Why does sneezing elicit blessing?

I have long been puzzled by the title question, and have never come across a satisfactory answer. So, let me share the puzzle and raise a few more specific questions:

A) Ethnographic questions:

  1. Examples of different blessing elicited by sneezing (e.g., among the Dorze of Southern Ethiopia where I did fieldwork, “bear a son” for a woman, “kill an elephant” for a man, “grow up” for a child)
  2. Examples of other hard to control sudden bodily events (coughing, belching, farting, and so on) eliciting a standard reaction
  3. Folk interpretations of these practices
  4. Examples of societies without any such pairing of sneezing and blessing

B) Anthropological question:
Why should such practices be widespread? (Attributing a universal meaning to sneezing, even if it were properly argued, would at best displace the question, not answer it)

C) Primatological question:

Any evidence of sneezing in other primates eliciting a specific reaction?

Please, DO help with answers!


  • comment-avatar
    Hugo Mercier 18 January 2009 (12:00)

    A Goffmanian hypothesis
    Good question!
    I’m guessing that the general phenomenon is related to Goffman’s explanation of why people swear when they do something that might be seen as a sign of incompetence, like hitting their finger with a hammer. According to him, they do so so that others realize that they themselves have noticed that they have done something irrational.
    If we try to generalize a bit, we can call A the person who does something irrational and B an observer. When A does something irrational, and thinks that B has noticed it, then she will want to make mutually manifest the fact that she realizes she has done something irrational. Then A can try to explain that irrationality away. B, if she accepts the explanation, can then make it mutually manifest that she has accepted it and therefore not misjudged A. In the case of bodily noises, there is no real need for explanation: everyone knows what it is and that they are not real signs of irrationality. It is therefore possible to dispense with the explanation step and go directly to the ’it’s OK’ step. That might be what people do when they say something like ’bless you’. That would predict that the things that are said by observers following sneezing will tend to be nice – given that their primary aim is to reassure the person who has sneezed that she will not be seen as strange.
    But for this to work, the behavior itself has to be mutually manifest. This will nearly always be the case of (open, not kept) sneezing. But if there is an ambiguity at that level, then things are not so simple. If A start to explain away something that B hadn’t noticed, she’ll pass for a fool doubly (for the behavior she’s trying to explain away that has now been brought to B’s attention, and for the fact that she has misjudged B’s perception of it). Given that the function of B’s ’it’s OK’ remark is to correct A’s fear that B might misjudge her, if there is no such fear to start with (because A thought that B hadn’t noticed) then it is inappropriate too. So if B is not sure if A thinks that she has noticed, then there should be no preemption.
    This implies that for noises that are not always (or most of the time) mutually manifest, then A should start the process and at least make it mutually manifest that she has done something strange. That would predict that for noises that can be discreet, there should be no preemption by B.
    Besides the fact that it seem to fit with the pattern of reaction to sneezing (always mutually manifest) vs. other noises (like belching or farting that are not always mutually manifest) in my sample of French culture, I don’t really have any data to support my claims, so I’ll just hope that someone else has more!

  • comment-avatar
    Helen De Cruz 18 January 2009 (14:30)

    intuitive vitalism about the nose
    Dear Dan,
    During my masters I did some fieldwork for my Folklore course, in which I interviewed older people about folk medicine. When I asked them about this strange practice of blessing someone when they sneeze, some argued that it was to protect the soul from leaving the body.
    I think this practice can be linked to the intuitive vitalism humans seem to possess (see Inagaki & Hatano about this), and so that they somehow think that sneezing would draw away the vital breath.
    Of course, this doesn’t answer your question of why sneezing should elicit this particular response, rather than, for example, coughing. Perhaps because sneezing is more involuntary?

  • comment-avatar
    Helen De Cruz 18 January 2009 (14:35)

    the nose again…
    Another reason why the nose is the place from which the soul could escape is that the nose is considered to be more ’pure’ than the mouth in many cultures. In Micronesia, for example, some melodies are only played on noseflutes because the mouth is considered impure (we eat with it, for one thing).

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    Olivier Morin 18 January 2009 (21:27)

    Latin references
    The ancient Romans used sneezing for divination, and it was considered an omen. The interpretation depended on the time of the sneezing. You can find that in Pliny the Elder, Homer, Aristotle, etc. and you can find it described by Fathers of the Church who condemned it. It seems the omen was bad 99% of the time (according to Pliny, during child-bearing, it predicts abortion, after birth it predicts death, etc.).

    Why sneezing would be a bad sign for one’s health is pretty obvious, why one would want to ward the bad omen off with blessing is equally intuitive. Maybe the Western tradition of blessing sneezers is what remained of the superstition after Christians uprooted it.

