No. 1.

Proved by the Universality of Certain Superstitions Connected with Sneezing.

by R.G. Haliburton

[Extracted from his New Materials for the History of Man Derived from a Comparison of the Customs and Superstitions of Nations, 1863, 9-14.]

[Greek]Arist. in Prolem.

A century ago, in fashionable society, to omit to say "God bless you," when a person sneezed, was regarded gross breach of etiquette. Most persons who have traveled in secluded parts of the United Kingdom, or even in the British Columbia, have noticed that this custom still survives among the humbler classes. It is to be found throughout Europe, as well as in other parts of the world.

Probably no custom has excited more fruitless discussion in all ages, among the learned. Homer mention it in his Odyssey; Aristotle wrote on the subject, and in vain endeavored to explain its existence among his countrymen, who, he tells us, reverenced it as something sacred,—[Greek] and used to exclaim [Greek] Jupiter preserve you! Apuleius refers to it, and Pliny has a problem on the subject, "Cur sternutantes salutantur." Tiberias observed, and rightly exacted the custom. The Jewish Rabbis were equally puzzled by its existence among the Hebrews. who to this day exclaim, "Tobim Chaiim!" (a long life to you!) on such occasions. The Rabbis invented a fable as to Jacob, in order to solve the mystery, in the same manner that Greek philosophers, who were almost equally imaginative, gravely announced the origin to have been in an incident connected with Prometheus. The explanations are too absurd to be referred to here. But this custom was not confined to Europe or to Judea. It is found to this day on the most remote parts of Asia, and among the most secluded natives of Africa.

But even these three continents are not the limits within which we find this singular and irrational custom.

I have been surprised at finding that it is observed by the natives of the new world. De Soto, in his wonderings in Florida, which he discovered, noticed that when a Sachem sneezed the savages around him bowed down, and invoked the Sun to save him. But we may find it even in the secluded islands of Polynesia. It is the custom in Otabeite to invoke the invoke the protection of heaven when a person sneezes.


I was much struck, in reading the adventures of Mariner in the Tonga Islands, a group near the Feejee Islands, at finding almost a second edition of what happened almost three thousand years ago to Xenophon and the "immortal ten thousand."

Xenophon tells us in his Anabasis, that when the Greeks were about to commence their celebrated retreat after the death of Cyrus the younger, and just as Xenophon was addressing them with these words, "we have many reasons to hope for preservation,'' a soldier unfortunately sneezed, upon which the whole army invoked Jupiter the Preserver; Xenophon, proceeding on, said, "Since at the mention of your preservation, Jupiter has sent this omen," &c., an ingenious turn, by which he converted an evil into a good omen.

I ought here to mention that in all ages, and in Hindostan as well as in Greece, it has been always considered an unlucky omen for any one to sneeze at the commencement of an undertaking. The existence of this belief among the Hindoos is referred by Lutfullah in his memoirs, p. 152, "A sneeze in an opposite direction will prevent a man from going to any place, or commencing any undertaking."

Mariner tells us that when Finow, a Chief in the Tonga Islands, was about to proceed on a warlike expedition, some one sneezed. Instead of shewing the ready wit of Xenophon, the Chief regarding it as an ill omen from the gods, defied them to do their worst.

"Finow (the late King) was an impious person in many respects, but we have already seen how much the people wondered at his success. The same King was one day prevented from going out upon an expedition against the enemy, by one of his Chiefs happening to sneeze, which is considered a bad omen. Finow, in a sudden, greatly exasperated, with raised arms, and clenched fists, exclaimed, in a loud voice, "Crowd all ye gods to the protection of these people, nevertheless I will wreak my vengeance upon them tenfold!" but this impious exclamation was heard with horror by everybody."

Mariner himself almost lost his life, from sneezing when Finow and his followers were about to commence a religious ceremony. "Immediately present threw down his club for who would proceed on so important an expedition after so dire an omen! Finow's eyes flashed with the fire of rage. Directing them full on Mr. Mariner, he cursed him with the most bitter curse. "Strike your God!" In a note it is stated, "To sneeze at the moment of setting out on an expedition, argues in their opinion the most fatal result." Mariner, having by a prudent retreat saved his life. Finow consulted with his men on the subject of Mr. Mariner's sneezing, and resolved, that as he was a foreigner, and had [p.11] different gods, his sneezing, was not to be considered of any consequence.''

