Sacred Salt Spilled

Throughout history, salt has universally been regarded as a protective agent or charm, thought to possess magical powers and drive away all malevolent forces. As a preserving and curative agent, salt has been essential to humankind since prehistoric times. While salt is cheap and ubiquitous in modern times, its significance and value in the past was enormously important. The many English phrases referring to salt indicate the longstanding importance given to this mineral. We take something with a ‘pinch of salt’, call someone a ‘pillar of salt’, speak of ‘salting’ a mine, and discuss the most ‘salient’ points of an argument. In the New Testament Book of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that they are ‘the salt of the earth’.53 

In the past, salt was an important medium of exchange in commercial ventures across the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Adriatic Seas. Salacia, originally paired with the Roman sea-god Neptune, was the goddess of salt water. Salt was already mined in the Alps when Rome was founded,54 and the so-called salt routes were specifically established for trade in this commodity. The ancient Phoenicians built saltpans on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza as far back as 600 BCE. To them, salt was known as ‘white gold’. Germanic tribes living around the North Sea area traded amber, a much desired fashion accessory by Roman ladies, for salt from the Mediterranean Sea. 

Salt was subject to taxation by many governments around the world, from the ancient Chinese and Romans to late medieval Burgundy, where salt was taxed at more than 100 percent when it came from the salt-works. This tax was so lucrative for various governments that the income from a saltpan in southern Spain is said to have largely financed Columbus' voyages. 

Food can effectively be stored by drying in arid climates. However, in any normal humidity, fungus and bacteria will rapidly destroy stored food. Even when kept in ice during winter, it quickly rots as it thaws during spring. Therefore, in societies lacking refrigeration, freeze-drying, and canning, salt was used to preserve food – an absence of salt could mean the difference between life and death. 

Because salt was such a precious commodity, many peoples customarily paid for contracted work in measured amounts of salt. Salt in the form of small cakes served as monetary exchange in ancient Tibet and Ethiopia. Roman soldiers and workers were paid a salarium in the form of salt or given an allowance with which to buy it, hence, the term ‘salary’, meaning ‘of salt’. Therefore, we still say someone is ‘not worth his salt’, meaning not worth the expense of the food he eats, or ‘he won’t earn salt for his porridge’, indicating he will never earn a penny.

Salt has traditionally been used in religious ritual amongst various nations and was commonly used in altar offerings and sacrifices. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews regarded salt as sacred and a repository of life. They mixed it in their sacrificial cakes and used it in their lustrations. Salt has always been an emblem of purity and sanctity. Holy water consists of a mixture of water and salt, both solemnly exorcised for the banishment of devils and blessed for the infusion of divine grace. The primary use of holy water is for the rite of the Asperges, the sprinkling of the congregation immediately before High Mass each Sunday. The Catholic Church uses holy water on most occasions. For example, when objects are blessed for holy use, in stoups or small basins at the entrance of churches, and by the faithful in their homes. 

Salt also features in various mythologies. The Finns have a myth of Ukko, their sky-god, who flung a spark of heavenly fire into the ocean, thereby turning it into salt water, essential to life. Similarly, the ancient Aztecs worshipped Huixtocihuatl, their salt goddess. In some parts of the world, salt mining was regarded with great reverence. Laotian salt miners were obliged to observe sexual abstinence during their term of work, because of the sacred reputation of the substance they were handling. Salt was used to solemnify social transactions and to ratify important agreements; as a symbol of incorruptibility, salt stood for perpetuity. The Old Testament mentions ‘a covenant of salt’,55 indicating a covenant that could not be broken. Similarly, Germanic and Celtic tribes used salt for binding oaths by dipping a finger in salt before swearing an oath, and in the English North Midlands, it was customary in the past to use salt as a substitute for the Bible when oaths were pronounced.

To appreciate the many superstitious beliefs connected with salt, it must again be pointed out how precious and rare a commodity this was to many people in the past. Anyone who has eaten totally unsalted food, especially meat, can understand how valuable salt must have been to those lacking access to it. As salt was so vital to the maintenance of life, it was inevitably attributed with magical powers due to its preservation properties. Therefore, salt signified incorruptibility and immortality, and because it was not only essential but also difficult to obtain, it was believed that even spilling a small amount accosted bad fortune. 

Spilling salt was considered an unlucky omen by the Romans, and this superstition has descended over the millennia to modern times. Spilling salt was believed to rouse evil spirits and bring bad luck. Many believed that every grain spilt represented a tear to be shed. In Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of The Lord’s Supper, Judas Iscariot can be identified by the saltcellar accidentally knocked over by his arm. 

