Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/December 1897/The Symbolism of Salt

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DR. WALTER JAMES HOFFMAN, in his paper upon Popular Superstitions, which appeared in the Popular Science Monthly for November, 1896, speaks of the ominous meaning attached to the spilling of salt at table. He traces the origin of this widespread belief to our Lord's Supper and consequent events. Now, this is an erroneous though not infrequent supposition, doubtless generated by Leonardo da Vinci's great picture of the Last Supper, where he represents Judas overturning the saltcellar as he reaches over the table to dip his hand in the dish with our Lord. As a matter of fact, mention of the superstition was made in works anterior to the time of Christ. It was a common belief among the Romans, and may even then have been a survival, since proof exists that this mineral was held sacred very early in the history of the human race.

The Romans began their feasts by prayers and libations to the gods. The table was consecrated by placing upon it the images of the Lares and saltcellars. A family saltholder was kept with great care, and to spill the salt at table was esteemed ominous.[1]

The prominence of salt as a religious and social symbol is doubtless due to the fact that it became a necessity to most nations at an early stage of civilization, and that it was a luxury very hard for primitive man to obtain in many parts of the world. There are still, even in this era of commerce, portions of central Africa where the use of this mineral is a luxury confined to the rich.

In ancient times and among inland peoples the possession of a salt spring was regarded as a special gift of the gods. The Chaonians in Epirus had one which flowed into a stream where there were no fish, and the legend was that Heracles had allowed their forefathers to have salt instead of fish.[2]

The Germans waged war for the possession of saline springs, and believed that the presence of salt in the soil invested the district with peculiar sanctity, and made it a place where prayers were most readily heard.[3]

That religious significance should come to be attached to a substance so highly prized, and in many cases so hard to obtain, seems but natural, especially as the habitual use of the mineral commenced with the advance from nomadic to agricultural life—that step in civilization that is said to most influence the cults of the nations.

So important was salt to the ancients that it has been conjectured that the oldest trade routes were created for traffic in the article. Certainly, with the addition of incense, it plays the principal part in all that is known of the ancient highways of commerce. One of the roads in Italy is the Via Salaria, by which the produce of the salt pans of Ostia was carried up into the Sabine country, and to the present day the caravan trade of Sahara is largely dependent upon salt.[4]

Of old the gods were worshiped as givers of the fruits of the earth, and especially of bread and salt, which are always mentioned together. This mineral was associated with religious offerings, particularly cereal. Its preservative qualities made it the fitting symbol of an enduring compact; hence, probably, the "covenant of salt," spoken of so frequently in the Bible.

Numbers, xviii, 19: "It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord unto thee and to thy seed with thee"; and 2 Corinthians, xiii, 5: "Ought ye not to know that the Lord, the God of Israel, gave the kingdom over Israel to David forever, even to him and to his sons by a covenant of salt?"

These verses illustrate the importance attached to such compact. Not only were the gifts bestowed, but they were made enduring by "a covenant of salt."

In the mountains of Salzburg, about 1730, there existed what was known as the "Salt League of God." Menzel gives an account of the ceremony from which the association derived its name: "Each confederate on taking the oath dipped his finger in the saltcellar, and from this circumstance and the allusion it contained to the name of their country the league was styled by them the ‘Salt League of God.’"

The Mexicans personified their veneration for salt in the goddess Huixtocilmatl. She was said to be a sister of the rain gods, with whom she quarreled; in their resentment they drove her into the salt water, where she invented the art of panning the mineral, and became the goddess of salt.[5]

Next to its religious significance salt was, above all, the symbol of friendship. To eat salt with a man was held by most peoples, the Orientals especially, to form a sacred tie of brotherhood. Any person who had the hardihood to disregard this obligation would have been considered a social pariah of the vilest description. In the Forty Thieves, Cogia Houssain refuses to go to table with his intended victim for fear he should partake of this sacred substance in his company, and thus be compelled to forego his plans. When hard pressed for his reason, he makes excuse for not accepting the proffered hospitality by saying, "I never eat of any dish that has salt in it." There is an allusion in the Arabian Nights (Burton's edition, I believe) to a robber who, wandering about in the dark in a strange house, stumbles on a small, hard object. In order to ascertain its nature he puts it to his lips, and, discovering it to be salt, is compelled to abandon his burglarious intentions because, since he has tasted salt beneath that roof, he is forced to respect its master's property.