Hence we find that in all ages, and in all countries, 1st., a sneeze is supposed to be an omen of impending evil to the person who sneezes, or to an undertaking which he may at the time be commencing—and 2ndly, that an invocation of the Deity is a preservation from the danger, which a person incurs by sneezing.

Struck by these remarkable identities in the observance of so irrational a custom, I felt convinced that it must have taken its rise in some religious fears and superstitions of primitive man, the common parent of those by whom it has been so long preserved.

On looking at those nations that present the most primitive type, we find a strange uniformity of belief.

The North American Indians, the natives of the Indian Archipelago, as well as the Polynesians, believed, not only in the existence of some supreme and beneficent power, but also in the existence of inferior spiritual beings, or little gods, strongly resembling the Fairies of Northern Europe. They also believed that all nature had a soul as well as men, and that the soul is peculiarly liable to the agency of spiritual beings. Thus the "Medicine Man" of the North American races is always a necromancer. His patient is not afflicted by natural, but by supernatural causes, only to be removed by counter-charms. The "Medicine Man" works himself into a singular state, sometimes ending in convulsions: he then becomes inspired, and proceeds, with certain ceremonies, to bring back the patient's soul, or to expel the evil spirit.

The same belief and practices are observable among the savages of Borneo, and of Central Africa. Among these simple and primitive races, there is a belief that man has a double form, the one corporeal, and the other spiritual, and that even in life the spirit or soul and the body are not necessarily united, but that sickness or evil spirits may deprive the body of its spiritual companion.1 [p.12] In Polynesia, not only man, but also inanimate objects, are supposed to be liable to lose their spirits, or souls.

The little gods sometimes steal the souls or shadows of those articles to which they take a fancy. (See "Westninster Review" 10th April 1862.) There is a Polynesian legend "in which they (the little gods) carry off the shadows of Ter Kanawa's jewels, leaving the costly substances behind them, the souls of the fairies being quite contented with the shadows alone."

In the Highlands of Scotland, and among the Irish peasantry, the same superstition prevails, excepting that the fairies appear to be even more exacting, only leaving behind a worthless substitute or semblance of the article pilfered by them. These superstitions have crossed over the Atlantic with the Irish emigrant. Many a cow, on the peninsula of Halifax, has, by being chalked with a cross, escaped from the pilfering hands of the fairies, who apparently are supposed to have a penchant for new milk.

But it would be fortunate if the fairies of the Celtic rare confined their depredations to the milk pail. It is asserted and believed by many of the Scottish and Irish peasantry, that not only infants, but also grown up men and women are liable to be stolen by the fairies.

Major Tidd, of the 76th Regt., told me that within the past twenty years, while he was stationed in Ireland, a child was actually burnt to death by its parents, under the impression that it was only a "fairy child" the real child having been carried off by the fairies. Traces of this belief are to be found even among the Highland emigrants and their descendants in Cape Breton.2

This being, then, so wide-spread a superstition, regarding the influence of fairies or subordinate deities, can we in any way obtain from is a clue to the habit of saying '"God bless you!" to a person who sneezes? Have the fairies anything to do with the mysterious danger caused by a sneeze, and does the invocation of the Deity protect the person who sneezes from the influence of the fairies.

This I believe, can be conclusively established by the traditions and superstitions of the Celtic race.

I need hardly refer to mysterious protection which the name of the Deity is supposed to afford against the agency of evil spirits. There is, however, a well known story which will illustrate the belief of the Celtic race as to the effect, which the habit of saying "God bless you!" has upon the fairies.


Pat once went to sleep at a place frequented by the fairies; and in his sleep was carried down to their palace. He was about to drink some of their ale, which would have forever prevented his return, when fortunately one of the fairies happened to sneeze, upon which Pat, in a courteous mood, exclaimed very innocently, "God bless your honor." Wonderful was the effect of thus invoking the name of the Deity in their presence. With terrible imprecations, and in great dismay, the fairies fled away, and Pat awoke once more upon earth.

I could cite many such stories to prove the fact that the Celtic race believe that from Satan down to the mildest form of evil spirits, the name of the Deity has the effect of rendering them, for the time, powerless to do harm.

