Mythology Monday: The Power of Salt

Some time ago I wrote about Holy Water and the origins of the belief that water itself could be sacred. But as I did, I left out a little something in the equation. You see, after saying a prayer over it for God’s blessing, priests  mix a newly blessed substance into the water to give it some extra holy kick – salt.

It’s not that unheard of, everyone knows that you’re not supposed to spill salt and, if you do, you toss it over your shoulder. You can also count on salt to drive out evil spirits and drive away demons. And, hell, anyone who’s watched Supernatural knows that the real story is how the Winchesters are funding salt mines around the world almost single-handedly.

winchesters

Seriously, they use it almost every episode – pouring it across doors, making big circles of it, or even loading it into their guns. Salt is, according to some, the catch-all for banishing evil forces. Salt has been used to drive out witches, ghosts, the undead, and even the devil himself. It has been used to bless infants during baptisms, as an allegory for the good people of the Earth, and even used in some funeral rites. Recognized around the world, salt is, by all religious accounts, one of the best things to exist on the Earth.

And here doctors are telling us to cut back…

Getting Salty

salt hindu

Strangely, despite the fact it’s something everyone regularly eats, salt is historically one of the most sacred objects around. It is mentioned multiple times not only in the bible but in the religious texts of cultures across the world. Old myths center around the idea that witches couldn’t use salt in their kitchens, that the devil was prevented from touching it and that simply asking for salt at the dinner table could banish him from your home. Even in DaVinci’s painting of the last supper we see someone spilling salt on the table, and who is it?

Judas
Judas spilled the salt. Damn it, Judas

So salt is something more than just a seasoning that we often take for granted in the modern day. As silly as the premise sounds to us now, there was a time when salt was one of the most valuable commodities in the world. And this isn’t just a narrow belief that it has this sort of power because the western cultures believe in it. The perceived value and power of salt is nearly everywhere.  The Aztecs had a goddess of salt named Huixtocihuatl. The Norse believed salt was introduced into the seas by the works of the gods. The Hindu believe that offering salt to the gods will grant you good health. And when Sumo wrestlers, practicing a Shinto religious rite, first get ready to charge at each other as two living mountains of humanity – they first toss salt into the middle of the ring to banish any evil that may be there.

sumo

So the question starts to become – why would we think it’s magic? A lot of it roots back to its historical importance and rarity. Being one of the substances that humans need to live, we’ve been drawn to it since before we were able to give it a name. However, since we gained the ability to give it a name we’ve found a lot more we can do with it. Salt was not only a necessary part of our diets, but also a means of seasoning food that was otherwise bland (our liking of the taste relating to the fact we needed it). It also became the very first preservative, and that meant it made other food stores last longer at a time when that was practically magic in itself. In essence, we needed it for more than just living, we needed it to live well.

Because of this, anyone who took a cursory glance into history would find that salt has been far more important in history than we recognize today. At one point salt could be used as currency in some corners of the world. Meanwhile in other regions it was considered so important that giving it to someone was a sign of deep respect – and spilling it a sign of deep disrespect. In fact, this sign of respect was the first kernel of the growing mythology of salt.

salt-merchant-big

In the ancient times, the fact that salt was a preservative made it come to represent a mystical nature of endurance. Salt was believed to be eternal and capable of granting that to other things. Because of this, a gift of salt or the taking of salt represented deep, eternal bonds which could not be broken. Giving someone salt at the table was a sign of friendship, and taking someone’s salt was a vow of loyalty. This, in turn, is why it was so unlucky to spill the salt on the table since you would be breaking that bond and spitting in the face of everything it represented. However, over time it came to be acknowledged that accidents happen… so long as the devil was making you do it.

devil

This gave rise to the throwing the salt over the shoulder routine that has become so common today. Like with lightning strikes and any number of natural phenomenon or random acts of chance, spilling salt was considered something that demons had made you do. Breaking the bond was significant and no one would have done it unless under the influence of a fiend. So the practice was to pick up the spilled salt, now considered cursed, and toss it over your shoulder to hit the devil in the eyes behind you. Anyone who’s had salt in their eyes knows it isn’t pleasant, so the act wasn’t quite magical just yet.

