Salt, social standing and religious superstition

Salt, because of its high value in the ancient world, has maintained both cultural and religious significance over more than three millennia. For example, in Medieval and Renaissance European kingdoms, easy access to salt during meals assigned social status. Intricately carved salt cellars would be placed on select tables within easy reach of those deemed worthy. Accordingly at any noble table, to be seated “below the salt” was to be seen as unworthy of access to such luxury.

From its value in its use as a preservative and food additive in the ancient pre-rationalist world, salt became a religious symbol, representing immutability and incorruptible purity. In many religions, salt is still included on the altar to represent purity, and it is mixed into holy water of various sects for the same reason. 

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Salt cellar by Benvenuto Fellini (b. 1500, Firenze, d. 1571, Firenze). Famous example of Mannerist goldsmithery made for King Francois I in 1540. The salt was offered in a boat placed by the side of Sea (at rear), while pepper was served in a covered triumphal arch placed in the landscape (at front).

Ancient Greek worshippers consecrated salt in their rituals, for example, the Vestal Virgins sprinkled all sacrificial animals with salt and flour. Salt was a token of permanence to both Jews of the Old Testament and Christians of the New Testament. To the Jews, it came to signify the eternal covenant between Jews and Israel. Jewish temple offerings still include salt on the Sabbath and orthodox Jews still dip their bread in salt as a remembrance of those sacrifices. Covenants in both the Old and New Testaments were often sealed with salt, explaining the origin of the word “salvation.” In the Catholic Church, salt is used in a variety of purifying rituals. Jesus called his disciples “the Salt of the Earth”, a statement that was commemorated by the Catholic church until Vatican II, by placing a small taste of salt on a baby’s lip at his or her baptism.

 “And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the Salt of the Covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt.”

Leviticus 2:13

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In the modern Christian mainstream, the superstitious use of blessed salt is a comonplace belief. Iis listed within the Anglican liturgy of Holy Baptism In the section on Occasional Offices of the Book of Common Prayer (1991 edition), the following prayer, given under the rite for Blessing of Holy Water is said before the holy water is blessed and "salt is put into the water in the form of a cross":
"Almighty and everlasting God, you have created salt for the use of man, we ask you to bless this salt and grant that wherever it is sprinkled and whatever is touched by it may be set free from all impurity and the attacks of Satan; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Likewise, the published Roman Rites of the Catholic Church also mention various uses of blessed salt. The 1962 Rituale Romanum includes salt as component in three rites:
1)Baptism: Before the candidates enter the church or baptistry, salt is blessed with an exorcism, and a pinch can be put in the mouth of the candidates. However, in modern practice this can be skipped.
2) Reconsecration of an altar: In one rite for the reconsecration of an altar which has been disturbed, salt is exorcized, blessed, and mixed with ashes, water and wine, the resulting mixture being used to make the mortar with which the altar is resealed.
3) Blessing holy water: Salt is added to water in silence after a prayer in which God is asked to bless the salt, recalling the blessed salt "scattered over the water by the prophet Elisha" and invoking the protective powers of salt and water, that they may "drive away the power of evil”. An additional rite provides for the blessing of salt for animals.
Blessed salt is also used in prayer services of Pentecostal churches, such as the Apostolic Church Fullness of God's Throne

To the more religious Christians, salt remains a supernatural symbol of the permanent sanctity of Jesus and offers supposed hands-on protection from evil. Salt is still used to make holy water and also the more powerful exorcised water of the Roman Catholic Church. Salt is also used to make protective circles during exorcisms of demons (you need a bottle of blessed salt). In the middle of the last millennia in Europe, salt was believed to provide defence against witches, witchcraft, demons, sprites, and the evil eye. It was a common belief that witches, and the animals they bewitched, could not eat anything salted. Inquisitors were advised by demonologists to protect themselves by wearing an amulet of salt, consecrated on Palm Sunday, along with other blessed herbs, pressed into a disk of blessed wax. Carrying a concealed packet of salt was said to ward off the evil eye as well. Another known talisman to ward off evil spirits was a jar of salt and a knife. Some people put salt and pepper in their left boot for good fortune. To ward off an evil witch, a peasant might throw salt outside the front door and lean a broom next to it. A passing witch would have to count the grains of salt and the blades of straw on the broom before she could do any harm.

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Similarly, any waste of salt can be a portent of evil. In Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper,” Judas Escariot has just spilled a bowl of salt - a portent of evil and bad luck. In Buddhist tradition, salt repels evil spirits. It is also why in many Asian cultures it’s customary to throw salt over your shoulder before entering your house after a funeral: it scares off any evil spirits that may be clinging to your back. In the Christian tradition you should throw spilt salt over your left shoulder as, according to the Medieval Church, the devil or his demons reside behind or on your left shoulder, with your guardian angels on the right. In Hawaii and Samoa, sea salt is used for protection, both by placing salt in each of the four corners of the house and by pouring salt on the door threshold to prevent any spirits from crossing into one’s home. 

