There are a variety of accounts as to why people say “God bless you” when people sneeze.
There are everyday activities that have become part of people’s lives and they do not know why. Saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes is one of those activities.
It is rare for people to hear a sneeze and not hear someone utter the words “God bless you” and often people do not even know the person who says it to them. It is a polite gesture but why is it actually done?
There is more than one answer because there are many reasons for the phrase.
Sneezing During the Era of the Bubonic Plague
One idea is that it originated in Rome during the time of the bubonic plague. Sneezing was one of the symptoms and it is believed that Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) had the idea to say “God bless you” after a person sneezed in hope the short prayer would protect the person from certain death.
It is also possible the phrase originated from superstition. There is the belief that the custom of asking for God’s blessing started when ancient man thought the soul was in the form of air and resided in the head of the body. Therefore, a sneeze might expel the soul from the body unless blessed by God to prevent this from occurring.
There are ancient cultures that believed a sneeze would force evil spirits from the body, endangering others. They believed the spirits would inhabit other people. Saying “God bless you” would protect the person that sneezed and the others around him.
Another thought during ancient times was that the devil could steal one’s soul when they sneezed. According to The Sun, “Spooky stuff, especially when teamed with another line of thought which feared evil spirits used these moments to rush into the body.” This means that people were in for something horrific either way, so people jumped on the “God bless you” bandwagon. “If that tiny phrase can save you from an eternity being ruled by the devil, then why not give it a go?”
People once believed that when they sneezed, they actually died for a brief moment. Saying “God bless you” would encourage the heart to start beating again, or for the English it was “good job on not dying” when the person was still alive.
Who needs medical intervention when one can simply say, “God bless you” and make someone well?
It may just simply be a way to remark on a sneeze, even though this is the least exciting explanation offered it is an option, according to The Sun.
Facts About Sneezes:
- Sneezes are an automatic reflex and cannot be stopped once started
- A sneeze can travel at a speed of 100 mph, and the wet spray can radiate five feet
- People do not sneeze when sleeping because the nerves involved are also resting
- Between 18 and 35 percent of the population sneeze when exposed to sudden bright light
- Some people sneeze when plucking their eyebrows because it irritates the nerve endings in the face and then they fire an impulse that reaches the nasal nerve
- Donna Griffiths, from Worcestershire, England sneezed for 978 days. At the beginning, she sneezed once every minute. This is the longest sneezing episode on record.
Sneezing Does Not Stop the Heart
Sneezing does not stop the heart. It begins with a tickling sensation in the nerve endings that sends a message to the brain that in needs to rid itself of something irritating the lining of the nose. The first reaction is to take a deep breath and hold it, this tightens the muscles in the chest. The pressure of the air in the lungs increases, the eyes close, the tongue presses against the rood of the mouth and suddenly the breath comes out fast through the nose.
So, where did the myth originate from that the heart stops when a person sneezes? The changing pressure in the chest, due to sneezing, also changes the blood flow, which may change the rhythm of the heart. According to Dr. Richard Conti, former president of the American College of Cardiology, the belief that the heart comes to a stop during a sneeze could result from the sensation of having the heart “skip a beat.” When there is a prolonged delay before the heart’s next beat, that beat is more forceful and more noticeable, perhaps as a funny sensation in the throat or upper chest.
By Jeanette Smith
Everyday Mysteries: Why do people say, “God bless you” when someone sneezes?
The Sun: This is the REAL reason we say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes… and it’s not because of the Plague
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Top Image Courtesy of Iain Farrell’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License