Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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What Do You Say When a Pagan Sneezes?

When someone sneezes, it's considered polite to respond with a blessing or a wish of good health.

So what do you say when a pagan sneezes?

(No aspect of culture is too obscure to merit careful consideration.)

Well, you could say Bless you or Gesundheit like everyone else, but there's nothing distinctively pagan about either. (How Americans came to use the German word for “health" as a sneeze-blessing is a question well worth the asking, but it's one to which I don't know the answer.)

Wiccans might say Blessed be, although I don't think that I've ever heard this phrase—generally reserved for greetings and farewells—used in this way.

But for my pentacles, the Irish have the right of it.

In the Gaeltacht, when someone sneezes, you respond: Deosil. May it go right with you.

Pagans will generally be familiar with this term in its sense of “clockwise” movement. When you move with the Sun, you move in the right way. It's a fine thing to wish on someone.

(I suppose one could English this as Sunwise, although I've never actually heard anyone respond to a sneeze in this way. Still, it might be worth the try.)

In American Pagan, which tends to pronounce non-English words as if they were English (hey, Samhain is Sam Hane, right?), this word is pronounced DAY o' sill. Well, if you must.

But on the principle of fighting fire with fire, I'll go with the Irish pronunciation, thank you very much: JESH'l.


It even sounds like a sneeze.






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Tasha Halpert
    Tasha Halpert Thursday, 26 October 2017

    Gesundheit means literally have good health. German is an interesting language, I had to learn it once however it is mostly now forgotten. My mother spoke 5 languages, daughter of a diplomat, and German was one. My father did too, though American. Languages ran in the family, so to speak. They used to speak German when they didn't want me to know what they were saying, but sometimes I could figure it out, ha ha.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 26 October 2017

    German often strikes me as an image of what English might have been like if it hadn't been for the Norman Invasion. Our vast French vocabulary notwithstanding, there are still lots and lots of cognates.
    "Gesundheit," for example, would be English "sound-hood" ("sound" as in "safe and sound": a lot of those alliterating pairs are old, old). We even used to have the ge- prefix in Old English (except that it was pronounced ye-), but it fell out of use as Old English became Middle English.

  • Tasha Halpert
    Tasha Halpert Thursday, 26 October 2017

    And sound used to mean healthy as in of sound mind and body!

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Thursday, 26 October 2017

    I started using Gesundheit at a young age because I heard Bullwinkle use it. It surprised my dad and occasionally surprises other people that I use it. But hey, if it's good enough for the horned lord Bullwinkle J. Moose than it's good enough for me.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 27 October 2017

    I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle as a kid, and it's only gotten better with time.
    Did you know that Bullwinkle is from Moosylvania, an island disputed between the US and Canada?
    Canada says it belongs to the US, the US says it belongs to Canada.

  • Aryós Héngwis
    Aryós Héngwis Thursday, 26 October 2017

    This is just a shot in the dark but perhaps Gesundheit is by way of Yiddish instead of German (even though it's literally German). Since Ashkenazi Jews in America primarily came from places where German or Germanic languages were spoken.

    Alternatively, it could be reflective of the fact that German ancestry is actually the most common of all ancestries in the United States (most of aren't from Britain originally even though the 13 colonies were started by Britain!). Of course, so few other Teutonic phrases have made their way into American vernacular that it would be an odd exception.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 27 October 2017

    An interesting theory, Aryos. My Yiddish-English dictionary doesn't list gesundheit; "health" is gezunt. (Tzu gezunt is the sneeze blessing: "to health").
    Sauerkraut and gesundheit. Two World Wars in which Germany was the bad guy sure did a good job pruning German from the American vocabulary.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 27 October 2017

    As I think about it, gesundheit has to be German. German -heit = Yiddish -keit (as in Yiddishkeit, "Jewishness").
    Interesting that this minor folk-custom managed to survive the anti-German animus of two World Wars. As you say, there are more Americans of predominantly German descent (myself included: Anglo-German on one side, Anglo-Austrian on the other) than anything else.

  • Aryós Héngwis
    Aryós Héngwis Friday, 27 October 2017

    Yeah it is interesting. Unlike most other immigrant groups, German ethnicity kind of tended to get pretty heavily subsumed. Certainly the World Wars were a large part of that.

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