The History of the Sneeze: The root of the phrase “God Bless You!”

Marielle Genovesi, Arts Editor

A few weeks ago I was sitting on the silent floor of Milne Library when someone near me sneezed and I was momentarily distracted from whatever paper I had been writing. I began to mutter a barely audible “God bless you” under my breath to the sneezing person behind me, and then, for some reason I stopped mid sentence and thought to myself, “Why do people even say this?” Perhaps it’s the inner agnostic, or maybe the anthropology major in me, but I immediately wanted to get to the root of the phrase so ingrained in our vernacular that it is considered polite to acknowledge a sneeze with the blessing of God.

I decided to try breaking down the phrase myself, procrastinating turning back to my paper. Clearly, the phrase has some origin in religion, that much I could assume, but from there I could only guess at a number of possibilities. Maybe it started because the spray of a sneeze could be likened to the dousing of baptismal water, as gross as that sounds. My other theory was that some priest or clerical figure was a big sneezer, and that maybe some church goers considered his sneezing a sign from God. But both theories seemed kind of unlikely, so finally I turned to the wild, wild web for the answer.

It turns out that I was half right. There isn’t exactly a 100 percent known reason as far as my research told me, but there are prominent theories. The rumor is that the saying began with a pope, Pope Gregory the Great. The story goes that Pope Gregory the Great popularized it in the sixth century during a bubonic plague or “Black Plague” epidemic, because sneezing was a symptom of the plague. Therefore, the “God bless you!” was intended as a blessing of the soon-to-be departed person, a way of entrusting their soul to the care of God now that they were beyond any help in the earthly world.

Other claims I came upon also tickled my fancy, such as the idea that the phrase referred to the belief that the sneeze was an expulsion of a demon or evil spirit that had been living inside the sneezing person. In this version it was meant to ward off the return of the evil spirit that the sneezer had just rid themselves of. A similar theory also suggests that a sneeze is a casting out of the person’s soul, and that the recanting of “God bless you” was meant to prevent Satan from snatching up the person’s soul, like a protective shield.

Although we may never know the true reason why this phrase has been used by the general public for hundreds of years, it is clear that its origins are religious in some way. So, my question is, why do we still use it in a religious melting pot like the U.S.? But, I think I have an answer to that on my own. Like any saying or slang term, the origins of the phrase have blurred over time, and the saying has become a somewhat subconscious and ingrained part of our cultural etiquette, so much so that I have retorted the phrase over my 22 years without questioning it, until a few weeks ago.   

So bless on fellow sneezing humans! I guess the worst the phrase could do is ward off the devil or make sure your soul goes to heaven after a quick death by the bubonic plague–all good things in my humble opinion.

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