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Ancient Sneezing: A Gift from the Gods
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Ancient Sneezing: A Gift from the Gods

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Ancient Sneezing: A Gift from the Gods

Ancient Sneezing: A Gift from the Gods
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In olden days, a good "achoo" was seen as an excellent omen, especially if the gods did the sneezing. Classics commentator Elaine Fantham and Linda Wertheimer discuss ancient perceptions of sneezing.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

It's allergy season. That means runny noses, watery eyes, and sneezing. Some people love a good sneeze. In ancient times, it was even considered to be a good omen. WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY's classics commentator Elaine Fantham joins us from Toronto.

Elaine, hi.

Professor ELAINE FANTHAM (Professor Emerita of Classics, Princeton University): Hello, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Why was sneezing a good omen?

Prof. FANTHAM: Because it was seen as something humans couldn't engineer. It was spontaneous. It came over them. It was out of their control.

WERTHEIMER: So a gift from the gods, a sneeze, perhaps?

Prof. FANTHAM: Yes. And in fact, most of the sneeze stories mention the gods pretty quickly, because of course omens were sent by the gods.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: What about allergies sent by the gods? Do you think that the ancients knew about goldenrod, for example?

Prof. FANTHAM: Anything I've read is remarkably free of any references to being made to sneeze by pollen. In Xenophon, when the Greek mercenaries who are trying to escape, they'd been stranded in Turkey when their commanding officer was killed, they're trying to escape and they're surrounded by barbarians. They don't know whether these are good barbarians or bad barbarians. And Xenophon makes a brave speech, saying that we have many glorious hopes of coming safely through and returning to Greece. And that moment somebody unidentified sneezes. And all the soldiers are so pleased that they bow down before God at the sound of this good omen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Maybe it was dusty in Turkey.

Prof. FANTHAM: Well, this is it. I'm thinking that's the only one of my sneeze stories which gives you the kind of setting where you might have a dust or pollen allergy coming in.

WERTHEIMER: I gather that people are not the only beings who sneeze. Gods sneezed, too.

Prof. FANTHAM: Yes. In fact, it's much better, I think, if the gods sneeze. In the earliest story about sneezing, it is again a human who sneezes. And it's actually rather a nice story. You know how patiently Penelope waited for Odysseus to return. And he comes back disguised as a beggar. And Penelope doesn't know this. And she is telling the trusty swineherd how Odysseus will really take revenge on the suitors, if and when he returns.

And at that moment, her son, Telemacus, who isn't in the conversation, has a big sneeze. And this makes Penelope laugh. She's so happy because a sneeze means that Odysseus will return. So that's a human sneeze.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Uh-huh.

Prof. FANTHAM: But for instance, in Theocratus, Theocratus is talking about one of his friends. And he says, Oh, yes, the love god sneezed for Simikidas(ph) because he loved Moto(ph) so much that he had to have the help of the love gods.

WERTHEIMER: Here in the West we say, Bless you, when someone sneezes. Germans say Gesundheit. It sounds to me like this is still connected to the ancients. I mean, we're invoking the gods when someone sneezes.

Prof. FANTHAM: As I think we really are. The thing that makes it different, of course, is that in our ancient stories, the gods did the blessing beforehand. I mean, if the gods wanted to bless you, he would make the sneeze happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FANTHAM: So the blessing was the cause and the sneeze was the result.

WERTHEIMER: And now we've switched it around.

Prof. FANTHAM: Yeah. One of my favorite little stories is a poem of Catullus about two lovers. And they're really soppy. And he says, Oh, my darling, Acme. If I don't love you to distraction, and love you forever through all the years, may I meet a hungry lion in scorching Libya. And love sneezes on his right to show that love approves of this sort of oath of loyalty.

And Acme kisses him back and says, So may we serve only the god of love forever, as my passion is much bigger and burns much more fiercely in my heart. And the love god sneezes at that.

But, you know, one of the things that Catullus also tells us is that lovers' oaths don't have to be true. The gods will punish people for false oaths, unless they're lovers. They're not - they don't have the lasting power of other kinds of oath.

WERTHEIMER: Like sneezes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FANTHAM: Yes. But it's the god that does the sneezing.

WERTHEIMER: I see. Well, thank you very much for that.

Prof. FANTHAM: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Elaine Fantham is professor Emerita of Classics at Princeton University. She's WEEKEND EDITION'S classics commentator. She joined us from her home in Toronto.

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