Omar Khayyam refers to the symbolical meaning attached to the mineral in the following lines:

"O wheel of heaven! no ties of bread you feel,
No ties of salt, you flay rue like an eel!"[6]

There were a number of other social usages connected with this mineral, from which have arisen various customs, superstitions, and representative expressions.

In ancient times it was customary to place the saltcellar in the center of the table. Above this sat the superiors, and below the inferiors; hence the expressions, "above the salt," "below the salt." Jonson, in Cynthia's Revels, illustrates their application: "His fashion is not to take knowledge of him that is beneath him in clothes. He never drinks below the salt."

Salt is also symbolical of wit, of sarcasm, of the good things of life, as—

"I never drank of Joy's sweet cordial
But Griefs fell hand infused a drop of gall;
Nor dipped my bread in Pleasure's piquant salt,
But briny Sorrow made me smart withal."[7]

Another well-known expression—i. e., "To be worth one's salt"—doubtless owes its origin to an old custom that obtained in more than one part of the world—that is, using cakes of salt as money—for instance, in Abyssinia and elsewhere, in Africa and in Thibet, and adjoining parts.[8]

In Colonel Yule's translation of Marco Polo, he devoted a note to the use of salt as a medium of exchange in the Shan markets down to our own times. Also in the same work details are given as to the importance of salt in the financial system of the Mongol emperors. The substance stood as well for costliness, as, "He paid a salt price for it."

Another ancient practice connected with salt is alluded to in the Bible, Ezekiel, xvi, 4: "Thou wast not salted at all."

This refers to the custom of salting the skin of newborn babes. The operation was supposed to make the epidermis dry, tight, and firm. Galen speaks of the practice. It may also have been emblematic of purity and incorruption.

Superstitions concerning salt are widely scattered over the world. When the Chinese observe the last festival of the year, literally called "rounding the year," a portion of the ceremony consists in building a bonfire of pine wood before the ancestral tablets of the family. Upon the flames salt is thrown, and the crackling which it occasions is regarded as an omen of good luck for the following year.[9]

The mountain people of North Carolina and West Virginia are said to put salt in their shoes in order to keep off the witches. Bancroft related that one of the aboriginal tribes of North America refrained from eating salt in the belief that it turned the hair white.

Several curious customs, founded upon the ancient religious significance of salt, survived until a recent date. Such was the Eton Montem, or procession of the "Eton" boys to Salt Hill. Certain boys in fancy costumes went first, in order to levy contributions on the passers-by. These donations were devoted to the maintenance of their captain at college, and all who gave received a pinch of salt in return. Another well-known college custom, that of salting the freshmen before they were entitled to join in games with the others, may have had something to do with the naming of the new students; or it may, on the other hand, have been instituted as a boyish joke because of the name already given.

Though in some portions of America salt was introduced by Europeans, yet there were many parts where the mineral was accessible, and a number of native tribes besides the Aztecs held it in high veneration. One of the professors who recently visited the Zuñi villages on behalf of the Smithsonian tells of a curious custom of the people which, I believe, has not been published hitherto. The Zuñis, when organizing an expedition to go after salt, fit out a war party and take provisions greatly in excess of their wants for the time during which they will be gone. Since there is no object to be served by a war party in times of peace, it has been conjectured that this practice is a survival from the days when the Zuñis were inhabitants of the cliff dwellings. By careful computation it has been ascertained that the amount of provisions invariably carried would be the proper allowance for the time consumed in a journey from the cliff dwellings to the place where the salt is obtained and back again.

From the careful preservation of all its features this salt-getting expedition would appear to have been at one time a ceremonial of religious importance. In the old cliff dwellings are found peculiar little bags containing salt; and at the present time a certain amount of the mineral, when brought to the villages, is set aside as sacred and preserved in little bags almost identical with those found in the ancient dwellings.

