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An allergic reaction

Q: Hi, there. I’m a receptionist at WNYC and I see you when you come to the studio each month for the Leonard Lopate Show. I was wondering if you could tell me about the history of “God bless you.”

A: With all the rain in the New York region lately, the vegetation is running amok and so are the allergens. As an allergy sufferer myself, I assume you’re asking (achoo!) why we say “God bless you” when someone sneezes.

The short answer is that nobody knows. There are a few interesting though inconclusive facts, but the most popular explanations for the origin of this usage are pure fiction.

For instance, one suggestion is that people in the Middle Ages believed that the soul left a sneezer’s body for a few seconds, so someone would say “God bless you” to keep the devil from snatching the soul before it returned.

Another suggestion is that medieval people believed a sneezer’s heart stopped beating, so a bystander would say “God bless you” to get the heart going again.

However, I have yet to see an authoritative account from the Middle Ages that connects “God bless you” with soul-snatching or heart-stopping.

In fact, I haven’t seen solid evidence that medieval people even held such beliefs, though that wouldn’t surprise me. A bit of googling indicates that quite a few people believe such nonsense today.

Perhaps the most popular “God bless you” story is that the custom originated during a plague that was devastating Rome in 590 when Gregory I became Pope.

Gregory, according to this story, urged the people of Rome to take part in mass processions and prayers, and say “God bless you” when anyone sneezed. (Many websites tell the same story, but say the pope was Gregory VII, who actually lived hundreds of years later.)

Well, Gregory did call for processions and prayers in Rome in response to the plague, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, but he did it before he was consecrated Pope.

More important, there’s no evidence that he ever used the expression “God bless you” (in Latin or English ) in response to sneezing or that he ever asked the people of Rome to do it.

The Catholic Encyclopedia‘s comprehensive entry on Gregory makes no mention of the practice.

As a matter of fact, the limited evidence available suggests that the medieval church tried to stop such practices and considered them relics of pagan times.

For example, St. Eligius (circa 588-660) threatened to “withhold the sacrament of baptism” from anyone who observed “incantations” or “auguries or violent sneezings” or other “sacrilegious pagan customs.”

Pagan customs? Yes, people were apparently blessing or otherwise welcoming sneezes hundreds of years before Gregory assumed the papacy.

The Roman writer Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, asks, “Why is it that we salute a person when he sneezes, an observance which Tiberius Caesar, they say, the most unsociable of men, as we all know, used to exact, when riding in his chariot even?”

Pliny’s comment (from Book XXVIII, Chapter 5) is in a section on “prayers for good fortune, and, for luck’s sake.”

Pliny doesn’t mention exactly how the Romans saluted someone who sneezed, but some scholars have suggested that they used the word salve, which is usually translated as “welcome,” “good day,” or “goodbye.”

The Satyricon, reputedly written by the first-century Roman Petronius Arbiter, uses the verbal phrase salvere iubeo (to bid good day) in describing the reaction to a fit of sneezing. The poet and classical translator Sarah Ruden has used the phrase “bless you” in putting this scene into English.

But why did we begin saluting or blessing or whatever-ing when someone sneezed?

The classicist Arthur Stanley Pease, writing in the journal Classical Philology, suggests that it was because the ancients believed that a sneeze was a divine omen.

In “The Omen of Sneezing,” Pease cites numerous examples from Greek and Latin literature of sneezing considered an omen, sometimes a good one and sometimes a bad.

In the Odyssey, for example, Penelope’s son, Telemachus, sneezes when his mother expresses hopes that Odysseus will return home and wreak vengeance on her unwanted suitors. Penelope takes the sneeze as a good omen and says that “my son has sneezed a blessing on all my words.”

The classics scholar Elaine Fantham has said Penelope considers her son’s sneeze “a sign from the gods.” In a May 27, 2006, interview with NPR, she explained why the Greeks could consider sneezing a good omen:

“Because it was seen as something humans couldn’t engineer. It was spontaneous. It came over them. It was out of their control.”

Wilson D. Wallis, in “The Romance and the Tragedy of Sneezing,” says similar customs were common in many other ancient cultures. Wallis’s paper in Scientific Monthly cites sneezing traditions among Hindus, Chinese, Zoroastrians, and others.

In “The Rabbis and Pliny the Elder,” a treatise in Poetics Today, Giuseppe Veltri compares sneezing beliefs of Talmudic sages and ancient Romans.

In other words, we’ve been talking about sneezing for a long, long time. However, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure why people began saying “God bless you” or ancient versions of it.

I lean toward the idea that we once considered sneezing an omen, either of good or bad. Perhaps a good omen was a blessing and a bad one needed a blessing.

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