Loud Sneezes, a Sign from the Gods

Telemakhos sneezing, Penelope laughing

Telemakhos sneezing, Penelope laughing

My father used to have a very loud sneeze and I have carried on the family tradition. This became a point of discussion yesterday when I startled my wife and my son with a loud exhalation. Darien, who has not carried on the tradition, pointed out that one can train oneself to sneeze quietly.

My response was that my sneeze was a sign of good luck sent from the gods. I had in mind Telemakhos’ sneeze in Book XVII of The Odyssey.

The situation is as follows. Odysseus has returned and is disguised as a beggar in his own hall. Penelope wants to see him, and a timely sneeze from her son signals that her fortunes are about to change. Here’s the passage:

Then wise Penélopê said again:
“Go call him, let him come here, let him tell
that tale again for my own ears.
                                                            Our friends
can drink their cups outside or stay in hall,
being so carefree. And why not? Their stores
lie intact in their homes, both food and drink,
with only servants left to take a little.
But these men spend their days around our house
killing our beeves, our fat goats and our sheep,
carousing, drinking up our good dark wine;
sparing nothing, squandering everything.
No champion like Odysseus takes our part.
Ah, if he comes again, no falcon ever
struck more suddenly than he will, with his son,
to avenge this outrage!”
                                               The great hall below
at this point rang with a tremendous sneeze
“kchaou!” from Telémakhos—like an acclamation.
And laughter seized Penélopê.
                                                           Then quickly,
lucidly she went on:
                                       “Go call the stranger
straight to me. Did you hear that, Eumaios?
My son’s thundering sneeze at what I said!
May death come of a sudden so; may death
relieve us, clean as that, of all the suitors!

A sneeze, in other words, can signal that a final cleansing is at hand. Which means that I don’t have to change my behavior.


Further thought: The 18th century, which idolized Homer, marveled at how the bard could could touch all aspects of the human experience, from the most sublime sentiments to the tiniest human details. In the end, this is what led them to rank the rough Homer over the more polished Virgil, who had been preferred in the 17th century. Telemakhos’ sneeze could be exhibit A for tiny human details. It’s also good to see Penelope laugh.

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