Where men live on milk and raw or roasted flesh, sodium chloride is an unnecessary addition. Thus the Numidian nomads in the past did not, and the Bedouins of Hadramant of the present do not, eat salt with their food. On the other hand, a cereal, vegetable, and boiled meat diet calls for salt. Livingstone's South Africa contains a very interesting passage treating this subject. The author says, speaking of the Bakwains: "When the poor who had no salt were forced to live on an exclusively vegetable diet they were troubled with indigestion. The native doctors, aware of the cause of the malady, usually prescribed some of that ingredient with their medicines. The doctors themselves had none, so the poor resorted to us for aid. We took the hint, and henceforth cured the disease by giving a teaspoonful of salt, minus the other remedies. Meat or milk had the same effect, though not so rapidly as salt. When I was myself deprived of salt for four months at two distinct periods, I felt no desire for the condiment, but was plagued by a longing for meat and milk. This continued as long as I was confined to exclusively vegetable diet, and when I procured a meal of flesh, though boiled in fresh rain water, it tasted pleasantly salt. Milk or meat or salt, obtained in however small quantities, removed entirely the excessive longing and dreaming about roasted ribs of fat oxen and bowls of cool, thick milk."

The consumption of salt has become almost a necessity to most peoples through long-continued habit; but, where tribes have been cut off from the use of it for a lengthened period, the taste for the mineral has almost or entirely died out. For instance, during the reign of Montezuma I, and from that time to the conquest, the Tlascaltec territory was completely surrounded by the Aztecs. Thus communication with the coast was prevented, and this people were compelled to do without salt among other luxuries. It became so rare that, though the nobles smuggled in a little for their own use, the condiment became quite unknown to the common people, who quite lost their taste for it.[10]

In Pliny's time salt was considered a valuable medicament for various ailments. It was taken to neutralize the effects of opium, and above all it was valued as a cure for leprosy.

The most common artificial salt is made by evaporating sea water in salt pans. It is also produced by pouring salt water upon burning wood, the ashes of which are said to have almost the pungency of the true mineral. When thus prepared the salt is black. In Arabia, according to Pliny, so many salt mines were found that people resorted to them instead of quarries, building whole houses and even cities of this mineral. Gerrah was entirely composed of it.

One of the most remarkable salt mines in the world is at Wieliczka, near Warsaw, Poland. It has been worked since 1252, and at one time furnished the principal revenue of the kingdom. A vast number of people inhabit the subterranean passages of this mine, and are governed by laws and magistrates of their own. Each miner is allotted a little cell, where he dwells and rears his family. As many as eighty horses are kept in this underground republic to carry to and fro along the immense corridors which are supported by pillars of salt. When the light falls down the long vistas it makes the mine look like a crystal palace, of which the walls and pillars are tinged with delicate green.[11]

Outside of the timber belt, which begins at Monterey and extends at intervals to Oregon, there is hardly a mountain on the Coast Range of California, from San Diego, on the south, to Trinity, almost at the Oregon line, says Carl Purdy, in Garden and Forest, which is not in part covered by the chemise brush, or chemisal. The greater the distance from the ocean the larger the percentage of mountain lands which this hardy shrub has taken possession of, until many sections of the eastern part of the Coast Range are almost given up to it, and from the valleys to the mountain tops it holds a sway only shared by a few of the hardiest shrubs, oaks, and conifers. Hardly a spot is too steep to allow it a foothold, hardly a soil too meager to afford it sustenance. Fires sweep over and leave blackened stubs, but with its unusual vitality it soon starts a new growth. In a few years rocks, hills, and slopes are again masked by a close color of blue green, which gives to the mountains a softness of outline peculiar to the Coast Range, and very beautiful too, although the monotony of flowing lines often becomes tiresome. The chemise (Adenostoma fascicularis) is of the rose family, and is an evergreen with linear, heathlike leaves, a light-colored, stinging bark, and brittle wood. In late spring it produces an abundance of whitish flowers with green centers.
  1. Horace, Od. ii, 16, 14, Test.
  2. Arist., ut supra.
  3. Tacitus, ut supra.
  4. Also see Herodotus's account of the caravan routine uniting the salt oases of the Libyan Desert.
  5. Bancroft. Works on Native Races.
  6. Quatrains of Translations. E.H. Whinfield.
  7. Omar Khayyam. Translation by E.H. Whinfield.
  8. Marco Polo, book ii, chap. xiviii.
  9. Social Life of the Chinese. Justus Doolittle.
  10. Bancroft. Works on Native Races.
  11. Valmont de Bomare, tome v, p. 591