The importance of salt extends far beyond the kitchen. For millennia, salt has held an important place in global religion and culture. From good-luck rituals to zombies and folklore, read on for an around-the-world history of salt and beliefs.
Salt played an important cultural role in many premodern cultures. The ancient Greeks, for example, threw salt into a fire at the time of the new moon, producing crackling noises that played a role in religious rituals. The ancient Egyptians used offerings of salt and water to invoke their gods, and in Aztec mythology, the goddess Huixtocihuatl presided over salt and saltwater. In ancient Rome, ritual baths in saltwater were used to cleanse the body of negative energy. This practice is thought to be the origin of today’s widespread belief that drinking a glass of saltwater will ward off bad spirits.
In the Japanese religious tradition of Shinto, salt is seen as a cleanser and purifier. Salt is used in the purification ritual of misogi—a practice similar to baptism—to remove negative spiritual energy. Before childbirth, women who practice Shinto will often bathe in salt water and scatter salt around the birth room to purify the space. Salt is also placed on either side of a house’s entrance during funerals, and incorporated into weddings to represent the “force of life.” Some Japanese restaurants, stores, and theaters will place conical piles of salt beside their entrances to purify the building and attract good luck.
In the Haitian Vodou tradition, one strand of folklore concerns zombies—the recently dead who are turned into soulless creatures through spells. The folklore warns Vodou practitioners not to feed salt to zombies, because doing so will restore their senses and turn them against their enchanters.
Judaism and Islam
Historian of salt Mark Kurlansky explains that in these major religious traditions, salt seals a bargain, especially the convent with God. According to Rabbinic literature, salt represents an immortal bond because it never spoils or decays. Adding salt to challah, a spiritually significant form of Jewish bread, is considered a critical part of the meal. Depending on custom, the challah may be dipped in salt, salt is sprinkled on top, or salt is kept present on the table.
In Hinduism, salt is incorporated into religious ceremonies, including those for weddings and housebreaking. Some use salt to remove drishti—the evil eye, or bad energy. The person who removes drishti will pour salt into one hand, spin it in clockwise circles around the other person, and then discard it in the sink. During the religious month of Sawan, some refrain from eating table salt and use unprocessed rock salt instead, which is considered purer.
It’s a widespread superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. The belief may have originated with Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper; a saltshaker is placed in front of Judas Iscarot. Many cultures have added twists to this superstition. In Norway, for example, it’s said that a person will shed as many tears as would be needed to dissolve the spilled salt. In Germany, France, and the U.S., it’s a common superstition for people who have spilled salt to quickly throw some of it behind them. This practice stems from the belief that the overturned salt is a direct act of the devil; tossing salt backward will hit the devil in the eye and ward him away. Some people even crawl beneath the table and emerge on its other side!