The Cultural History of Sneezing

There comes a time in the life of every blogger when he must write about sneezing. If you’re a blogger and haven’t yet reached this point, trust me, you’ll get there.

Sneezing has a rich and varied cultural history. In ancient Greece, sneezes were considered divine omens. (Of course, in those days, all kinds of odd things were interpreted as prophetic signs, such as animal guts and the flights of birds.) A timely sneeze was believed to be a thumbs-up from the gods.

Centuries later in medieval Europe, sneezes were regarded as potentially fatal. A person’s life was believed to depend on her breath. Since sneezing expels a lot of breath from the lungs, a person could sneeze herself to death, or so it was believed.

Calvin sneezing

Bill Watterson clearly understands the dangers of sneezing.

Superstitions linger around sneezing to this day. In Japan, for example, a tradition claims that talking behind someone’s back will cause that person to sneeze.

Although no one knows why “God bless you” is the standard response to a sneeze, theories abound. I’ve already mentioned the superstition that a person can sneeze himself to death; invoking God’s blessing may have been a safeguard against such a danger. Another theory claims the blessing was meant to prevent any sickness of which sneezes were an early symptom. According to yet another theory, sneezes were thought to exorcise unclean spirits, and the blessing was intended to keep them at bay.

In my twenty-something years, I have heard some truly thunderous sneezes. For example, a student I knew in high school—I’ll call him, say, Socrates—sneezed with the noise and abruptness of a gunshot. There was never any warning before his sneezes: no changes of expression, no sharp intakes of breath, nothing. Sitting near Socrates was like sitting on a landmine. You suspected an explosion might happen, but you never knew when.

Calvin sneezing again

In fact, Mr. Watterson seems a bit preoccupied with sneezing. God bless him.

My grandfather is a great man, and also the greatest sneezer I have ever known. His sneezes shake the very foundations of his house. They probably measure on the Richter scale. All jokes aside, his sneezes have made children cry.

Am I the only one to notice that looking up, especially toward bright lights, causes a person to sneeze? Why is this? Seriously, I’m curious and I want to know. Is it the light? Is it airborne irritants entering the nose at a particular angle? Someone should research this. For science.


This post was originally published on January 29, 2016. TMTF shall return with new posts on Monday, September 5!

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