Throughout history, religious humans of various faiths have long believed that certain emotions, feelings or sensations could be inflicted on people by supernatural forces. For instance, in the ancient Greco-Roman society, many thought that a deity called Eros or Cupid inspired the feeling of love. Similarly, according to some teachings of the Abrahamic religions, sinful temptations are caused by the machinations of demons. In that same strain of thought, the ancient Greeks also believed that sneezes could be divinely inspired. In fact, a sneeze was believed to be a good omen if it occurred after a serious statement or a decision.
This belief made an appearance in writing as early as the age of the 8th-century BCE epic poet, Homer. Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, professed her belief that a sneeze was a sign of the gods’ support in book XVII of The Odyssey. In that scene of the poem, Penelope had just finished longingly prophesying about how Odysseus would purge the shameless suitors in her home once he returned to Ithaca. As soon as Penelope ended her hopeful speech, her son, Telemachus, let out a great sneeze. After hearing her son’s powerful sneeze, Penelope cheerfully exclaimed, “Didn’t you notice that my son sneezed a blessing on all I had said?” (Book 17, approx. line 540, Penguin, 2009).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (cropped and sneeze-modified tondo from an Attic red cup, possibly Briseis and Phoenix (Louvre caption) or Hecamede and Nestor, ca. 490 BC. From Vulci. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.