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Salt

SALT

SALT has been a necessary additive to humanity's diet from the time people began cooking meat. The use of salt as a preservative and condiment became so important that it soon acquired a truly astonishing variety of symbolic meanings.

The Egyptians and Greeks used salt in certain sacrifices, but it is not clear with what intent. In Brahmanic sacrifices, in Hittite rituals, and during the New Moon festivals of Semites and Greeks, salt was thrown on fire to produce a crackling sound that may have had symbolic significance. This interesting multicultural custom, however, does not seem to be related to Mark's enigmatic saying: "Everyone must be salted with fire" (Mk. 9:49).

The Hebrews had a "covenant of salt" with Yahveh (Nm. 18:19, 2 Chr. 13:5) and sprinkled their sacrifices with the "salt of the covenant" (Lv. 2:13). Though this practice probably developed from the use of salt as a preservative, for these Semites salt signified the fellowship of the table and the shared meal, just as it did for the Greeks and Romans. This association of salt (which was served as a separate dish) with the communal meal is also mentioned in Ezra (4:14). The Samaritans invoked their sharing of salt with the king of Persia as proof of friendship. In medieval Europe, it was considered wrong to harm someone with whom salt had been shared. Even today, Arabs offer salt to visitors as a sign of hospitality.

Furthermore, in the Acts of the Apostles (1:4), the Greek word sunalizomenos, usually translated "eating together," means literally "taking salt together." This word was adopted in the Clementine homilies (Patrologia Graeca, vol. 2, cols. 332, 345), and its meaning was similarly understood by the Greeks and Romans.

A very ancient ritualistic use of salt occurred in exorcisms. Some exegetes understand Elisha's throwing of salt in the bitter waters as a form of exorcism (2 Kgs. 2:2022). This concept was borrowed by the church fathers, and salt was used for its apotropaic qualities in the Roman liturgy. Salt drives out the devil, according to a number of prayers for catechumens and the making of holy water that are found in the Gelasian Sacramentary (sixth century). This symbolic use of salt derived from its ability to preserve meat from corruption.

Similar reasoning has applied to the rubbing of salt on newborn babies, a custom among Semites, Persians, and ancient Greeks, still practiced today by such varied peoples as the Toda of South India and the Lao of Southeast Asia. Even though salt was applied primarily for medicinal purposes, its use often involved ritual to ward off evil. In fact, this apotropaic quality of salt is found in the folklore of societies all over the world. Salt is considered to have power over demons in Southeast Asia, over witches in Germanic traditions, and over the evil eye in Arab lands.

The practical use of salt to enhance the flavor of foods has evoked a number of taste-related symbolisms. The words for "tasteless" or "insipid" in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin also mean "foolish." Salt, therefore, confers wisdom, according to the rite for catechumens in the Roman liturgy. This play on words is likewise evident in the saying of Jesus: "If salt loses its savor [becomes foolish], with what will it be salted?" (Mt. 5:13). An extension of this theme was developed by the church fathers, who interpreted salt as God's word, spiritual discourse, and preaching. Paul thus exhorted Christians to season their language with salt (Col. 4:16). For the Athenians and Romans, salt stood for wit.

Especially in the Roman liturgy, salt symbolized spiritual health, unquestionably because salt was an ingredient in many medications (cf. Pliny, Natural History 31.102). The delicate but vital role that salt plays in the human metabolism was implicitly acknowledged in ancient times when the Roman legions were given their ration of salt and, at a later date, a salarium ("salary") with which to buy their own salt.

As with most other symbols, salt also has a negative aspect. In Judges (9:45), salt was sown on a destroyed city to signify sterility. The practice was followed by the Assyrians and Hittites and was later adopted by Attila at Padua and Frederick Barbarossa at Milan. A curse could produce a salt marsh (Ps. 107:34), a salt pit (Zep. 2:9), or a land of brimstone and salt (Dt. 29:23).

Salt has many other meanings that appear, for example, in Brahmanic and early Hindu literature. In the Upaniads, a grain of salt dissolved in water is a symbol of the reabsorption of the ego in the "universal self." In other Brahmanic texts, salt refers to cattle, seed, and the sacrificial essence of sky and earth.

References to salt among indigenous Americans are rare except in the context of ritual fasting and sacred fire. There was, however, an Aztec goddess of salt, Huixtocihautl.

The purifying and protecting virtue of salt is evoked in Japanese Shintō ceremonies. Izanagi, during the creation, constituted the first central island of Onogorojima with the help of salt extracted from the primordial waters.

In alchemy, salt had more to do with a basic principle than with actual substance. In hermetic symbolism, salt is the product and the equilibrium of the properties of its components, sulfur and mercury.

Bibliography

Latham, James E. The Religious Symbolism of Salt. Paris, 1982. A study of the symbolism of salt from earliest times until the end of the sixth century CE. Special consideration is given to an analysis of texts from the Bible, from Roman liturgy, and from the writings of the early church fathers.

Trumbull, H. Clay. The Covenant of Salt as Based on the Significance and Symbolism of Salt in Primitive Thought. New York, 1899. A questionable thesis that sees salt and blood as interchangeable in their symbolic natures, qualities, and uses.

New Sources

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. New York, 2003.

Laszlo, Pierre. Salt: Grain of Life. New York, 2002.

James E. Latham (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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