Sneezing: A Symptom or A Symbol?

(c) Cheryl Lynne Bradley 2001-2

"One sneeze, a wish
Two sneezes, a kiss
Three sneezes, a disappointment
Four sneezes, a letter"

As my household has spent the past two weeks fighting the fall version of the pit plague crud, in between the God Bless You's and doses of cough medicine, I have had some time to contemplate on sneezing, or sternutation.

"Once a wish,
Twice a kiss,
Three times something better."

Sneezing received much attention in ancient cultures as omens and divination. Sneezing was attributed by some to relate to the invisible visit of a protective deity, the bird of Jupiter Conservator. A widespread belief in Persian folk tradition considers a single sneeze to be a sign that you have to stop whatever you are doing. This is called sabr Amad (patience is in order). A double sneeze is a sign that you should speed up whatever you are doing. The Japanese believe one sneeze means someone is speaking highly of you and two indicate someone speaking ill of you.

'If one observes the movements and cries of birds or of any animals, or the sneezing of men, or the sudden movements of limbs, this belongs in general to "augury," '
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part II of Part II, Question 95

The Roman Augers used five different systems of omens to fortell events. The fifth was called Dira which covered such events as spilling salt on a table, wine on your clothes, hearing strange noises, stumbling or sneezing. While some people feel that saying "Bless You" or "God Bless You" to someone who has just sneezed is superstitious, it was a common expression in Roman times. In those times sneezing could have been the first sign that the sneezer had the plague and it was said as a blessing.

Some superstitions believe that the devil can enter your body when you sneeze; someone saying, "God bless you," will drive the devil away. Another common belief was that the soul could leave or escape from your body when you sneezed. Covering your mouth while you sneezed prevented this from happening.

"Ring a Ring of Roses
A Pocket full of Posies
Tishoo, Tishoo
All Fall Down."

The verse to a very old children's game we all played, refers to the spread of illness through sneezing. In days not all that far past, small pox, plague and influenza were spread through sneezes and all carried a high mortality rate - "All fall down." Not a happy story for a such a sweet rhyme. In 1919 a law was enacted in the United States to keep victims of the influenza epidemic off the streets. It became a crime to sneeze in public. People with flu, colds and hayfever were jailed if they broke the law. The epidemic killed 20 million people before it was finished.

The common cold is the most common illness, with symptons lasting from 4 days to two weeks, and some 200 viruses known to cause colds. As we age we will get fewer colds. One sneeze can propel 100,000 bacteria into the air at about 320km/h and the average force of a sneeze is 167 km/h . Women catch more colds than men but the symptoms are less severe. Sneezing while driving a vehicle can leave you driving blind for 100 to 300 feet.

According to the Dalai Lama, Buddhist teachings inform us that people can attain low-level near-death awareness and "clear light" by sneezing. It is the Buddhists aim to pass through every transition with lucid awareness, the ultimate goal being to die lucidly. The same "clear light" experience occurs with yawning, falling asleep, and orgasm. Sneezing is sometimes referred to as the orgasm of the nose and it is quite a popular sexual fetish.

Sneezing is both a symptom and symbol. Divination for cough and cold season, just a little magic to go with the medicine. God bless you!!!

My Nose Garden

I have roses and rowses of noses and noses,
And why they all growses I really can't guess.
No lilies or roses, just cold-catching noses,
And when they all blowses, it's really a mess.

They runs and they glowses, these sneezity noses,
They frips and they flowses, they blooms and they dies.
But you can't bring noses to fine flower showses
And really expect them to give you a prize.

But each mornin' I goeses to watter with hoses
These rowses of noses that I cannot sell,
The red sniffly noses that cause all my woeses,
Why even the crowses complain that they smell.

Why noses, not roses? Well, nobody knowses.
Why do you supposes they growses this thick?
But since there's no roses come gather some roses-
I guarantee each one's a good nose to pick.

Shel Silverstein, Falling Up

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This page was created October 31, 2001.