The common refrain “Bless you!” after someone sneezes is so ingrained in many cultures that we rarely stop to think about its origins. The practice of uttering a benediction to a sneezer dates back centuries, and its roots can be traced to a myriad of beliefs and superstitions. In this article, we will delve into the history and reasons behind this courteous response.
The custom of blessing a sneezer can be traced back to ancient civilizations. The Romans would say “Jupiter preserve you” or simply “Salve,” which means “good health.” The Greeks similarly had a response, expressing wishes of good health to the sneezer.
1. Exorcising Evil Spirits
One of the earliest beliefs surrounding sneezing was that it was a method of expelling evil spirits from the body. By saying “Bless you,” it was thought that one could protect the sneezer from the evil spirits that might want to re-enter the body in that brief moment after the sneeze.
2. The Plague and Fears of Illness
Fast forward to the Middle Ages, sneezing was often seen as an ominous sign, especially during the time of the bubonic plague in Europe. As sneezing could be an early symptom of the plague, saying “God bless you” was a short prayer on behalf of the sneezer, asking for divine protection against the deadly illness.
3. The Soul’s Escape
Another ancient belief was that the soul could momentarily escape from the body during a sneeze due to the sneeze’s forceful nature. In this context, saying “Bless you” acted as a protective shield, ensuring the soul’s safe return to its corporeal home.
4. Heart-Stopping Myth
There’s a long-standing, albeit incorrect, myth that the heart stops briefly during a sneeze. In response to this belief, “Bless you” served as a congratulation to the sneezer for surviving this mini-brush with death, or as a plea for divine intervention to keep the heart beating.
While most of the ancient beliefs surrounding sneezing are no longer prevalent, the custom of saying “Bless you” endures. For many, it’s simply a polite gesture, a form of social etiquette that has been passed down through generations.
In some cultures, the response to a sneeze varies. For instance, in Arabic, the phrase is “Alhamdulillah,” meaning “Praise be to God.” In many parts of India, after sneezing, it’s customary to say “Shukriya” or “Dhanyawaad,” both of which mean “Thank you,” acknowledging the concern shown by the person who just blessed them.