“Apropos to sneezing, it is a question which has long tormented the wits of antiquaries, whence came the custom of saying “God bless you!” to one who sneezes. Many 361 writers ascribe it to an ordinance of Pope St. Gregory, at whose time the air was so pestilential that they who sneezed instantly expired. On this the pontiff, it is said, instituted a short benediction to be pronounced on such persons, to save them from the fatal effects of this malignancy. The Rabbins, however, declare that before Jacob men sneezed but once in a lifetime, and then immediately died; and that the memory of this was ordered to be preserved in all nations, by a command of every prince to his subjects to employ some salutary exclamation after the act of sternutation. Whatever the origin of the custom, it has prevailed among all nations, and was found to exist even in the New World, on its first discovery by the Spaniards. Among the ancients, the distinctions made about sneezing raised it to an art; for while it was unlucky in the afternoon, or when men were clearing away food, or if it occurred three times, or more than four, or on the left-hand side, — if it occurred among persons in deliberation, or two or four times, or in the morning, or on the right-hand side, it was accounted a lucky omen. We are told that Themistocles, by a judicious sneeze on his right-hand side, persuaded his soldiers to fight, and Xenophon, by a similar act in the middle of a speech, was elected General. On another occasion, a sneeze from a linesman just before a battle was considered so ominous that public prayers were deemed necessary in consequence.
An old writer says that the ancients were accustomed to go to bed again, if they sneezed while putting on their shoes. Catullus, in one of his charming poems, makes Cupid sneeze his approbation of two lovers. When the King of Mesopotamia sneezes, he is greeted with shouts in the ante-chamber, shouts in the palace-yard, and 362 shouts in the city streets, echoed and reverberated by a thousand loyal voices. Supposing his majesty to be an inveterate snuff-taker, what horrid cries must rend the air of his capital “from morn till dewy eve”! According to mythology, the first sign of life given by Prometheus’s artificial man was a sneeze, caused by the solar rays stealing through his pores. The Siamese wish long life to persons sneezing. The reason, according to Brande, is, they believe that when one of the judges of hell opens the register in which the duration of men’s lives is written, and looks upon any particular leaf, all those whose names chance to be entered on it never fail to sneeze immediately. In Vienna, if one sneezes in a café, the bystanders will doff their hats, and say “God be with you!” The lower class of modern Romans greet a sneezer with the salutation, “May you have male children!” Milton says that earthquakes,
“— though mortals fear them
As dangerous to the pillared frame of heaven,
Or to the earth’s dark basis underneath.
Are to the main as inconsiderable
And harmless, if not wholesome, as a sneeze
To man’s less universe, and soon are gone.”
Perhaps the most terrific sneeze on record is that described by Martelli, an Italian writer, in his Bambociata, or Sneezing of Hercules, a marionette farce, from which Swift borrowed the idea of his Voyage to Laputa. In this piece Hercules is represented as reaching the land of the Pigmies, who, alarmed at the sight of what seems a living mountain, hide themselves in caves. One day, as Hercules is sleeping in the open fields, the Pigmies venture forth from their hiding places, and, armed with boughs and thorns, mount the sleeping monster, and 363 cover him from head to foot like flies covering a piece of raw meat. Hercules awakes, and, feeling something tickling his nose, sneezes. His enemies are routed, “horse, foot, and dragoons,” and tumble precipitately from his sides, — when the curtain falls, and the piece ends.”
1 For the whole essay, also on this site, see “A Pinch of Snuff,” in Hours With Men and Books, by William Mathews.