Someone sneezes, we say “God Bless You,” why? It’s a social norm we’ve adopted almost without thought as to the purpose. Unfortunately, the common ritual does not have substantiated historical roots just ancient superstitions. However, theories all trace back thousands of years.
The most popular origin theory takes us to Rome during its darkest season; the bubonic plague of Justinian from 541 AD – 542 AD as noted on Fox News. In response to the immeasurable deaths of civilians, it is believed Pope Gregory I proposed people offer tiny prayers of protection from death in the form of “God Bless you.”
We can go even further back into ancient superstitions. There was a fear that the soul might exit the body during a sneeze. To reply “God Bless you” was said to be a way to prevent the soul from in fact leaving. Others claim the blessing was to stop the devil from claiming the newly freed soul. In some communities, sneezing was seen as the body’s way to rid itself of evil spirits. “God Bless You” would then protect one’s body from the evil spirit returning to inhabit. The list goes on.
All around the globe, there are various responses to the sneeze that invite mystery to its origins. In the Middle East, many respond “Alhamdulillah,” meaning “praise be to God.” In Germany the sometimes US-adopted rep “gesundheit” means health. Hindus respond “Live well!” to sneezing and in China people’s respond to a child’s sneeze with “bai sui,” meaning “may you live 100 years,” according to How Stuff Works.
No matter the culture, the sneeze remains one of our culture’s most fascinating, and polite social conventions.