It’s the year 1350, the black plague is sweeping through our land and yet, somehow, I survive. Shifting the basket of withered turnips on my hip, I scurry along the edges of the muddy street and struggle to keep my kirtle clear of the many puddles. A corpse-bearer turns onto the road. I avert my eyes from the grisly load in the back of the wagon. As he passes, he sniffs, then lets out a resounding sneeze.
The first sign of the plague! I cross myself without thought and call a hurried “God bless you,” after the poor man who may very well lie in the back of his own wagon before the week is out. He nods a tired thanks. I continue on my way, hoping God will use my small prayer to preserve the man’s life.
So, why do we say “God bless you” after a sneeze? My little story above represents the most popular theory. Legend says that around 590 AD, long before the bubonic plague hit Europe, Pope Gregory I, (aka Pope Gregory The Great) believed sneezing was the first sign of plague and ordered his followers to respond to a sneeze with a blessing meant to shield the sneezer from death. Which was pretty cool of the guy, if you ask me. Also, how do you get people to call you “The Great”? Asking for a friend.
Other popular theories revolve around evil spirits. One says sneezing expelled your soul from your body, in which case the blessing was meant to protect you from evil spirits entering you while your directionally-challenged soul found its way home.
A similar theory includes a much more agoraphobic soul with a weak front door. The sneeze would figuratively blast open the front door and give any lurking evil spirits a chance to slip inside. Again, a simple blessing was all you needed for protection. I guess you were doomed if you sneezed while you were alone.
Lastly, some believed sneezing expelled the evil spirits already inside you (does that make your nose an exorcist?). In this case, the blessing was to protect other people from all the havoc-wreaking spirits now freely wandering the streets.
To summarize, sneezes were either harbingers of plague and death, or they opened spirit portals. One of those definitely sounds cooler than the others.
Nowadays, mostly in American culture, it’s simply a response that’s so deeply ingrained it’s often considered rude not to say it. Even if you’re feeling pretty safe from spirit portals.