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On the Custom of Saluting After Sneezing

IT is probable that this custom, so universally prevalent, originated in some ancient superstition; it seems to have excited inquiry among all nations.

Some Catholics, says Father Feyjoo, have attributed the origin of this custom to the ordinance of a pope, Saint Gregory—who is said to have instituted a short benediction to be used on such occasions, at a time when, during a pestilence, the crisis was attended by sneezing, and in most cases followed by death.

But the rabbins, who have a story for everything, say, that before Jacob men never sneezed but once, and then immediately died: they assure us that that patriarch was the first who died by natural disease, before him all men died by sneezing; the memory of which was ordered to be preserved in all nations by a command of every prince to his subjects to employ some salutary exclamation after the act of sneezing. But these are Talmudical dreams, and only serve to prove that so familiar a custom has always excited inquiry.

Even Aristotle has delivered some considerable nonsense on this Custom; he says it is an honourable acknowledgment of the seat of good sense and genius—the head—to distinguish it from two other offensive eruptions of air, which are never accompanied by any benediction from the bystanders. The custom at all events existed long prior to Pope Gregory. The lover in Apuleius, Gyton in Petronius, and allusions to it in Pliny, prove its antiquity; and a memoir of the French Academy notices the practice in the New World on the first discovery of America. Everywhere man is saluted for sneezing.

An amusing account of the ceremonies which attend the sneezing of a king of Monomotapa shows what a national concern may be the sneeze of despotism.—Those who are near his person, when this happens, salute him in so loud a tone that persons in the antechamber hear it, and join in the acclamation; in the adjoining apartments they do the same, till the noise reaches the street, and becomes propagated throughout the city; so that at each sneeze of his majesty, results a most horrid cry from the salutations of many thousands of his vassals.

When the king of Sennaar sneezes, his courtiers immediately turn their backs on him, and give a loud slap on their right thigh.

With the ancients sneezing was ominous; from the right it was considered auspicious; and Plutarch, in his life of Themistocles, says, that before a naval battle it was a sign of conquest! Catullus, in his pleasing poem of Acmè and Septimus, makes this action from the deity of Love from the left the source of his fiction. The passage has been elegantly versified by a poetical friend, who finds authority that the gods sneezing on the right in heaven is supposed to come to us on earth on the left.

Cupid sneezing in his flight
Once was heard upon the right
Boding woe to lovers true;
But now upon the left he flew,
And with sporting sneeze divine,
Gave to joy the sacred sign.
Acmè bent her lovely face,
Flush’d with rapture’s rosy grace,
And those eyes that swam in bliss,
Prest with many a breathing kiss;
Breathing, murmuring, soft, and low,
Thus might life for ever flow!
“Love of my life, and life of love!
Cupid rules our fates above,
Ever let us vow to join
In homage at his happy shrine.”
Cupid heard the lovers true,
Again upon the left he flew,
And with sportive sneeze divine,
Renew’d of joy the sacred sign!

Editor’s Notes

Monomotapa, it seems, was an African nation whose territories included parts of what are present-day Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa. I’m less sure about Sennaar, but it looks like this was also in Africa, part of what is now Sudan.

 § In later editions of the Curiosities, a footnote was appended to this article, further to the phrase ‘With the ancients sneezing was ominous:’

Xenophon having addressed a speech to his soldiers, in which he declared he felt many reasons for a dependence on the favour of the gods, had scarcely concluded his words when one of them emitted a loud sneeze. Xenophon at once declared thias a spontaneous omen sent by Jupiter as a sign that his protection was awarded them.
“O, happy Bridegroom! thee a lucky sneeze
To Sparta welcom’d.”—Theocritus, Idyll xviii.
“Prometheus was the first that wished well to the sneezer, when the man which he had made of clay fell into a fit of sternutation upon the approach of that celestial fire which he stole from the sun.”—Ross’s Arcana Microcosmi.

 ¶ This article its revised and expanded from its orginal in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. One paragraph included in earlier versions of the article, but omitted here is as follows:

To this may be added, the ridiculous reason given by Aristotle, why we sneeze twice, once after another. It is, he says, because we have two nostrils! This is, as Menage observes, as ill imagined, as when he takes comets for exhalations.