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The Lore of Salt

by David Tocher

It never ceases to amaze me the vital role salt has played in the history of mankind. For untold centuries, salt was traditionally viewed as an indispensable mineral substance used for cooking to healing to harming to enlightening. The Latin word sal also means wit, and salus (literally, salty) means ironical. Plato mentions salt’s importance in his Symposium, and Homer calls salt “divine”; it was also used for symbolic purification in expiatory offerings (atonement) and the celebration of ancient mysteries. In ancient Rome, salt was rubbed on the lips of infants to protect against danger.

 There are Syrian myths that recount how the gods taught humans how to use salt, and Gabiya, the ancient Lithuanian goddess of Sacred Fire, was honoured by throwing salt into the flames. Salt was believed to drive off demons, and even modern legends of “witches’ Sabbaths” make special mention of the absence of salt in any food served at the feast.

 In the Bible, salt symbolizes a vital part of God’s covenant with His people: “And every oblation of thy meat offering shalt thou season with salt; neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offering: with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt.” (Leviticus 2:13); Elisha purified a spring by casting salt into it (II Kings 2:19-22); In The Sermon On The Mount, Jesus referred to his disciples as “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13), and St. Gerome calls Christ Himself “the redeeming salt that penetrates heaven and earth.” There are also many historical references to the destructive nature of salt.

 After the destruction of Carthage, the Romans scattered salt all over the surrounding countryside to make it barren forever. Abimelech did the same to the conquered city of Shechem (Judges 9:45). Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back to watch the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:26), and the word Sodom itself, is a derivative from the ancient Hebrew word for salt. In India, salt was believed to be a powerful stimulant. Brahmans offering certain sacrifices, newlyweds, certain priests and ascetics were forbidden to use or consume it because they believed it would alter their purity.

 In the language of Alchemy, salt does not refer to sodium chloride, but to “the third principle” next to sulfur and mercury, representing the tangible. Salt is also mentioned in other symbolic contexts as “ the salt of wisdom”. The idiom “with a grain of salt” (derived from the Latin cum grano salis), is associated with caution, but it has not always implied the skepticism we attach to it today.

 Originally, it was a warning from Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) that certain antidotes for poison were to be taken only in combination with a grain of salt to make it active and useful. The list of references goes on and on throughout history and we will bring more interesting facts about salt in future issues. Until then, take care, and take your salt!

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