The development of sneezing superstitions came about due to early man’s belief that his breath was representative of his own soul. Breathing in was breathing in life. Sneezing was a swift release of that essence or soul. If the soul left the body through a sneeze, it was presumed the individual would die without his soul. The mysteries and superstitions surrounding sneezing most probably continued on from this point.
Although you may think it is merely the polite thing to do, blessing people after they sneeze is actually a very common superstition and is practiced all over the world. It is believed that saying “God Bless You” dates back to February 16, 590AD, when pope Gregory the Great decreed that prayers be said to fight against a deadly plague in Italy. This plague seemed to be fatal to those who sneezed. So it followed that the sneeze represented certain illness and using “God Bless You” would protect people from the effects of the disease.
Saying “God Bless You,” is also believed to date back to 1665, when the black plague took over Europe. Violent sneezing was noted to be one of the end-stage symptoms of it before death. Thus, the pope made it a law that anyone who sneezed must be blessed, as the individual’s death was imminent. During that same era, everyone was mandated to cover their mouths with their hand or a cloth, so as not to further spread the disease.
There are other superstitions surrounding sneezing. When someone sneezed, it was either a sign of good fortune or an omen of bad luck. This dates back to the early Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. They believed that a sneeze was their own personal prophet, forewarning them of danger and forecasting future good and evil. Additionally, one would be congratulated upon sneezing because the evil spirits were freed from embodiment. It was also believed at that time that a sneeze during a conversation revealed the truth of a statement. Even today, you may hear somebody say, “I sneezed on the truth.”
In 17th century England, if a sneeze was heard, it was customary for all who were nearby to remove their hats, curtsy or bow and wish “God Bless You.” As time went on, in the 1800’s in England, a rhyme was penned that described the out comes of sneezing on the various days in the week:
Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger.
Sneeze on Tuesday, kiss a stranger.
Sneeze on Wednesday, sneeze for a letter.
Sneeze on Thursday, something better.
Sneeze on Friday, sneeze for woe.
Sneeze on Saturday, a journey to go.
Sneeze on Sunday, your safety seek — for Satan will have you for the rest of the week!
Some other superstitions with respect to sneezing are commonly seen throughout the literature. These include the following. It is good luck to sneeze between noon and midnight. It is bad luck to sneeze while getting dressed in the morning because bad luck will be with you during the day. It is a good omen for the whole family if the family cat sneezes. It is also good luck if two people sneeze at the same time.
It is bad luck to turn your head to the left while sneezing, but good luck if you turn to the right. It is also bad luck to sneeze one or three times. However, sneeze twice and it is an omen of good luck. In Japan, sneezing once is that someone is speaking kindly about you, twice is that someone is not speaking highly of you and three times is that someone is speaking disparagingly about you and four times is the sign of a cold.
Physiologically speaking, a sneeze is a reaction to irritating foreign particles, allergies, illness or a cold. Another known fact is that sudden exposure to bright light can bring on a sneeze. Overall, it is one of the body’s reflexive responses. Whether or not a sneeze has superstitious meaning is up to you.
To find out about other superstitions, visit the Superstition Room.