Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Grain of Salt

In a restaurant the other day, I noticed someone at an adjacent table accidentally knock over the salt shaker, quickly take up a pinch and toss it over his left shoulder. It was a gesture—call it a superstitious remedy, if you will—not noticed in a long while and had me wondering just how prevalent it is in these days when the presence of salt is so taken for granted. Not quite the same for people living in earlier times when salt was harder to come by and too expensive for many. From that history came the veneration and the foreboding attached to its waste or spillage.


The act of throwing a pinch of spilled salt over the left shoulder is a part of ancient history, practiced even by the Sumerians in 3500 BC. The superstition was shared by the Egyptians, Assyrians and later the Greeks. Not much later Roman soldiers were given special allowances for salt rations called salarium, or ‘salt money.’ The writer Petronius in his Satyricon coined the expression ‘not worth his salt’ referring to a Roman soldier who didn’t earn his keep. That word salarium—the first part meaning ‘salt’—is the origin of our word, ‘salary’ and keeps alive a connection between salt and money.


Modern archeology teaches that as far back as 6500 BC the people of Europe were mining the first salt mines on the continent. These mines were located in present day Austria near the city of Salzburg, the ‘City of Salt.’ Not only for the seasoning of food, salt was useful in purifying water and in preserving meat and fish. The Romans also used it as a medication for wounds. The Hebrews, Greeks and Romans all used salt in their sacrifices. In medieval England salt was expensive and affordable only to the higher ranks of society, its value resting on its scarcity. Salt was less easily attainable in northern Europe than in countries with warmer climates where it could be obtained more cheaply by the evaporation of seawater. This value is the source of the high symbolic status given to salt in the day-to-day language that originated in England at that period and in many instances has been carried forward to the present.


In language, literature and art worldwide this valuable mineral has permeated conversation, daily life and text. The word ‘salt’ appears forty-one times in thirty-five different verses of the King James Bible. Idioms using the word are abundant and come in many forms depending upon the country and language. A small detail in a masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci provides meaningful commentary on the place of salt in near-Eastern society of 2000 years ago. In an obscure section of his painting The Last Supper, Da Vinci shows Judas tipping over the salt cellar, an action in that time and place called “betraying the salt” and symbolizing the betrayal of one’s master or someone owed loyalty and devotion. In the painting, this spilled salt identifies Judas, symbolically at least as the betrayer of Christ.

4 comments:

  1. Interesting since I've just been told to reduce my salt intake.

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  2. I've come to depend on you for some fascinating facts about the everyday world around me. I've been laughed at for sprinkling some salt on the neck of my beer bottle. Besides tasting good with beer and supplying me some salt intake, it also reduces the carbonation somewhat and allows me to drink a case at one sitting (not really). So here's to salt and where is the beer?

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America