    But that still does not explain the Dorzes…

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 18 January 2009 (23:59)

    Thank you!
    Thank you for the several uselful comments. Olivier and Helen’s comments are of the interpretive type: they suggest (or rather report suggestions to the effect) that sneezing is given a meaning and that the blessing is somehow in answer to this meaning. This is the kind of answer I have typically encountered in my haphazard enquiries on the topic. For reasons I started spelling out in my Rethinking symbolism (1975), I find this kind of answer quite unsatisfactory: a meaning is neither a cause nor a mechanism. It can at best be part of a causal explanation. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t believe that people bless sneezers because of a meaning they attribute to sneezing.

    I am more attracted by Hugo’s Goffmanian answer, but not convinced that it provides an explanation of the very special treatment of sneezing, as opposed to other unvoluntary bodily noises.

    Still, thanks for all these suggestions.

  • comment-avatar
    joao 19 January 2009 (14:00)

    sneeze and death
    In portugal, when someone sneezes, the other people say “santinho”, which means little saint, or saint in an affectuous way. I read at some point that in previous times sneezing had a higher correlation with low life expectancy, so people would say that out of comiseration.

  • comment-avatar
    Jean-Baptiste André 20 January 2009 (15:25)

    Bad luck and good luck
    Thanks for the nice question! Here is vague (and late) comment.

    I am not sure to understand why Olivier’s idea is interpretative. As he mentions, sneezing is really a bad sign for one’s health after all. More generally (but very related to Olivier’s point), sneezing is (moderately) unpleasant for the sneezer, but mostly uncontrollable. It is kind of bad luck, in a way. Blessing could be an appealing way to “compensate” for such unfairness.

    Could not this be paralleled with the fact that unfortunate things happening out of bad luck are often considered as signs of (future) luck. A kind of compensation again. For instance (in France at least), it brings luck to walk in a dog’s excrement in the street ; when you are unlucky at games people say you will be lucky in love affairs etc. When something clearly unpleasant occurs out of pure bad luck, it seems unfair, and people really want a compensation to be made.

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    Nicola Knight 21 January 2009 (12:49)

    What makes sneezing special?
    As several people have noted above, the first step in answering this question is to ask what – if anything sets sneezing apart from other noises produced by our bodies.

    It is my intuition that one has a lesser degree of control over sneezing than over any other bodily noise. It is true that stifling yawns is perhaps as difficult as repressing sneezes — that is to say, impossible in most cases. (An aside: I know because in my school days, a friend used to practice yawning with his mouth closed in front of a mirror with less than satisfactory results, as one particular teacher was fond of calling attention to pupils that he perceived to be uninterested in his lessons). However, the sort of loss of control that typically takes place during sneezing (eyes closing, breathing difficult, loud sounds involuntarily produced, etc) does seem to be peculiar to sneezing.

    Perhaps the perception of loss of control is in some way involved with sneezing being thought as different from other bodily noises. This observation, however, may (if correct) be necessary but certainly not sufficient in the generation of a non-interpretive explanation of the phenomenon.

    As for sneezing in other animals, I do not know about non-human primates, but this example: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=FzRH3iTQPrk perhaps suggests that the loudness and unexpected nature of sneezing do set it aside (albeit for different reasons) among other animals as well.

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    Christian Kleineidam 22 January 2009 (14:00)

    The thing that sets sneezing apart consists in it being able to harm other people by infecting them with the same illness by moving bacterias at a fast speed from ones lung to other people.

    If you say something because you bless someone you exhale at the same time.
    If someone sneezed and the bacterias moved through the air in your direction there might be an advantage in exhaling afterwards and using the the air in one’s lung to press the bacterias that flood around away from one’s self before inhaling the next time.

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    Ilkka Pyysiäinen 22 January 2009 (20:27)

    Sneezing and sex
    Dan, I remember having read recently about a medical journal article (Lancet?) in which the author claims that quite a number of people sneeze when they think about sex. This might open up some new points of view for explanation, although I cannot at the moment say what such explanations would consist of. But I agree that relevant explanations should account for the fact that this habit has become widespread in populations. An interpetation cannot do the job.

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    Christian Prager 23 January 2009 (12:43)

    Sneezing in folklore
    Checking the very useful term search in google-books you may find a vaste amount of old and recent literature entering the term “sneezing-salutation(s)” in case you are looking for English literature. Entering the German “niesen” and “folklore” for example you get a long list of old titles and texts containig the act of “sneezing” and its cultural implications for the German speaking part of Europe. Medical implications of “sneezing”, of course, cannot be discussed since the pathological reasons for sneezing, I guess, are immense.
    For those of you who understand German I would like to cite a longer German passage about “sneezing-salutation” in lore and folklore taken from a book by Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander, entitled Deutsches Sprichwörter-lexikon: Ein Hausschatz für das deutsche Volk”, 1867. http://www.zeno.org/Wander-1867/A/Gesundheit (Note 40).