In the Middle East, outcrops of diapiric salt masses can also have apophenic significance to some Christians (Genesis 19:26); Lot's wife was noted in the journals of Fulcher of Chartres (Chaplain to King Baldwin) who accompanied the crusader Baldwin I across the Dead Sea valley in December 1100 AD. In reality, the apophenic feature described as Lot's wife is a fracture-defined 12m-high caprock-capped column of diapiric salt, lying at the foot of the much larger Mt Sedom (Usdum) on the southwestern edge of the Dead Sea.

It is one of several dissolutional remnants along the gypsum-capped cavernous edge of the outcropping Miocene salt mass that is the diapiric salt core of Mount Sedom. Pillars weather and collapse and is likely why the viewed position and interpretation of Lot's wife can vary, except to the most divinely-narrowed Christian mindset.

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Cavern in the salt diapir that is Mt Sedom

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Lot’s wife is a pillar of salt. A) As a diapiric salt erosional remnant on the edge of Mt Sedom, given supernatural significance. B) As a Christian myth depicted in the Sodom and Gomorrah motif from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel, 1493. Note Lot's wife, already transformed into a salt pillar, in the center.

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Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal impression from the eighth century BC identified by several sources as a possible depiction of the slaying of Tiamat from the Enûma Eliš[

Chinese folklore credits the Phoenix with the discovery of salt. One day a peasant saw a phoenix rise from the ground. He knew there must be a treasure on the earth where the Phoenix had risen into the air. He worked the soil for many hours but could find no wealth, only soil. Still, he knew it must have value, so he took the soil to the Emperor and gifted him his treasure. The Emperor said it was nothing but earth and put him to death for his impudence. Later, a piece of this earth fell into a bowl of soup for the Emperor. On tasting it and discovering that the source of this new wonderful taste was the dead peasant's soil, he felt great shame. He called for the dead man's wife and son and gifted them control of the lands where salt occurred. The peasant’s family became rich and prosperous.

In Norse mythology the gods first came from a salty ice-block over four days as the sacred cow, Audumbla lifted Buri the first god in Norse mythology, and grandfather of Odin, out of the salty ice block.

In another creation myth, Tiamat is the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation in Mesopotamian religion (Sumerian, Assyrian, Akkadian and Babylonian). She is a primordial salty goddess of the ocean, mating with Apsu (the god of fresh water) to produce the younger gods. Her husband, Apsu, later makes war upon their children and is killed. When she, too, wars upon her husband's murderers, she is then slain by Enki's son, the storm-god Marduk, and the arch of the heavens and the earth were formed from her divided body.
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Records from the Middle Euphrates Hittite kingdom of Mari attest to the veneration of Hatta, the god of salt, through the erection of a statue to him by the city's ruler, Zimri-Lim (Stackert, 2010). Among Hittite rituals, perhaps the best-known use of salt is one that parallels its use in various Mesopotamian curses: the First Hittite Soldier's Oath employs salt within an analogical curse ritual against that soldier who would commit treason. Ancient Greek worshippers also Consecrated salt in their rituals.

In Aztec religion, Huixtocihuatl was a fertility goddess who presided over salt and salt water. The Aztecs considered her to be the older sister of the rain gods, including Tlaloc. Huixtocihuatl had angered her younger brothers by mocking them, so they banished her to the salt beds. It was there where she discovered salt and how it was created. During Tecuilhuitontli, the seventh month of the Aztec calendar, there was a festival in honour of Huixtocihuatl. During the festival, salt-makers would honour the deity with dances that lasted for ten days. The celebration culminated with the sacrifice of Huixtocihuatl's ixiptla, the embodiment of the goddess in human form.

Song and dance in honour of Huixtocihuatl continued for ten days, and culminated on the last day of Tecuilhuitontli, when priests sacrificed the ixiptla on the shrine dedicated to Tlaloc. Dancers escorted the likeness of Huixtocihuatl to the temple. Captives, to be slain along with the ixiptla, also joined the procession to the temple. Priests, adorned with quetzal feathers, slew the captives first. Priests then used the sharp snout of a swordfish to slay the ixiptla, first by cutting into her neck, then into her breast. Afterwards, the priests cut her heart out, raised it as an offering, and stored it in a green stone jar. After the sacrifice, people scattered and celebrated the end of the festival with banquets. All those who were affiliated with salt would drink wine, and by the end of the night, most were drunk.

In the American Southwest, the Pueblo worship the Salt Mother. Other native American tribes had significant restrictions on who was permitted to eat salt. Hopi legend holds that the angry Warrior Twins punished mankind by placing valuable salt deposits far from civilization, requiring hard work and bravery to harvest the precious mineral.

Shinto religion also uses salt to purify an area. Before sumo wrestlers enter the ring for a match - which is actually an elaborate Shinto rite - a handful of salt is thrown into the centre to drive off malevolent spirits. 

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From the 26th Chapter of the 2nd book of Sahagun's Florentine Codex, which was published in the 16th century. It depicts Huixtocihuatl and her sacrifice (Wikipedia).

Salty inhabitants of the Dreamtime

Salty landscapes are part of the Australian inland, and there are many aboriginal myths to explain or warn about them.

