Thursday, April 7, 2005

Can you possibly imagine a human sneeze that could propel a person backward to the year 77 A.D.? Consider that possibility the next time you or a person around you sneezes. Why?

It all began with a simple wish and response: "God bless you" or "Bless you." It's now expected that we'll say these words following a person's sneeze, but does anyone know why we continue this seemingly ancient and ambiguous practice?

Although the practice is old enough for mention of it to surface in ancient writings (the earliest from 77 A.D.), no one apparently deemed it noteworthy enough to explain why anyone would think to do this. By the time anyone thought to question the reason for the custom, blessing people when they sneeze had already been deeply ingrained in our evolving culture for century upon century. Some questions, no matter how simple, don't have one knowable answer. Though a number of "explanations" exist for this custom, nothing points to any one of them as being its origin.

Common among these explanations are:

  • At one time people believed a person's soul could be inadvertently thrust from their body by an explosive sneeze, thus "Bless you!" was a protective oath uttered to safeguard the temporarily expelled and vulnerable soul from being snatched up by Satan (who was always lurking nearby). The purpose of the oath was to cast a temporary shield over the flung-out soul which would protect it just long enough to regain the protection of the corporeal body.
  • Conversely, the sneeze itself was the expulsion of a demon or evil spirit which had taken up residence in a person. Therefore, although the "Bless you!" was again a protective charm meant to protect the sneezer from evil, in this version it was meant to ward off the re-entry of an evil spirit which a tormented soul had just rid itself of.
  • The heart was believed to momentarily stop during a sneeze (it doesn't), thus the "Bless you!" was uttered either as a supplication for life to return or as a congratulation upon its successful restart.
  • Others claim an association of the practice with particular dire diseases (most often the bubonic plague, or "Black Death," as it is sometimes known). They say an infected person's sneeze was sure sign he'd soon be pushing up daisies, thus the "Bless you!" was intended as a benediction to the nearly-departed, a way of commending his soul to the care of God now that he was beyond the help of anything in the mortal world.
  • Yet other folks echo the theme of other superstitions about sneezes, that these expulsions are either in themselves lucky or foretell good fortune coming the sneezer's way. For them, the "Bless you!" is a recognition of incoming good luck, possibly even an attempt on the blesser's part to attract a bit of it to himself.
  • Finally, some see the sneeze as a blessing bestowed by the sneezer upon the sneezed-upon. Answering a sneeze with "Bless you!" is seen as nothing more remarkable than replying "Good morning!" to the person who had just greeted you with the same phrase.
    So many explanations -- each deeply believed -- for such a simple and often unquestioned practice. And we'll never know which one is right.

Perhaps it is this very ambiguous practice with an unknown origin that reminds us that sometimes - in order to better understand their purpose - it's important and helpful to trace our traditions to the very point where they simply began as babbling streams and continued on to present-day rivers of rites. And it may be this ambiguous practice that reminds us that although we can't find every wellspring for all our traditions, the purpose of the tradition itself will have to suffice. Those refreshing themselves from the river's edge rarely ask about the water's origins; it simply provides nourishment to oneself and that may be all that is needed.

"Thank you." "You're welcome." "Pardon me." "Good morning." "God bless you." Origins unknown, but each winding its way through generations of journeys and providing needed nourishment.

hoedl's haven
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