Chap. IX.

Of Sneezing.

CONCERNING Sternutation or Sneezing, and the custom of saluting or blessing upon that motion, it is pretended, and generally believed to derive its original from a disease, wherein Sternutation proved mortal, and such as Sneezed, died. And this may seeme to be proved from Carolus Sigonius, who in his History of Italy, makes mention of a Pestilence in the time of Gregory the Great, that proved pernitious and deadly to those that Sneezed. Which notwithstanding will not sufficiently determine the grounds hereof: that custom having an elder Æra, then this Chronology affordeth.

For although the age of Gregory extend above a thousand, yet is this custom mentioned by Apuleius, in the Fable of the Fullers wife, who lived three hundred years before; by Pliny in that Probleme of his,[1] Cur Sternutantes salutantur; and there are also reports that Tiberius the Emperour, otherwise a very sower Man, would perform this rite most punctually unto others, and expect the same from others, unto himself. Petronius Arbiter, who lived before them both, and was Proconsul of Bythinia in the raign of Nero, hath mentioned it in these words, Gyton collectione spiritus plenus, ter continuo ita sternutavit ut grabatum concuteret, ad quem motum Eumolpus conversus, Salvere Gytona jubet, Cælius Rhodiginus hath an example hereof among the Greeks, far antienter then these, that is, in the time of Cyrus the younger; when consulting about their retreat, it chanced that one among them Sneezed; at the noise whereof, the rest of the Souldiers called upon Jupiter Soter. There is also in the Greeke Anthology2 a remarkeable mention hereof in an Epigram, upon one Proclus; the Latin whereof we shall deliver, as we find it often translated.

Non potis est Proclus digitis emungere nasum,
       Namque est pro nasi mole pusilla manus,
Non vocat ille Jovem sternutans, quippe nec audit
       Sternutamentum, tam procul aure sonat.
Proclus with his hand his nose can never wipe,
       His hand too little is his nose to gripe;
He Sneezing calls not
Jove, for why? he hears
       Himself not Sneeze, the sound's so far from's ears.

Nor was this onely an ancient custom among the Greeks and Romans, and is still in force with us, but is received at this day in remotest parts of Africa. For so we read in Codignus;3 that upon a Sneeze of the Emperour of Monomotapa, there passed acclamations successively through the City. And as remarkable an example there is of the same custom, in the remotest parts of the East, recorded in the travels of Pinto.[4]

But the history will run much higher, if we should take in the Rabbinical account hereof; that Sneezing was a mortal sign even from the first Man; until it was taken off by the special supplication of Jacob. From whence, as a thankful acknowledgment, this salutation first began; and was after continued by the expression of Tobim Chaiim, or vita bona, by standers by, upon all occasion of Sneezing.5

Now the ground of this ancient custom was probably the opinion the ancients held of Sternutation:[6] which they generally conceived to be a good signe or a bad, and so upon this motion according used, a Salve or Ζεῦ σῶσον, as a gratulation for the one, and a deprecation for the other. Now of the waies whereby they enquired and determined its signality; the first was natural, arising from Physical causes, and consequencies oftentimes naturally succeeding this motion; and so it might be justly esteemed a good sign. For Sneezing being properly a motion of the brain, suddenly expelling through the nostrils what is offensive unto it, it cannot but afford some evidence of its vigour; and therefore saith Aristotle,7 they that heare it προσκυνοῦσιν ὠς ἴερον, honour it as somewhat Sacred, and a sign of Sanity in the diviner part; and this he illustrates from the practise of Physitians, who in persons near death, do use Sternutatories, or such medicines as provoke unto Sneezing; when if the facultie awaketh, and Sternutation ensueth, they conceive hopes of life, and with gratulation receive the signs of safety. And so is it also of good signality, according to that of Hippocrates, that Sneezing cureth the hicket, and is profitable unto Women in hard labour; and so is it good in Lethargies, Apoplexies, Catalepsies, and Coma's.8 And in this natural way it is sometime likewise of bad effects or signs, and may give hints of deprecation; as in diseases of the chest; for therein Hippocrates condemneth it as too much exagitating: in the beginning of Catarrhs according unto Avicenna, as hindering concoction, in new and tender conceptions (as Pliny[9] observeth) for then it endangers abortion.

The second way was superstitious and Augurial, as Cælius Rhodiginus hath illustrated in testimonies, as ancient as Theocritus and Homer:[10] as appears from the Athenian Master, who would have retired, because a Boatman Sneezed;[11] and the testimony of Austin, that the Ancients were wont to go to bed again if they Sneezed while they put on their shoe.[12] And in this way it was also of good and bad signification; so Aristotle hath a Problem, why Sneezing from noon unto midnight was good, but from night to noon unlucky? So Eustathius upon Homer observes, that Sneezing to the left hand was unlucky, but prosperous unto the right; so, as Plutarch relateth, when Themistocles sacrificed in his galley before the battle of Xerxes, and one of the assistants upon the right hand Sneezed, Euphrantides the Southsayer, presaged the victory of the Greeks, and the overthrow of the Persians.[13]

Thus we may perceive the custom is more ancient then commonly conceived; and these opinions hereof in all ages, nor any one disease to have been the occasion of this salute and deprecation. Arising at first from this vehement and affrighting motion of the brain, inevitably observable unto the standers by; from whence some finding dependent effects to ensue; others ascribing hereto as a cause what perhaps but casually or inconnexedly succeeded; they might proceed unto forms of speeches, felicitating the good, or deprecating the evil to follow.


1 [Pliny, HN xxviii.23]

2 A collection of Greek Epigrams. Titulo εἰς δυσειδεῖς.

3 De rebus Abbasinorum.

4 [F. Mendes Pinto, Voyages and Adventures; he says that their blessing upon a sneeze is "the God of truth is three and one".]

5 Buxt. Lex. Chald. [Johann Buxtorf's Lexicon Chalcaicum, talmudicum et rabbinicum.]

6 [Wren: Physitians generallye define itt to be the trumpet of nature upon the ejection of a noxious vapour from the braine, and therefore saye rightly itt is bonum signum malæ causæ, sc. depulsæ.]

7 Problem Sect. 33.

8 2 King 4.35. [2 Kings 4:32-36:

[32] And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed.
[33] He went in therefore, and shut the door upon them twain, and prayed unto the Lord.
[34] And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm.
[35] Then he returned, and walked in the house to and fro; and went up, and stretched himself upon him: and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.
[36] And he called Gehazi, and said, Call this Shunammite. So he called her. And when she was come in unto him, he said, Take up thy son.]

9 [Pliny HN vii.42( or, as englished by Holland).]

10 [Lodovicius Caelius Rhodiginus, Lectionum Antiquarum. Theocritus: vii.96 and xviii.16; Homer xvii.541 (Greek; or English)]

11 [Frontinus I.xii: "Is it a wonder," he says to his 'Athenian master', who has heard a sneeze and takes it as a bad omen, "that one among so many should have caught a bad cold?"]

12 [In De doctrina christiana II.20.31.]

13 [Aristotle: Problemata xxxiii, as above. Eustathius, in his comment on the passage from the Odyssey mentioned above. Plutarch in Themistocles 13.2 (English) (or Greek)]

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