~ Or: When a precious commodity is no longer precious, does the gesture lose its meaning?

The notion of throwing salt over the shoulder is an interesting one.  If you have watched any chefferiffic programming on television, you’ve probably seen it at least twice.  Maybe thrice!  A chef throwing salt over the shoulder has some kind of meaning.  The average person throwing salt over the shoulder also has some kind of meaning.  But what exactly is that meaning?

And no, silly, I’m not referring to the “salt of the earth” kind of salt.  When was the last time you saw someone throw a fisherman over their shoulder for any reason unless it was in a bar fight?

No, I’m referring to a superstition or tradition that dates back entire moons.  Several of them in fact!  When did it start?  Who got this hype train running??

This one is going to take a bit of backstory to get to really get to the meat of it.  So!  Calling all sodium chloride æfficionados!  Let’s figure out what this seeming waste of flavor-savor is all about!

A Brief History of Salt

No, seriously. A brief history of salt.  It will tie into this.  I promise.

Something I learned mere minutes ago is the fact that simple table salt as we know it today was once not even remotely simple.  Nor inexpensive, for that matter.  Salt carried with it a staggering value for a variety of reasons in the early ages and I’m going to throw a few of these down in order to build to the context of the superstition that we know today.  Eyes and ears open!  Incoming thinkin’ words!  Pants optional!  Here we go!

Salt as a food preservative

When I was a wee little thing, I remember vividly my father making lox using fish and rock salt.  Pretty simple, really.  Take a slab of fish, absolutely pack it to the gills in rock salt (see what i did there?) , wrap it in plastic wrap, then set it on the back porch for a few days.  The end.  You have cured fish.  Lox.

and it wasn’t even sick, really

The only thing I understood about that process as a child is that I did not like the flavor of the thing that was the end result of his efforts.  I wish I was able to appreciate it then!

This is a concept that has gone down generation after generation.  The use of salt to cure foods to make them last longer.  Meats obviously spoil and grow bacteria if left to their own devices.  This spoilage and bacteria will probably kill you if not dealt with properly.

Do not eat that rank meat.

It is reported that Egyptians in roughly 2000BC were already doing this to foods to preserve them for longer periods of time.  Think about that for a moment.  Imagine living in an era and area where it is hot on the regular.  You want to, like, you know, eat stuff.  Meats and fish will only last so long if kept in a cool place.  Cool places are rare at that point.  So what next?  Sell off everything as fast as possible before it goes bad?  Keep that cycle of catch and sell going in some kind of frenzy where you only have a finite amount of time to dispose of product before it’s no longer useful?  So much potential for waste on the forefront, not to mention the cost to a business that thrives on it.  This was a bit before the advent of the walk-in freezer so: complications.

Salt as a food preservative was a game changer.  A boost to civilization.  It built and destroyed entire empires.  But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Salt as a building block of modern civilization

We credit the Greeks for simple things like, oh, I dunno, inventing modern civilization.  Little things like that.  You know, construction stuff, columns, umm, sports?  Olive appreciation?  Geometry (pardon my french)?  Maybe even democracy.  You know, stuff.  Lots of stuff.

But something that is worth considering is what it was that allowed them to flourish in a way that would permit these massive contributions to our existence.  Salt trade.


Greek culture absolutely boomed as a result of salt trade with Egypt.  And salt fish, for that matter.

Whether or not they would have been able to have the luxury of developing many things we know today without a stable supply of preserved foods is debatable, but for the purposes of this writing I like to think that MAYBE JUST MAYBE it had something to do with it.

Ok yeah, that’s a teensy bit of a stretch.  Or ….. is it?  Let’s look at bit further into some of the things that this simple salt thing did to our Earth human history.

Salt as the determining factor in the rise and fall of nations

That’s right, we’re going there.  Salt trade both built and destroyed entire regions.

Part of Rome’s ability to grow at the rate that it did was partially due to its proximity to the Adriatic and Tyrrhhenian seas and their sources of salt.  Roads were built to accommodate that proximity in order to keep trade flowing faster.

It is rumored that the salt mines of Poland were so plentiful that the Polish empire was built on the backs of that plenty.  It is also rumored that the value of that empire crumbled when the Germans showed up with sea salt and a brilliant marketing plan alleging that sea salt was superior to rock salt.  True or not, it didn’t really matter.  The marketing efforts worked and the Polish economy suffered at the hands of Germany as a result.

I was going to say something about precursors but that would be silly so we’re just going to move on.  Besides, Poland disappeared from every map for a while anyway.  Salt marketing wasn’t their only historical challenge.  And really, I’m pretty sure the only reason they disappeared for a while was over jealousy about how delicious Żubrówka is.  Don’t get the stuff pre-made in the store, it’s gross. Roll your own.  You’ll thank me later.

Munich exists solely as an entity grown to tax salt trade running through the region.

Gabelles, French salt taxes, were in place from 1286 through to 1790.  An obnoxious tax that was the cause of invasions and wars.

Salt as a commodity of extremely high value

Today, we go to the store and we have our pick of all kinds of fancy salts.  Pink Himalayan.  Red Hawaiian.  Kosher.  Table.  Sea.  Rock.  Pretty sure someone’s found a way to market an organic salt at this point.

Once upon a time, salt was not nearly as plentiful.  As a result, it was expensive.

