“At the queen’s last words, Telemachus sneezed aloud [μέγ᾽ ἔπταρεν], and the noise went thundering round the hall. Penelope laughed.” (Od. 17.541-542)
Why does Penelope laugh? Because she was convinced that Telemachus’ sneeze was a prophetic sign that her words concerning the demise of the suitors would come true: "Did you not see how my son sneezed as I finished then? So death for the suitors may still not be unachieved" (17.544-545). Sneezing was widely recognized in the ancient world as a divine omen. In Xenophon’s Anabasis, there is a good description of this:
“As he was saying this a man sneezed [πτάρνυταί], and when the soldiers heard it, they all with one impulse made obeisance to the god; And Xenophon said, ‘I move, gentlemaen, since at the moment when we were talking about deliverance, an omen [οἰωνὸς] from Zeus the Saviour was revealed to us....’” (Anab. 3.2.9)
The idea behind this is that the Greeks and Romans believed that the gods governed all things. So Plutarch can say that “For proof of this I may call Homer for my witness, who affirms that there is nothing done or brought to perfection of which a god is not the cause” (De Pythiae oraculis 22). In the case of sneezing, it was something that could not be controlled and so it was understood as a supernatural cause or influence. Sometimes the omen was not always positive, and the significance and interpretations of sneezes varied depending on a variety of factors. There are many references to sneezing as an omen in both Greek and Roman literature, and I should like to point my readers to the fascinating articles by Pieter W. van der Horst and Arthur Stanley Pease (citations below), in which there is to be found numerous references to the literature. According to van der Horst, "sneezing as a manifestation of a divine power played a much more important part in ancient divinatory speculation than we are often inclined to assume."
So, next time you sneeze, ponder what the gods may be brewing up for you!
2. Arthur Stanley Pease, "The Omen of Sneezing," Classical Philology 6 (1911): 429-443. [Online here.]