With a Pinch of Salt: the uses and history of sodium chloride

Salt.  You probably consume it everyday in your food, and might even use it in ritual, but what is it and why is it so important for ritual use?

The definition of salt is a crystalline mineral that is composed primarily of sodium chloride (NaCl), a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of ionic salts. It is absolutely essential for animal life, but can be harmful to animals and plants in excess. Salt is one of the oldest, most ubiquitous food seasonings and salting is an important method of food preservation. The taste of salt (saltiness) is one of the five basic human tastes detected by the tongue.  It is the only non-biological mineral food that humans regularly eat.

Chloride and sodium ions, the two major components of salt, are needed by all known living creatures in small quantities. Salt is involved in regulating the water content of the body. The sodium ion itself is used for electrical signaling in the nervous system. Because of its importance to survival, salt has often been considered a valuable commodity during human history.

In the modern day, salt brings out natural flavours,  retards food spoilage, regulates fermentation rates, strengthens gluten in bread and preserves meat and sausages.

But if we go back a bit, we’ll find that salt mining and use is a lot older and just as widespread.  A saltworks operation has been discovered at the Poiana Slatinei archaeological site next to a salt spring in Lunca, Neamţ County, Romania. Evidence indicates that Neolithic people of the Precucuteni Culture were boiling the salt-laden spring water through the process of briquetage to extract the salt as far back as 6050 BC. The salt extracted from this operation may have had a direct correlation to the rapid growth of this society’s population soon after its initial production began.

Across the other side of the world, the harvest of salt from the surface of Xiechi Lake near Yuncheng in Shanxi, China dates back to at least 6000 BC, making it one of the oldest verifiable saltworks.

Salt was included among funeral offerings found in ancient Egyptian tombs from the third millennium BC, as were salted birds and salt fish. From about 2800 BC, the Egyptians began exporting salt fish to the Phoenicians in return for Lebanon cedar, glass, and the dye Tyrian purple; the Phoenicians traded Egyptian salt fish and salt from North Africa throughout their Mediterranean trade empire.

The word salt probably derives from the ancient town of Es-Salt, close to one of the most famous sources of salt, the Dead Sea.  Roman soldiers were given money to pay for salt, the salarium argentium, from which we get the word salary.  This basis also gives us the word salad, from the Roman practice of salting green leaves before eating.

The expression ‘not worth his salt’ comes from the Ancient Greek practice of selling slaves for salt.

Along the Sahara, the Tuareg maintain routes especially for the transport of salt by Azalai (salt caravans). In 1960, the caravans still transported some 15,000 tons of salt, but this trade has now declined to roughly a third of this figure.

There are many different kinds of salt.  In the modern era, most table salt, which is the small crystal kind that you’ll probably buy for food use,  comes from salt mining and evaporation plants in the USA, China, Germany, India and Canada.  Within Europe, salt is still mined, at the Weilczka Salt Mine in Poland and the mines near Saltzburg.  Once removed from the ground, it is refined to almost pure sodium chloride.

table salt

Sea  salt, prized by connoisseurs, is made by evaporating sea water, which usually contains about 2.5% salt.  Sea salt tends to be sold in larger crystals than table salt.

sea salt

The town of Maldon has produced quality flake salt since the Middle Ages, made by evaporating seawater with sun and wind, then heating the brine until delicate salt crystals appear.  Below is smoked flake salt from Maldon:


Smoked sea salt is smoked over a wood fire using a method dating back to the vikings to infuse the salt with flavours from the woods such as cherry, juniper, oak, beech and elm.

The phrase ‘salting the earth’ or ‘sowing with salt’ refers to the practice of victors ritually sowing salt into lands they had conquered.  In the Hebrew Bible, when the judge Abimelech destroyed the city of Shechem, he is said to have “sown salt on it,” (Judges 9:45).  The Hittites and Assyrians also used this, and Scipio Africanus ploughed over and sowed the city of Carthage with salt after the Third Punic War in 146BC.  You may also find reference to a plough being ritually drawn through the remains of a conquered city.   This sowing with salt was not to damage farmland, as the amounts of salt to make the land too salty to grow crops would have been huge, although historians are unsure as to why cultures chose this ritual after victory.

Aside from eating, the modern uses of salt in religion and culture are predominantly connected with purification.

In the Hebrew Bible, thirty-five verses mention salt, one of which being the story of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:26) as they were destroyed.  The Book of Job contains the first mention of salt as a condiment. “Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?” (Job 6:6)

In the Christian New Testament, six verses mention salt. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to his followers as the “salt of the earth“. The apostle Paul also encouraged Christians to “let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6).

In one of the Hadith recorded in Sunan Ibn Majah, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that: “Salt is the master of your food. God sent down four blessings from the sky – fire, water, iron and salt”

Salt is considered to be a very auspicious substance in Hinduism, and is used in particular religious ceremonies like housewarmings and weddings. In Jainism, devotees offer raw rice and a pinch of salt before a deity to signify their devotion.

In Judaism, it is recommended to have either a salty bread or to add salt to the bread if this bread is unsalted when doing Kiddush for Shabbat. It is customary to spread some salt over the bread or to dip the bread in a little salt when passing the bread around the table after the Kiddush. To preserve the covenant between their people and God, Jews dip the Sabbath bread in salt.

In our own practices, salt can be symbolic of the element Earth. It is also believed to cleanse an area of harmful or negative energies. A dish of salt and a dish of water are almost always present on an altar.  Salt can also be used to cleanse crystals, be ritually scattered to create a circle or sacred space, or used in purification of people or tools.

In the native Japanese religion Shinto, salt is used for ritual purification of locations and people (harae, specifically shubatsu), such as in sumo wrestling, and small piles of salt called morijio (pile of salt) or shiobana (salt flowers) are placed in dishes by the entrance of establishments for the two-fold purposes of warding off evil and attracting patrons.

In Aztec mythology, Huixtocihuatl was a fertility goddess who presided over salt and salt water.

So next time you happen to have chips and sprinkle salt on them for flavoring,  spare a thought for the other things people have used, and continue to use it for!

Mmmm, chips.....

Mmmm, chips…..


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