A few weeks ago I had shared a humourous poem about how sneezing was infectious in these days when the nasty Corona virus lurks in the air. Achoo is one of those little outbursts that in normal times do not elicit more than the auto response “Bless You”! But if one stopped to give it a second thought one would wonder why, of all things, would a person who sneezed need to be blessed?
Coincidentally, the history of how this practice began dates back to the time of another pandemic—the Plague. In fact the plague was not a one-time-in-history event. The deadly infectious disease swept across Europe several times, each wave wiping out huge numbers of people. Among the first symptoms of the plague were sneezing and coughing, which were soon followed by boils, fever, breathing trouble, vomiting blood, and necrosis of the skin tissue, causing the skin to turn black; and killing the patient within 7–10 days. Without any understanding of what caused this devastating condition, and with no proven cure, people relied on prayers, herbs and folk remedies.
It was during one of the plague pandemics in Europe, when the then Pope himself succumbed to the plague, that Pope Gregory I became the Pope. On February 16, 600 this Pope issued a papal edict ordering everyone within earshot of a sneeze to immediately recite a short, three-word prayer asking God for his blessing upon the unfortunate person. Pope Gregory hoped that if a sneezing person was bombarded with blessings, the collective prayers and good vibes would save the person from the full onset of the deadly disease. “God bless you” became a standard response to hearing a sneeze, and has remained so in many English speaking countries ever since.
Even before God Bless You was dictated as the response to a sneeze by a Papal Edict, the custom of invoking divine blessings after a sneeze predates this by several centuries. Most ancient cultures believed that sneezes were an omen or warning from God. Many believed that a sneeze sent a person’s soul hurling out of their body, and feared that in the brief period of being soulless, the sneezer’s mortal body was vulnerable to being invaded by the devil or evil spirits. Saying God Bless You was meant to keep away the evil spirits, and appealing to God to give the person their soul back. In later times it was believed that a person’s heart stops beating briefly when one sneezes and saying God Bless You helps it to get ticking again!
The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans believed that sneezing was a sign of the Gods revealing the future. A sneeze could be either a good omen or bad omen, bringing good luck or misfortune.
These were some of the predominant European beliefs about what was perceived as an unexplained physical outburst. But in all cultures around the world, there were, and continue to be, a variety of superstitions related to sneezing.
In England and Scotland it was believed that a new born baby was under the spell of fairies until it sneezed. The Polynesian people also treated a child’s sneeze with similarly mystical significance; in Tonga a child’s sneeze meant bad fortune for the family; but the Maori believed that a young child’s sneeze signified the prospects of a visit or a piece of interesting news.
Sailors also believed that a sneeze could foretell what the voyage would be like. If a sailor sneezed on the starboard side of the ship as the vessel departed, it would be a lucky voyage, but a port side sneeze meant that the ship would encounter bad weather.
In Polish culture, sneezing is believed to be an inauspicious sign. The belief is that when a person sneezes, their mother-in-law is talking ill of them. If the person who sneezes is unmarried, they may have a bad relationship with their mother-in-law once married. This superstition continues to be become a popular belief even today. But in Italian culture, it is considered lucky if a cat sneezes. If a bride hears a cat sneeze on her wedding day, it means she will have a happy marriage. But if a cat sneezes three times, the whole family will come down with a cold!
In some East Asian countries it is believed that if a person is being talked about behind their back, it causes them to sneeze loudly; the number of sneezes indicating what is being said about them (one sneeze good things, two sneezes bad things); three sneezes in a row is a sign that someone is in love with you or you may fall in love soon. Four or more sneezes mean a calamity will come upon the person or their family.
In China, folklore regarding sneezing has been passed on through generations. A book describing the rites and customs of the royal family during the Tang Dynasty records that the officials would shout “wan sui” (long live) whenever the Emperor’s mother sneezed. Today people in some parts of China still use that form of blessing.
Also, there is another, less common version that’s based on what time of the day you sneeze: from 1 to 3 am, indicates that you are missed; from 3-5 am, means you will receive an invitation for dinner from a member of the opposite sex; 5-7 am, you will soon make a fortune; 11am-1pm, you will have a friend visiting from afar. Quite a sneeze schedule to keep track of!
Some other cultures too have superstitions about timing: In some, it is considered good luck when a person sneezes between noon and midnight, while in certain cultures the same is considered a bad omen. Some believe that when two individuals sneeze at the same time, it is believed the Gods are happy and will bless people with good health. While some believe that when two or more people are having a conversation and one of them sneezes, it reveals truth in what was being said.
In most parts of India it is considered inauspicious to sneeze just before stepping out of the house for any work. It is customary to pause when you sneeze and drink a little water to break the jinx and avoid misfortune.
While the most common response to Achoo in the English language is “Bless You” most languages have their own responses which broadly have the similar sense of invoking blessings or good health. The ancient Romans had a word, salve, which meant “good health to you,” while the ancient Greeks used “long life” as their sneeze response. The Hebrew laBri’ut, the German gesundheit, the Spanish salud, the Irish slainte, the Russian bud’ zdorov, and the Arabic saha all translate to “health.” In many Indian languages also the response is equivalent to “live long”. In Islamic culture it is customary for the person that sneezes to say Al-hamdu- Lillah (“Praise be to God”), and his/her companions should utter the words Yarhamuk-Allaha (“May God have mercy on you”) to which the sneezer should respond with Yahdeekum Allah Wa Yuslihu Baalakum”(“May Allah guide you”).
That’s about responses to Achoo. But equally interesting is the word Achoo itself. In the English language it is an example of onomatopoeia which is a word that is formed from the sound associated with it. The first syllable mimics the quick intake of breath, while the second is the sound made the convulsive expulsion of air through the nose and mouth. This is the case in many languages: a sneeze sound in Russian can be Apchkhi; in Korean, Achee; in France, Achoum; in Japan, Hakashun; in Germany, Hatschi; in Turkey, Hapsu; in Portugal, Atchim, and in different Indian languages, varying from Hachhee to Aachee.
Today we know that physiologically a sneeze is described as a spasmodic, involuntary response due to the presence of foreign particles, an allergy, or cold. But at another level, an Achoo still involuntarily elicits the same response as it has done over the centuries–“Bless You!”