My nerves always jangle slightly whenever a sneeze is followed by the inevitable "Bless you!". I've always understood the saying was due to to people being worried that, at the point of sneezing, you left your head wide open for a demon to nip in and a quick 'Bless you!' provided a temporary 'force field' that kept the demons at bay for those all important few seconds (what would happen if you were to sneeze with nobody around I don't know - presumably you were demon bait) and, frankly, I feel that as a race we probably should have got over things like an irrational fear of demons crawling up our nose by now.
However, whilst doing some research on this subject on snopes.com, I've discovered that there are in fact several competing explanations for this custom, the most popular being:
- The aforementioned demonic possession theory (and a second related theory where the sneeze is the demon being expelled, and the blessing prevents it returning).
- A belief that the heart stopped at the moment of sneezing, and the blessing might just get you through that moment.
- An association with the Black Death, where a sneeze indicated an impending demise, so a blessing for your soon to be departed soul probably couldn't hurt.
- That sneezes were lucky, and the blessing was a congratulation or an attempt to steal some luck for yourself.
- That it's just a custom, similar to greeting people with the phrase 'Good Morning'.
My argument against blessings for sneezes remains for the first four theories - they're all equally silly and we're all far too grown up to keep on using something based on them. The fifth reason does not seem plausible to me as a reason for the custom to start, though I will admit it seems likely as the reason for its continuation to the present day.
But what really surprised me was the age the custom can be dated back to. It is mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History (77 A.D.) and by Apuleius in The Golden Ass (150 A.D.). The mention in Pliny is telling: "Why is it that we salute a person when he sneezes?". So, as far back as 2000 years ago people were already puzzled by the custom - meaning that any use it may originally have been thought to have was already a relict. Over 2000 years seems a long time for a custom to hang around for when people have no good reason to do it, but I'm guessing its endurance so far puts paid to my wishes for it to die out soon. Still, the next time you bless someone for sneezing (if you must), at least you know you are participating in a tradition handed down for thousands of years despite its pointlessness. Lucky old you.