Can we then find any clue to the question why we should wish to keep off fairies and evil spirits when a man sneezes? I have discovered the explanation, in the superstitions of the Highlanders. The following tradition as to a Highland Chief's family in Perthshire, related to me by the Rev. Dr. Robertson, a native of that county, shows that when a person sneezes, he is supposed to be liable to be stolen by the fairies, unless protected by some one invoking the name of the Deity.

Several centuries ago, an ancestor of the present Chief was engaged to be married to a young lady in France who, he learned, had grown fickle and was about to be married to a rival. In great distress, the Chief applied for aid to the King of the Fairies, who offered him a fairy horse, mounted on which he accompanied his Majesty to France. When they arrived at the house of the bride, the wedding was just commencing. The King of the Fairies, unseen by the guests, entered and seeing the bride for a moment withdraw into a room alone, he followed her. Just then she sneezed—there was no one present to say "God bless you," and in a moment the fairy had stolen the bride, who he carried in triumph over to the Highlands, where she married the chieftain, and became the happy mother of a long line of illustrious Mac's. It is needless to add that his rival, the unhappy Frenchman, mysteriously married "a fairy woman."

This, then, is the explanation of the custom among the Celtic race; but as their belief as to fairies, is precisely similar to that of the Polynesians, and as both have inherited, in common with all nations, the custom of invoking the Deity when a person sneezes, we may very naturally infer, that what is an explanation for the custom in the Highlands, is also a solution for it among the people of the Tonga Islands. But it is manifest that if all nations possess the custom they must have inherited it from a common source; and if so, that the custom must have been in [p.14] existence prior to the dispersion. If, then, the solution I have conjectured for this enigma be correct, man, prior to the dispersion, must have believed in a supreme protecting Deity, who listened to the prayers of menalso in the existence of subordinate malevolent Deities. Primeval man, it is self-evident, must have held that he was possessed of a spirit, which was liable to the attack of spiritual foes; and he must have regarded the act of sneezing, as in some way, peculiarly exposing the soul to the influence of its unseen enemies.

If, then, this trivial, ridiculous custom, which for more than 2000 years has puzzled philosophers, can be traced back to an era prior to the dispersion, it is of far greater historical value, as regards the history of man, than all the monuments of Egypt. It must have existed many thousand years before they were builtat at time when the common ancestors of the Egyptians, the Hindoos, the Greeks, the Celts, the Latins, were like the Polynesian Islanders, and the savages of America.

Professor Agassiz and his friends point to the early monuments of Egypt for one of their strongest proofs in support of their views, as we there find the negro type represented as precisely similar to what it now is; and they endeavor to convince the world that all the varieties of man sprang from different "centers of creation," that American man, Australian man, Arctic man, African man, all are indigenous to the countries which they now inhabit.

It would certainly be an amusing, if not a most profitable task to refute the speculations of American Ethnologists by arguments derived from sneezing.

Before they can expect us to deny the truth of revelation, and to accept their theories, let them answer the questions, how did all men, in all countries, arrive at the same singular conclusion, as to the mysterious dangers attendant on a sneeze, if this belief was not inherited from a common source?


1 'This belief among the Jews as to idiots of insane persons being "possessed of evil spirits," may be connected with these ideas. It is remarkable that sickness and death are, in the Arctic regions, in Australia, and in Central Africa, attributed by the natives to the influence of spirits, who have been employed by enemies to injure them. Thus among the Arctic Loneheux, whenever a person dies his relatives kill some one belonging to a neighboring tribe. In Australia exactly the same thing occurs, the natives fancying that some one has by supernatural means stolen the "kidney tin" of the deceased. They accordingly knock on the head a native of another tribe, and take from him his kidney while he is still alive.

See Sir John Richardson's Arctic Searching Expedition in Search of Sir J. Franklin, ch. 12. See also Report on the Aborigines, by the Committee of the Legislative Council of VictoriaSession 1858-9.

The belief in Scotland and in Equatorial Africa, I found to be almost precisely identical respecting there being ghosts even of the living, who are exceedingly troublesome and pugnacious, and can be sometimes killed by a silver bullet, or great skill.

2 See Halliwell's Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare as to the prevalence of this belief in the Isle of Man and in parts of England and Ireland p. 310. The subject opened up respecting our belief in fairies, &c., is only glanced at here—a series of amusing papers might be written on this subject alone.