Superstitions are often learned behaviors, passed down from generation to generation without a true understanding of why the action is taken. At least that is what I find for myself, especially when it comes to tossing salt over your left shoulder when it is spilled. It has become a habit for me, one that is so ingrained (pardon the pun) I can’t honestly say where it originated from. Almost immediately, I found that this superstition goes much further back than I first realized.
I thought it would be fun to look into this superstition to see if I could find some origins, or at least gain some understanding of how this habit started in the first place. If you have followed me for any length of time, you will know I tend to fall down some pretty deep research rabbit holes, mines in the case of this post, but I’m ready for it! How about you? Let’s start digging, shall we? (Sorry, can’t help myself)
Why is spilled salt a “bad” thing?
The belief that spilled salt brings ill luck has been part of European superstition since before ancient Rome according to most sources I found. This idea has been reinforced in several ways, a few of which I have listed in this post. The idea that spilling salt is “bad luck” stems mainly from the importance of salt as a commodity in ancient times. It was discovered that this edible mineral was not only necessary for our bodies to ingest, but also that it had the ability to preserve food items, making it easier to ration supplies for armies and stretch out food stores between harvests. Spilling it would cause the salt to be inedible, making it “impure” and thus “wasting it” which was inconceivable since it was so hard to come by before our modern-day production techniques.
Sodium balances fluids in the body, helps send nerve impulses, and helps make muscles contract.Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Medical School
Why we need sodium, and in what percentages, is a whole other topic I don’t have time for today. However, if you are interested in those things, I would suggest this post here by the American Chemical Society that gives a thorough breakdown of that exact topic. https://www.acs.org/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2015-2016/february-2016/salt-facts.html
What I will say is while our bodies do need minerals to keep things in balance, an imbalance can be dangerous, especially when it comes to salt. With modern-day conveniences, come modern-day illnesses, some of which can be prevented with a few tweaks to our lifestyle.
This post is honestly only scratching the surface on this topic and I hope that if you are interested in learning more you will check out some of the links I provide in this post. I tried to give not only the history of this particular superstition but also the reasons why we as humans would have gone to war over something we can find for less than $2 at our local grocery store today. I highly recommend the first video I shared which gives a deep dive into some information on protests, wars, and people dying over something that is most likely on your dining table today. Speaking of tables…
The Last Supper & the Bible
I referenced the Last Supper in my Fear of Number 13 post, and I find once again that a particular superstition may have been perpetuated by the story of Judas. In the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, when Jesus tells his apostles that one of them will betray him, Judas knocks a salt shaker over with his elbow (shown above). As is the case with most art, I believe the way the artist saw the world, and the stories he was told, influenced the work. Using something that most people would recognize as a symbol was a brilliant way of incorporating foreshadowing and depth in his art. As more people saw the scene over the centuries, it could have solidified the idea in the Christian faith that spilling salt goes hand in hand with bad luck, especially since Jesus was crucified on the cross after the betrayal.
However, according to Morton Salt’s website, the first reference to salt in the written word, is found in the Book of Job, recorded around 2,250 BC. There are other references to salt in the bible, the most familiar to me is the story of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of it when she looks back on the city of Sodom after being told not to. The importance of salt pre-dates Leonardo’s famous painting, as I am sure it pre-dates the written word.
In both the Old and New Testaments covenants were sealed in salt and the word salvation, stems from the meaning “to save,” so the use of the crystal in ceremonies makes sense since it was used for preserving food items. It seems it was used for saving spirits or your soul as well. You can find the etymology here which I always find interesting when I do one of these.
There are references to the inclusion of salt in the making of holy water as well as in the creation of protective circles during exorcisms, similar to some activities you find in pagan practices today. There isn’t a movie or show including magick that doesn’t have a scene like the one above. Using salt in purification practices is found in multiple religions, and this was a great post on salt mythology and folklore to get you started on that topic if it interests you: https://www.learnreligions.com/salt-folklore-and-magic-2562502.
The Left Side
So here is where we get into the specifics on the superstition itself, and the purpose of picking up the spilled salt with your right hand, and tossing it over your left. It was understood in some Christian beliefs that the Devil lurks on the left side of the body, always seeking an opportunity to invade or meddle in a situation. Tossing salt over your left shoulder was thought to put it into the Devil’s face, making him think twice about what he was about to do, and giving the host an opportunity to change their luck.