In the indigenous culture of the Australia northwest, Kumpupintil (Lake Disappointment) and its surrounds were off-limits to the tribes of the area - the Kurajarra, Wanman, Kartudjara and the Putidjara. The reason for the taboo, passed down across the dreaming to modern times, derives from the lake's mythological associations with the Ngayurnangalku spirits, thought to live below the lake’s salt crust cover. Even today this prohibition extends to flying over the area, since the Ngayurnangalku, ancestral cannibal beings with pointy teeth and claw-like fingernails, devour all that enter their area and they are deemed capable of ripping apart even aeroplanes that intrude over the lake's airspace.

The aboriginal people of Australia living around Lake Eyre tell the tale of the Kudimudra, a fearsome creature that eats people who wander into the salt-covered areas of the southern part of the lake. It is supposed to look like a bunyip, a creature known throughout Australian aboriginal cultur (Bunyip translates to devil or evil spirit). The name for the bunyip varies from area to area, and at Lake Eyre, it's called the Kudimudra. 

Historically, across Australia, many aboriginal people explain Diprotodon skeletons as the bones of the bunyip. Interestingly, in what are the former water-covered areas of now desiccated Lake Callabonna and Lake Blanche (late Pleistocene), are the remains of various mega-faunal vertebrates, especially the rhinoceros-sized herbivore, Diprotodon, and the flightless Dromornithidae (aka thunder-bird or demon duck). The remains are generally found in wind-eroded muddy mounds that encase or partially expose the desicated skeletal fossil carcasses. There are thousands of such mud-covered gypsum-cemented piles littering the exposed lake floors. These fossil carcass mounds reflect a time of dramatic climate change with desiccation of former high-water Pleistocene lakes and the surrounding savannah.  

Then there are the bones of Badara in Deep Lake at the southwestern tip of Yorke Peninsula in South Australia. In the Dreaming, Ngama, a powerful being who possessed great skill at club throwing, met Badara, one of the Ilara, a dwarf people living in earth mounds (possible low-relief spring mounds marking seawater-fed springs about some salinas, including Deep Lake) on the southern Yorke Peninsula. Ngama tormented Badara for his size. Badara rose, but Ngama struck him down with a blow from his club. He then cut him open, removed his caul fat and dragged out his intestines, leaving them on the ground. A bare patch of ground (shallow calcrete near Deep Lake) marks this spot. He then picked up Badara's body and threw it into the nearby salt lagoon (Deep Lake). His bones remain as a pile of stones (the tepee structures of Deep Lake) within the lake.

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Ngayurnangalku spirits of Kumpupintil (Lake Disappointment). Art by Yunkurra Billy Atkins and Sohan Ariel Hayes, 2012

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Reconstruction of the herbiverous Pleistocene marsupial Diprotondon optatum. A healthy adult stood about 1.8 metres tall at the shoulder and was as much as 4 metres long.

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Reconstruction of the Dromornithidian, Genyornis newtoni, a two-metre tall thunderbird from the Pleistocene of Australia (Wikipedia)

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Tepee ridge or the skeletal remains of Badara? Deep Lake, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia

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Aragonite spring mounds or dwelling places of dwarf people? Deep Lake, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia

Readings for Salt & Civilisation

Aufderheide, A. C., 2011, The Scientific Study of Mummies, Cambridge University Press, 634 p.

Hay, R. L., and T. K. Kyser, 2001, Chemical sedimentology and paleoenvironmental history of Lake Olduvai, a Pliocene lake in northern Tanzania: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 113, p. 1510-1521.

Li, M., G. Ma, K. Guttikonda, S. Boyages, and C. Eastman, 2001, The re-emergence of iodine deficiency in Sydney, Australia: Asia Pacific J of Clin. Nutr., v. 10, p. 200-203.

Lonn, E., 1933, Salt as a Factor in the Confederacy: New York, Walter Neale, 324 p.

McDonnell, C., M. Harris, and M. Zacharin, 2003, Iodine Deficiency and goitre in schoolchildren in Melbourne, 2001: Med. J. Aust., v. 178, p. 159-162.

Pollard, A. M., D. R. Brothwell, A. Aali, S. Buckley, H. Fazeli, M. H. Dehkordi, T. Holden, A. K. G. Jones, J. J. Shokouhi, R. Vatandoust, and A. S. Wilson, 2008, Below the salt: A Preliminary study of the dating and biology of five salt-preserved bodies from Zanjun Province, Iran: Iran, v. 46, p. 135-150.

Stackert, J., 2010, The variety of ritual application for salt and the Maqlu salt incantation, in T. Abusch, and D. Schwemer, eds., Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-witchcraft Rituals: Volume One, Brill, p. 235-252.

Vuhahula, E. A. M., J. R. P. Masalu, L. Mabelya, and W. B. C. Wandwi, 2009, Dental fluorosis in Tanzania Great Rift Valley in relation to fluoride levels in water and in “Magadi” (Trona): Desalination, v. 248, p. 610-615.

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Sumo wrestlers throwing salt into the ring, is a Shinto purification rite.

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Holy water and a bottle of blessed salt; basic tools for the modern exorcist.

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For the religious gun-enthusiast who has to deal with the occassional demon, salt-loaded shotgun cartridges.