It’s been some time since my last salt post, and while I’ve let other projects take priority, this subject was ever in the back of my mind, as the topic of salt and religion is probably what most influenced my decision to try this series thing out in the first place. Religion is a crucial part of human existence. Of course, there are people who get by just fine without it, but throughout history, religion and faith, in whatever form, has affected people’s lives and governed many societies. And what has always fascinated me about that, is comparatively, all religions serve many of the same purposes. What is just as fascinating is that salt, a simple, flavourful granule of mineral has been revered throughout the centuries and played a key role in many religious ceremonies and rituals.
So, I began to wonder. What is it about these tiny crystals, that even today it so heavily permeates our lives? Throughout history, salt has often been considered an element of purity and one associated with preservation, so it stands to reason that humans have associated salt with sacred spaces and rituals. Pierre Laszlo, author of Salt: Grain of Life, says of salt in religious culture, “It symbolizes immutability. It is a food, or an accompaniment to food, that is incorruptible, that stands for invariance and permanence and thus can be taken for a feature of the devine.” Salt, in its presumed divinity, is a part of nearly every major religion and has been honoured and sanctified in various faiths and cultures across nearly every continent, purifying food, drink, and homes throughout human history. To many societies it was as important as water and therefore valuable for cultural practices and economic development. Here, I can only begin to scratch the very surface of the relationship between salt and religion, but I hope that in the following paragraphs, there is enough information presented that peaks your curiosity as much as mine was.
Protective salt rings and lines of salt in front of doorways and windows is a common folkloric practice that is used to ward off evil spirits. You may have seen something like this in a movie about ghosts or evil entities. The series Supernatural uses salt when the two protagonists fight spirits and demons. The beings they fight come from all different cultures, and salt is the most common deterrent for the otherworldly beings, including fairies in one episode. According to some European folklore (mainly Scandinavia, Germany, and the British Isles), salt deters fairies because they must count every grain of it if it is spilled in front of them. Also, throwing salt behind you or on your back, or on the back of an animal, will keep a fairy from latching onto you. Rings of salt are also protective measures to keep away spirits and witches or their spells.
Spirits, fairies, and witches aren’t the only evil beings that salt can deter. In West African vodou, which then made it’s way to Haiti, it was believed that feeding salt to a zombie (No, not apocalyptic Walking Dead zombies; zombies that are created by vodou priests) would kill it and release the spirit so it can return to the grave. Salt could not, however, revive the person and bring them back from the dead. Er, undead.
With over 30 references to salt throughout the bible, salt has become a common element in Christianity, especially Catholic rituals. One of the earliest stories in which salt is mentioned in the Bible is when Lot’s wife looks back on Sodom and Gomorra and is turned into a pillar of salt because she did not heed the angels’ warning. Covenants in the Bible were often sealed with salt, and even Jesus himself can be said to have high regard for the white substance when he said that people are the “salt of the earth.” Catholic holy water is purified by salt and then blessed by a priest. Salt used to play a major part of a Catholic baptism and was sprinkled on a baby’s lips, along with the usual anointing with the holy water. Most baptisms now just use holy water (which as aforementioned, is already salty). Among some Jewish traditions, there were temple offerings of salt and bread dipped in salt as a remembrance of offerings and covenants.
Greek rituals often consecrated salt and the substance was used as payment for slaves, which is from where historians say the phrase “worth their salt” comes. After a Buddhist funeral, salt is thrown over your shoulder to repel evil spirits and ensure that none have attached themselves to you. Shinto tradition requires salt to purify the ring before a sumo wrestling fight. In India, salt is a symbol of good luck. And the prophet Muhammad once said that God’s four blessings were water, iron, fire, and salt. The Egyptians learned of salt’s preservative characteristics and used it in their mummification processes and also traded with it. In fact, a lot of cultures used salt for trading purposes in addition to ritual usage, but I’ll get to the history of the salt trade in a future post.
Salt worship and adoration was also present in the North and South American cultures. The Zuni tribe of the Pueblo people worshipped a “Salt Mother” (and Salt Woman, Ma’l Oyattsik’i) who came from a salt lake in New Mexico (now Zuni Salt Lake, which is a holy sanctuary for the Zuni people). The Salt Mother said that all who came to her home, the salt lake, would be healed and would have good fortune. Salt is culturally important to the Zuni who believe it is a gift from the Salt Mother and is a part of her. The Zuni (among other Pueblo tribes like the Hopi, Navajo, Acoma, Laguna, and Apache) used it for healing purposes, seasoned and preserved food with it, traded with it, and used it in various religious ceremonies. One ritual to honor the Salt Woman also removes negative energy and evil spirits from the home by placing salt in a pan and banging the pan to make noise and sprinkle the salt around the home.
Some Southwestern and western native tribes restricted who was allowed to eat salt because it was considered taboo at various times and events in one’s life, such as during menstruation cycles, pregnancy, birth, and initiation rites. The Oneida did not allow boys to eat salt while their voices were changing.
And further south, the Aztecs believed in a goddess, Huixtochiuatl (Lady of Salt) who “symbolized at once salt water, the saltworker’s guild, courtesans, and dissolute women,” (Salt: Grain of Life). Every year, a young woman was sacrificed in her honour as part of a larger annual festival that also honoured other deities.
I KNOW I COULD GO ON . . .
. . . But I shant. I wish I could cover religious salt uses from all over the world, but that deserves more than just one post. And perhaps I will come back to this topic and study the importance of salt continent by continent, as there are some definite tendencies as to how salt was used and honoured across the various countries and cultures. It’s also difficult to stick solely to religion and folklore as many of these people used salt for everyday purposes but also used it in trade and even taxation among their own countrymen. But again, that shall come at a later date. For now, I’ll leave you with these tidbits of information as to how around the world, for centuries, humans have found salt, a simple mineral, to be a crystalline substance of divinity and ritualistic significance.
COMING SOON – surprising ways to use salt
If you have anything to add or wish there was more here, comment below, and you may just be the inspiration needed for me to delve deeper into this topic.