The ability to transport salt was complicated.  Caravans had to carry it long distances.  Boats slogged with it as cargo.  It wasn’t always easy to find and acquire.  When you couple its lack of availability with the fact that it was a pain in the booty to transport, you have something that costs a TON.  At one point, salt was definitely worth its weight in salt.

References to the Value of Salt Throughout History

Once again telling childhood stories here: as a lad I always found one particular part of the Bible absolutely confounding.  When Lot’s wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt.  The keto-compatible fatty computer made of meat in my small child skull was NOT having any part of that.  Why turn her into something that I use to add any kind of flavor at all to the potato pancakes that my father made?  (he tried, he really tried, but ugh those potato pancakes…)

Turns out, the rarity and value of salt lent itself to much more significance than my child brain was ready to comprehend at the time.

From a biblical perspective alone, salt as a thing of value is referenced in both old and new testaments.  Yes, Lot’s wife was no more, but she was suddenly much more valuable on the black market.

A Chinese tax on salt in 2200BC was the first levy on that commodity.  Allegedly the very first tax ever.  Allegedly.  What do all the cool kids say?  Ahh yes: “Citation needed.”

The term “salary” is supposed to be a derivation of salt in Latin.  Every web page you look up will reference something about the fact that Roman soldiers were paid partially in salt but that claim is apparently difficult to verify.  Slave trade used salt as a barter currency.  Yes, human life was bought and paid for by the thing in the shaker on your table.

No, that doesn’t make salt evil.  People are evil.  Salt was just the currency at the time, same as gold or money now.

Sorry, I want off on a tangent there.

But ALL OF THE ABOVE was written in an effort to establish something that I was not aware of until the writing of this post.  Salt was VALUABLE once upon a time.  Rare and expensive.

Establishing that it was rare and expensive is important in the context of what comes next: the superstition.

Throwing Salt Over the Shoulder

Because of the value of salt – as established above ad nauseam – it brings us to the bad luck aspect that is associated to salt from early ages.

Spilling it.

Chances are each and every one of us has spilled our fair share of salt for a variety of reasons.  Knocking the shaker over.  Bumping into it while cleaning.  The lid accidentally popping off of a stubborn shaker when attempting to vigorously pour more salt into food being cooked because we like flavor and stuff.

Nowadays, we say “oops” and continue on with our day.  Once upon a time, the spilling of salt was tantamount to dumping saffron into the garbage disposal.  Why would you do that?  I don’t know, don’t ask me.  It was an analogy.  I couldn’t think of anything better.

So back to the spilling of salt.  Doing so was not only considered to be a waste of epic proportions, it was ultimately deemed to be back luck.

The next logical step after that was to take a pinch of that salt and flick it over the left shoulder in an effort to ward off any oncoming bad luck.

Why? Because according to a couple millennia of lorish elements, it is upon the left shoulder that evil sits.  The devil.  Remember the old Tom and Jerry cartoons where the angel cat sits on one of Tom’s shoulders and the devil cat sits on the other?

The portrayal of good and evil on the shoulders whispering into our ears has been all over pop culture of the centuries.  It goes even as far back as Plato’s Phaedrus from 370BC.  Which is a few moons ago.

But here’s the thing.  The pinch of salt thrown over the left shoulder has an origin as being an attempt to cast sodium into the eyes of the little devil thing that resides there in order to make it not do any of the bad luck things that it might be wont to do.

Side note on Leonardo DaVinci

Yes, DaVinci’s Last Supper painting is famous for having a spilled salt cellar in front of Judas, the Iscariot.  Did he actually spill a salt bowl?  Probably not.  Is it referenced in the Bible at any point that a salt bowl was spilled by him as an omen of his betrayal?  Nope!  Did DaVinci throw it in because spilling salt was already considered to be a bad omen in his time?  Probably!

The only reason it hasn’t come up until now is because it is a cute reference to think about but not actually the reason for this superstition in the first place.  The spilling of salt was already a bad omen prior to his painting; this isn’t something he invented.

Deviating from Christian tradition for a moment: Buddhists also throw salt over their shoulders as part of funeral rituals in order to fend off evil spirits.

If there is one thing to be learned from all of this: salt is clearly something pure, delightful, wonderful, and flavorful and the throwing of it into bad spirits is a perfect way to make them melt like the Wicked Witch of the West under a malfunctioning fire suppressant system.

But as far as we can tell, it’s NOT a result of that painting.

Closing Out With Only Half an Answer

See, here’s the thing.  We figured out a few things.

Salt was a valuable and rare commodity.  It was responsible for allowing people to keep feeding themselves without being tied solely to harvest seasons.  Kind of a cool idea, really.

It was a pain in the rear to find, dig up, and transport.

There are references to the value of salt throughout our written histories going back pretty darn far.

Spilling salt was obviously a very naughty thing to do.

You know what I was not able to find at all no matter where I dug or what Google Fu I attempted to utilize?

When did throwing it over the shoulder start?

We know a couple of theories of WHY.  And that was sorta what I was getting at.  But the one component that I am missing that I cannot seem to find and it’s driving me bonkers is when it started!

Ok ok ok.  We touched on why.  That was the header thing that SEO is going to judge me on when all is said and done.

But I’d REALLY like to know when it started.

If ya’ll have any ideas, please let me know!  I’d love to get an answer to that one someday.

In the meantime, have a fantastic week full of flavorful foods laced with salt and many words more insightful than this!  This œffscour is going to try to find something more interesting to write about.

Until next week!

-= george =-



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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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