Perhaps it’s the specter of swine flu or perhaps it’s the onset of the autumnal allergy season, but sneezing is unmistakably prevalent. While meeting with one of my students this past week, I was asked why people said “God bless you” after someone sneezed. Immediately my mind went back to the explanation I’d learned in some history class that superstitious folk in less enlightened times supposed that your soul flew out your nose and mouth during a sneeze and wished to ensure a safe transition of a person’s spirit back inside. Others trace the phrase to the period of an early plague when Pope Gregory had Kyries sung at sneezes to prevent the spread of disease (although plague was not really characterized by sternutation as much as buboes). Still others continue the myth that one’s heart stops during a sneeze and the comment is simply a verbal defibrillator of sorts.
In my mind a cough is much more sinister than a sneeze, but we have no standard verbal accompaniment to coughs. The same is true for hiccups, belches, or, God forbid, something even worse. How does the humble sneeze achieve a status so as to invoke the divine? Soul-spewing aside, sneezes are naturally violent events. Some medical experts clock dramatic sneezes at up to 650 m.p.h., inciting the question of how we might harness such energy. Unlike coughs, hiccups, burps, or — ahem — other expulsions, the sneeze solely involves the respiratory tract. In the ancient world breathing is life. The standard measure for viability in the Hebrew Bible is not a beating heart or even a functioning brain (a relief to many Republicans), but breath. Those who do not breathe do not live. The sudden loss of breath via a sneeze could be cause for alarm.
The humble sneeze is even mentioned in the Bible, although the “God bless you” part is not. In 2 Kings 4.35 Elisha, emulating his master Elijah, revives a dead child. Significantly, when the child reanimates, he sneezes seven times. He is breathing, but not yet out of danger. In ancient Greece it was supposed that sneezes were messages from the gods, a kind of Hellenistic “Amen!” to eloquent rhetoric to which the gods just couldn’t hold their applause. No one knows just when “God bless you” was attached to the sneeze, but it is difficult for those accustomed to remark on sternutation to hold still. Even in classes of 70 students or more, a sneeze out there in the audience is always followed by a “bless you” from across the room. Whether it is a message from God or a harbinger of H1N1 I’m just not sure.