Over time, the fact it represented eternity evolved to a greater degree, beginning to represent long life and prosperity (especially once it was a currency). It became common practice to use the salt for things like blessing those about to be baptized, including infants who would have a pinch of salt placed on their lips to ensure that the child would live long and well. And this growing association with life and preservation also meant that, upon death, many funeral rites would use salt to try to ensure the soul’s preservation as well – even preventing the dead from falling under a curse. For some this meant mixing salt with soil as a symbol of the soul continuing on as the body returned to the earth. For others, it meant salting the grounds of places filled with death or exposed to dark forces.

window

This use stemmed from another observed ability of salt – the effects of salting the earth. As most of us know, soil with high salinity has difficulty growing anything, an effect easily observed in the past.This resulted in a common ritual in the Near and Middle East to use salt on the grounds of an enemy once you had conquered them – preventing the city from being able to rise again after being destroyed. Though few know the exact purpose of the salting in these rituals, as few records exist, it’s believed to be either a ruining of the land, a curse against the enemies, or a consecration of the dead.

Though it seems out of place for something representing eternal life to be used as a curse or in recognition of the dead, it was still fairly common in funeral rites. In fact, as far back as the Ancient Egyptians, salt was an important part of the burial rituals. Mummification was originally done using a mixture called “Natron”, a mixture of salt, soda ash, and baking soda discovered in a dry riverbed in a region called Natrun. This substance, originally known as “netjry” was considered “the divine salt” and used to preserve the bodies of the dead. The Egyptians appear to have been the first culture to use salt as a preservative and, in a pinch, if someone could not afford Natron they would just use salt on their mummies.

salt

Given the ancient understanding of salt’s uses, it became clear to the people that salt not only had control over life but death, and by relation, even the undead. It was often believed in the past that many ghouls and undead were the result of a body being without a soul and filled with an evil presence. As salt grew to represent a control over life, eternity, and a means to ward away the devil (via throwing it over your shoulder), these elements started to feed into the growing mythology. Before long, salt became a holy ward against all evil and cursed beings – living or dead.

This results in the aforementioned catch all of being able to use it against any evil force that could cross your path. Though some stories require you to have blessed salt (something the Catholic church makes in droves), the requirement isn’t necessary under all circumstances. Salt on its own is enough to ward away witches, the devil, and prevent evil spirits from entering your home if placed across certain thresholds. In fact, despite being separated by an entire continent, the Japanese believers of Shinto use salt in much the same way. Many Shinto rituals involve using salt to banish spirits in the same way as the religions of the Middle East, including a funeral ritual where people will throw salt behind themselves to prevent ghosts from being able to follow them home. Strangely, despite borders, belief in salt’s power against the dead is almost universal.

In addition to the perceived power, salt’s abilities became further amplified among the religious by the very act of using it in so many sacred rites. As it is used in everything from baptisms to the reconsecration of altars within churches and temples, salt is repeatedly blessed, prayed over, and even run through exorcisms in extreme cases. This isn’t necessary in all religions however, as the Jewish faith sees salt as naturally Kosher and not requiring any special ceremony. This would make the existence of Kosher salt hard to understand, except when you realize that Kosher salt is the salt used to make other things Kosher.

kosher

As a result, whether it be mixed into your holy water, sprinkled across your thresholds, tossed over your shoulder, or even loaded into your shotgun…

Salt gets the dead out.

(I write novels and have a twitter account. Sometimes those get salty too.)

2 thoughts on “Mythology Monday: The Power of Salt”

  1. Yes, I already tested it when I’m having a bad dreams like what they called incubus. It was totally gone when spitting on my head or in my pillows. It’s a real blessing of God.

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