The history of sneezing
By J.J.M. Askenasy
Postgraduate Medicine Journal, Vol.66 (1990)
Excerpt: During the Middle Ages the history of sneeze received the well known mystic aura of the period. Its ominous threat located the sneeze as being close to evil. The negative aspect of the sneeze gained strong momentum by the Bubonic Plague which afflicted Rome in the period 590-610. In this epidemic, people suddenly died while sneezing. The need to prevent it led to the custom of calling out ‘deus te adjuvet’ to someone who sneezed, thereby displaying signs of affliction. Pope Pelagius II died in this epidemic while sneezing. From this period on, the blessing attached to the sneeze became imperative.
Pope Gregory VII enjoined his people to say, ‘may God bless you’ as an equivalent to ‘I hope you may rid yourself of the bacillus’. The Romans used the blessing ‘salve’ meaning good health to you. ‘Prosit’, ‘bless you’ or ‘zur Gesundheit’ are blessings dating from the same period. Jewish mothers, on hearing a child sneezing, proclaim the blessing ‘to health’ and pull up the child’s ear, thereby averting an unknown catastrophe. On the second sneeze, the other ear will be pulled up accompanied by the blessing ‘to grow and thrive’.
The strong mystic influence of the Middle Ages on the history of sneeze persists even today in various cultures. Persian demonology and Roman culture bless the sneezer. The Romans used the term ‘Absit omen’, meaning ‘evil spirit be gone’.