Why So Salty?
No really…why? Surely you’re familiar with some of the ways salt ties into the occult, the paranormal, traditions, and superstition. Your family probably taught you at least one superstition having to do with salt that you took for granted until you realized not everyone has the same habit. When you spill salt on accident, do you follow that up with a purposeful pinch of salt tossed over your shoulder? If you specifically chose the left shoulder, is your family of an Abrahamic faith?
Where did these salt superstitions come from? Are the practices tied to particular cultures? Is there any science behind the use of salt in ritual? And most importantly, how do these salt superstitions tie into the supernatural?
Where do superstitions come from?
There’s always a little bit of wisdom in every human superstition. Nay, every superstition, human or otherwise. I’ve heard the term “pigeon logic” to describe an act that precedes a fortunate event coincidentally becoming a sort of superstition in the literal pigeons described.
Other species can also be superstitious.
Apparently, pigeons take the “post hoc ergo procter hoc” assumption to heart. If a pigeon in a park just happens to turn in a circle, peck the ground 4 times, then stretch its left wing, and then a passing hungry tourist drops a crumb of fried chicken on the ground right in front of this lucky pigeon, the pigeon decides that he’s going to make his own luck, and promptly proceeds to turn in a circle, peck the ground 4 times, then stretch its left wing again. If another tourist passing the other way just happens to drop another piece of fried chicken at that moment, the little cannibal will have it’s superstition firmly entrenched for all of it’s little birdy eternity.
Humans differ in one very important way from pigeons: we pee and poo out of separate holes. But in a less important way, we differ in the ability to pass on superstitions. Not like the darwinian way of passing down traits that make offspring more likely to mate and produce offspring. But in a way that might, one could argue, make us less cool and therefore LESS likely to mate. We pass on our human superstitions through the acts of storytelling, teaching the younger generations that these superstitions hold value. I’d have to guess that means that, way back at the beginning of the telephone tree, the first human to pass a superstition on to her offspring had a genuine experience to solidify her belief in the superstition; either a true correlation was recognized in a flash of insight, or she’s thinking kind of like our pigeon, perhaps.
Over time, superstitions lose their original meaning.
We pass this salt superstition on to further generations. But we assume the kids will be too ungrateful to appreciate that salt doesn’t grow on trees, and why we no longer invite that one cousin to dinner because she’s always spilling this damned expensive table salt that we had to sell our other children for. So we tell them “it’s BAD LUCK, ok?” And in direct opposition to the lucky pigeon, us kids immediately develop an icky feeling in our tummies every time we inadvertently commit these taboos, until we ease our anxiety by completing the superstitious action. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Professor Jane Risen of Chicago University demonstrates that “jinx avoidance behavior” can actually change people’s actions after a perceived bad luck event, leading to the actual avoidance of bad luck.
What are some widely-practiced salt superstitions?
Put a baggie of salt in your car to keep your journey safe. Buddhists may throw salt over their shoulders to prevent evil spirits from following them home from funerals, but they care less about which shoulder than other traditions.
Remember Bhuts? These evil spirits tend to molest women and children who have just eaten sweets. So it might be wise to taste a pinch of salt immediately afterwards to remove the sweet taste from the mouth. Hey, this one actually does have a little medical sense to it, as sugar can cause harmful bacteria to multiply in the mouth, and salt can be used as a sanitizing tooth-cleaning agent.
Indeed, so general is this belief that in some locations, vendors of sweetmeats provide their youthful customers each with a pinch of salt to remove the sweet taste from their mouths, and thus afford a safeguard against the ever-watchful Bhuts.
A Roman Catholic priest may prepare holy water one traditional way by exorcizing and blessing salt and water separately. After the blessing, he will dissolve the salt in the water and pronounce a benediction upon the mixture. The resulting holy water is useful for exposing and repelling demons.
According to myjewishlearning.com, salt has great power against evil entities. Because new homes are usually full of demons (huh! And we thought it was old homes that were likely to have haints!), some salt in the corners might help drive the stinkers out of their hidey holes. This reminds me of the modern feng shui belief that energy gets stuck in corners. Also the spiritualist idea that ghosts get stuck in corners.
Interestingly, the article continues that new clothing is also likely to be demon-infested, and that putting a pinch of salt in the pockets of new clothes could really help dispel those pocket goblins (especially for babies). It’s still customary to dip food in salty water and eat it on Passover to remember the tears of one’s forlorn forefathers, although this may be more symbolic than superstitious.
“Pass the salt, pass the sorrow”
According to folklore.usc.edu, “It is bad luck to hand someone the salt without setting it down on the table first to break the connection.” The likely reason for this superstition is the high value of salt in the past. In fact, the roots of the English word “salary” implies it may once have been generous to pay your employees partially in salt. (Salt is also at the root of the word “salvation,” tellingly).