The superstition that the bad luck caused by spilling salt can only be averted by throwing some salt over the left shoulder with the right hand is widely known. This was an add-on to the existing superstitions about salt and developed with the spread of Christianity in Europe and the resulting belief in the devil. Why the left shoulder? This is where the devil and evil spirits were said to lurk. As most people are right-handed, the left side was regarded as the weak side, and using the left hand was seen as inviting misfortune and ill luck. 

As the symbol of incorruptibility and immortality because of its magical preservation properties, salt was regarded as harmful and hostile to evil forces, fostering the notion that salt could drive them away. It was therefore used in various stages of human existence, from infancy to death. Newborn children were often ‘salted’, meaning that immediately after birth, they were bathed in saltwater to ward off the threat of witchcraft, as it was generally believed that unbaptised children were readily seized by fairies. Alternately, a pinch of salt in a newborn baby’s mouth or in the cradle protected it from harm and maleficent forces. Another preventive was to sew a little salt into the child’s dress.56 

In many European countries, the belief persisted that a saucer of salt placed on a corpse before burial kept the devil at bay. The devil was thought to abhor this symbol of eternity and immortality. Salt, an emblem of the immortal spirit, together with some earth, was placed on a small plate on a corpse’s torso. Besides keeping the devil away, it was thought to keep the deceased’s ghost from walking about. ‘There is no weight so heavy as salt gets, when it is on the dead’ is a popular saying in the British Isles. This custom was widespread in Europe and still practised as late as the 1950s.57 

The protective qualities attributed to salt are reflected in many curious beliefs of the past. A pinch of salt in daily wash water guarded against evil spirits, and salt carried on one’s person at night, protected against the wicked intentions of ghosts. Salting a house served the same purpose of protection and was traditionally observed worldwide. To throw salt after a gypsy was believed to nullify any evil curse the nomad might have pronounced. To keep unwelcome visitors from calling again, salt was spilled on the doorstep or thrown after them as they departed!

Salt was also used as powerful protection against witches and witchcraft. To throw a handful of salt into the fire was believed to neutralise the evil influence of witchcraft. Witches were thought to hate salt, and during the witch trials in Europe, anyone complaining that food was too salty was immediately suspected. Formerly, dairymaids sprinkled salt on their milk pails and butter churns to prevent any interference from witches, and cows were rubbed down with salt after calving to prevent milk fever. In his Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grimm writes: ‘When a witch walks into your house, give her a piece of bread with three grains of salt sprinkled on it, and she can’t hurt anything’.58 

As salt was thought to keep evil at bay, it was known as a luck-bringer, and in Europe, it is still customary in rural areas to give a gift of salt to newlyweds for good luck, hoping they will want for nothing in their future life together. Salt was traditionally carried over the threshold on New Year’s Day to ensure good fortune throughout the year. In the past, when moving into a new house, a box of coals and a plate of salt were the first things taken inside to ensure warmth and good fortune; when moving house, salt was thrown into the fireplace of the old home to leave all sorrow behind, and only fresh salt was brought to a new home to ensure luck, following the saying: ‘Travel salt, travel sorrow’.

Borrowing and lending salt has always been considered most unlucky. However, if it was essential, then the salt should be promptly paid for. Similarly, passing salt at the table was considered unlucky, hence the saying: ‘Help me to salt, help me to sorrow’, or ‘pass the salt, pass the sorrow’.

Being a natural preservative, salt symbolises friendship in many countries. To eat a man’s salt means to partake of his hospitality. No one who has eaten of another man’s salt should speak ill of him or do him a bad turn. This was taken especially seriously in the East. Amongst the Arab people, to share salt created a sacred bond between host and guest, hence the Arabic expression: ‘There is salt between us’. The Greeks said: ‘Trespass not against salt and board’, and Iranians described disloyalty as being ‘untrue to salt’.

Interestingly, in European countries during the Middle Ages, salt formed a line of social demarcation at the table, separating family and retainers. Hence, the expression ‘to sit below the salt’ described the position of servants and staff when taking meals. The family saltcellar of those fortunate enough to afford servants was of massive silver and was usually placed in the middle of the high table. All persons of distinction sat ‘above the salt’, in other words, at the high table, and had access to the salt, whereas all the servants sat at lower trestle tables, therefore ‘below the salt’. 

It should be noted that the term ‘salt’ was, and still is, used for the salt container as well as the condiment, and when entertaining, the salt should always be placed next to the guest of honour, thereby distinguishing the guest from the host. 


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