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Why Do People Say 'Bless You' When You Sneeze?

The legend of a Pope, a Plague, and a Proclamation

By Chelsea RosePublished about a year ago 3 min read
Image by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

Have you ever wondered why we say "bless you" when someone sneezes?

The most widely accepted theory is that the phrase's origin may be traced to the late 6th century when a plague epidemic decimated the Roman Empire.

It was the year A.D. 590, and the Romans were going through one hell of a time. Just 50 years ago, one of the worst plagues in human history made its entrance.

The Justinianic Plague began around A.D. 541 and was incredibly well-traveled and vindictive. Before it was over, it would decimate Asia, North Africa, Arabia, and Europe, killing between 30 and 50 million people, or approximately half of the world's population at the time.

At its height, it grew responsible for 10,000 deaths every day. Corpses were strewn across public spaces and piled high like produce in warehouses. It was possibly the first large outbreak of bubonic plague the world had ever seen.

The Roman Plague of 590 was a continuation of the Justinian Plague but was limited to Rome. The unfortunate individuals who contracted the plague faced a terrible outcome. While some recovered, many would die soon after being infected.

Fever and fatigue were the first symptoms of the Roman Plague, followed by buboes swelling around the ears, armpits, and groin. Within a week of developing the ailment, those infected became delusional, slipped into comas, and died.

Even the Pope himself was not immune to the disease's vengeance. Indeed, one of the first victims was Pope Pelagius II, who succumbed to the plague on February 7, 590 A.D. Many others would soon follow.

Due to his untimely death, Pope Pelagius II was succeeded by Pope Gregory I, also known as Saint Gregory the Great, who was both meek and holy. It would be an understatement to say that Pope Gregory I did not want to be the next Pope, yet he did everything to save his people.

True to his nature, the new Pope persuaded the citizens of Rome that the plague could be cured through the power of prayer.

Thus, with a sneeze being an early sign that the plague had entered a victim, Pope Gregory I issued a papal proclamation on February 16, 600 A.D. The decree instructed everyone within earshot of a sneeze to utter the short, three-word prayer, "God bless you," in the hopes that this prayer would save the individual from death.

The proclamation was almost as well-received as the plague, and as the disease spread over the continent, the short prayer rose in popularity.

By A.D. 750, it had become customary to say "God bless you" to respond to someone sneezing.

Today, the "God" element of the phrase is often deleted as society has become increasingly secular. However, the blessing is still widespread.

Image created by author in Canva. Sources: Huffpost, BBC Science Focus

However, it should be noted that the practice of wishing someone well after they sneezed is thought to have originated thousands of years ago.

While this social tradition's exact origins are a little difficult to trace back, there are numerous intriguing hypotheses. Not unexpectedly, the majority of them are significantly influenced by superstition.

One early theory was that sneezing provided the Devil with an opportunity to infiltrate the body and that the person who sneezed consequently needed the assistance of God and the church to expel the Devil. Blessing a person after they sneezed was thought to be a way to prevent the Devil from entering a person's body.

Moreover, various other civilizations also believed that sneezing expelled evil spirits from the body, leaving people vulnerable to these wandering spirits. A blessing was intended to protect the sneezer and others in his immediate vicinity.

In addition, there was a widespread belief that when we sneeze, our hearts stop beating and that saying "bless you" was a means of welcoming the sneezer back to life.

So, while most of us aren't concerned about evil spirits, temporary death, or the bubonic plague, it's still considered polite to utter a short blessing in response.

How the World Responds to Sneezing via Expedia. (CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License)


About the Creator

Chelsea Rose

I never met a problem I couldn't make worst.

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