whether you offer wishes for health, blessings or divine protection, keep one thing in mind: this time-honoured custom is nothing to sneeze at!