Salt was once rare, expensive, and therefore extremely taboo to spill. Setting the salt down on the table while passing it might be the clear accusation of exactly whose fault it was that the salt spilled in the event that the salt spills during the pass. If spilling salt is taboo, nobody wants to find themselves blamed for a spill that was obviously the fault of the passer, not the receiver.
Throw it over your shoulder
At first, I assumed the previous superstition mutated into the one about tossing salt over the shoulder. What an ironic evolution, as one is preventing the bad luck brought on by spilling and therefore wasting precious salt, only by wasting even more salt. But Becky says this custom is separately derived from the idea of making a salt ring on the floor to protect from haints.
Turns out the custom is much older than either of us realized. From livescience.com: “Spilling salt has been considered unlucky for thousands of years. Around 3,500 B.C., the ancient Sumerians first took to nullifying the bad luck of spilled salt by throwing a pinch of it over their left shoulders. This ritual spread to the Egyptians, the Assyrians and later, the Greeks.
Throwing the salt over the left shoulder might be important because that’s the shoulder the devil sits on, and it’s rude to toss salt in the face of the angel on the right. Spilling salt also seems to indicate some moral character flaws. Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” immortalized Judas in the process of spilling the salt.
But what does that have to do with ghosts?
Just like slugs, ghosts allegedly cannot cross salt. Various occult traditions use salt as a barrier to keep out haints. This is usually in the form of creating a circle or barrier on the floor out of salt. The salt circle may protect a vulnerable medium in a trance, or a sigil for performing magick. It could form a barrier at the threshold to keep dark entities out of the entire house. The salt circle could even trap a ghost within it. Becky believes the tossing of salt over the shoulder is a superstition that is at least somewhat symbolic of this circle of protection.
There are other practices, such as hanging a vial of salt by a window to keep ghosts out, mixing salt with holy water to repel demons, or wearing salt to protect one’s aura from outside influence.
Why Haints cannot cross salt is less clear. Is it too pure? Do the ions released by the salt warming in the sun purify the area of ghosts? Does salt stick to their ectoplasm and dehydrate them like snails? Can it melt them like ice on a salted road? Does it hurt their delicate spectral feet like Legos on the floor?
More than just ghosts.
One could argue that all superstitions are paranormal in nature. After all, none of them are strictly scientific. But for the purposes of this list we’ll stick to those that actually harken to a specific paranormal entity, and not just “bad luck”. Here’s a fun list from sacred-texts.com/etc/mhs/mhs39.htm, about how to use salt for other types of paranormal influence.
Weird Salt Superstitions
- Salt the lid of your butter churn to keep witches out of your butter. (Aberdeen, Scotland)
- Sprinkle salt over an obnoxious enemy while he is sleeping, or on the grave of one of his ancestors to cast a spell on him to make him less annoying. (unknown origins)
- Throw salt on the fire 3 Friday nights in a row while chanting an incantation to draw your lover to your side. (South of England)
- Put salt on a bird’s tail to make it easier to capture. (unknown origins)
- Salt the stable doorway to thwart lutins (hobgoblins) from teasing the horses. (Quebec, Canada)
- Salt the back of your horse before he enters a new stall to protect him from fairies. (Marsala, west Sicily)
- Cure homesickness by putting salt in the hems of your trousers and looking up a chimney. (Germans of Buffalo valley in central Pennsylvania)
- Rub salt and wine on your scorpion stings to burn the fiends out of them. (India)
- Say the Lord’s prayer 3 times each over 3 lines of salt on a table to perform a fairy exorcism. (Ireland, of course)
- Lick your child’s forehead for salty taste to detect the evil eye. (Ukraine and Bavaria)
- Sprinkle salt on the ground behind your daughter as she leaves the house. This way, she won’t get lost. (Bohemia)
- What if you find the lower half of a manananggal while the upper half is out hunting? Putting salt in it may prevent the halves from reuniting. This would out the monster the next morning when only part of her shows up for work. (Philippines)
- Throw salt on burning coals in an earthen vessel in front of your cargo before shipping it off. This will prevent evil spirits from messing with it. (Egypt)
- Put salt in the coffin to keep the interred from becoming possessed. (Europe)
- Rub your 8-day-old infant with salt to protect him from demons. (Ancient Rome)
- What if you find butter on the barn door and suspect it a witch put it there? First, load your gun with salt. Then, shoot the butter, and thus keep the cows healthy and un-cursed. (Russian Esthonia)
- Use salt as a weapon against literally any type of paranormal being. (the TV show Supernatural)
So many salt superstitions!
What a vast territory salt can cover in the realm of the supernatural! Does your family practice any of these, or other, salt superstitions? If not, it’s a good thing you found this article. All these salt superstitions will surely leave you with plenty of fodder for all types of future paranormal encounters. And if you need normal (rather than paranormal) protection from the entities in your kitchen, Becky is designing a very protective salty apron for you that should be available in our merch store soon.
Until next time, have a spooky day!