In falling a little deeper down this rabbit hole, I came up with a little more information to explain why the left side would get such grief. It seems that roughly 85-90% of the population is right-handed, while up to 15% is left-handed. Being left-handed singled a person out, and caused suspicion, which could sometimes end up with them being accused of witchcraft or demonic possession. The word sinister, according to Merriam-Webster, comes from a Latin word meaning “on the left side” which would definitely give us an idea of where the devil would hang out if he were whispering in our ear.
Don’t even get me started on the sides of the body and what they are traditionally thought of as representing, that is a whole other blog post. Let’s just say most references I find state that feminine energy resides on the left side, male on the right. It is also mentioned that the right side is “stronger” and the left side is thought of as “weaker.” Churches, if they allowed females, were designed to have men on the right, and women on the left. Even though most can sit together now, we still get a taste of it at weddings when the Bride’s guests are seated on the left, the same side she stands on up at the alter.
The idea that female energy is on the left seems to have been with us since the dawn of time, or at least since the story of Adam and Eve was put to paper. By the way, the idea that men had one less rib because of that story is put to rest here: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-many-ribs-do-humans-have#extra-ribs. Although there is information in this article that states the instance of having an extra rib does happen, and that it is more common in females, so I guess I’ll give you that.
Salt in History
The Bible isn’t the oldest reference pertaining to salt, and according to SaltWorks, ancient cultures have been using it as far back as 6,050 BC. It is thought that the Egyptians were the first to realize the preservation possibilities of salt, using it not only for drying fish, and other foods but also in their mummification process.
The Chinese culture also has references to using salt as far back as 6,000 years ago and was used as a diet supplement among other uses. It soon became a valuable commodity, was traded and was even used as a type of currency. https://historycooperative.org/the-history-of-salt-in-ancient-civilizations/
And the ancient Mayans seemed to have been producing salt by cooking the brine over fires, contributing to the local economy by trading the salt cakes to other communities. Here is a fascinating article about salt-producing kitchens and the archeologist who studies them. Ancient entrepreneurs, so very cool! https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/10/08/654872878/ancient-maya-astrologists-farmers-and-salt-entrepreneurs
I think we can all agree the history of salt takes us pretty far back, but what I was interested to find out was that our history in America has some run-ins with it as well. During the war of 1812, it became more and more difficult to get salt from overseas, so commercial production started here in the U.S. in Syracuse, NY. During the Civil War, southerners couldn’t buy salt at any price, as their mines were seized.
Until 1860, production took place in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri by boiling brine in salt furnaces. Today, transportation issues have been addressed by having salt plants across the United States. While Mortons is listed in some places as the biggest supplier in the US, McCormicks comes up in my searches as well. However, there has been a lot of buying and selling of the companies over the last few decades, so at this point, it’s hard to tell who is in the lead. I did find a reference to the largest underground salt mine being located in Goderich, Ontario, which ties in with the next interesting thing I uncovered.
The history of the Detroit Salt Mines! They were discovered in 1895, but were formed over 400 million years ago, and are approximately 1,200 feet below Detroit’s surface. They are pretty close to Ontario by proximity… and I would argue are most likely attached in the big scheme of things. The Ontario mine is owned by Compass Minerals, which is listed as the biggest producer of salt in the US and UK, but I digress. The Detroit Salt and Manufacturing Company started digging in 1906, and the mine is still operational, with the new owners supplying road salt products in the US. While the mine used to offer tours, they longer do in order to abide by current safety regulations. This article will get you started: https://www.clickondetroit.com/features/2022/06/16/the-secret-city-beneath-our-feet-inside-detroits-epic-salt-mines/
So even though I didn’t get to the root of the superstition, I believe we have a pretty good idea that we as humans recognized its importance all of those centuries ago. Much like other commodities, salt has been fought over and has even been died for. To think that at one-time salt was just as precious as gold just blows my mind.
I hoped you enjoyed falling down yet another rabbit hole with me, and hope you join me again for another deep dive. I’m not sure about you, but I end up finding more things to research when I do one of these than I will ever have time for, which makes me pretty happy! Check out the resources below, I always like to include tidbits I find interesting.
In the meantime, happy research, and remember to take it easy on the salt! Too much is a bad thing! Or so I hear…
Other topics to come:
Holding your breath while passing a cemetery
Accidents happen in 3s
Ladders and why you should avoid them
Fear of Black Cats
Black Cat & Evil Eyes: A Book of Old-Fashioned Superstitions by: Chloe Rhodes