Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 52.djvu/255

This page has been validated.

THE SYMBOLISM OF SALT.

241

desire, all feelings contradictory of these suffer a total eclipse, and death becomes desirable as a means to obtain what to the passing fancy seems a greater and the supreme end.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

THE SYMBOLISM OF SALT.
By MARIE GOLDSMITH WEST.

DR. WALTER JAMES HOFFMAN, in his paper upon Popular Superstitions, which appeared in the Popular Science Monthly for November, 1896, speaks of the ominous meaning attached to the spilling of salt at table. He traces the origin of this widespread belief to our Lord's Supper and consequent events. Now, this is an erroneous though not infrequent supposition, doubtless generated by Leonardo da Vinci's great picture of the Last Supper, where he represents Judas overturning the saltcellar as he reaches over the table to dip his hand in the dish with our Lord. As a matter of fact, mention of the superstition was made in works anterior to the time of Christ. It was a common belief among the Romans, and may even then have been a survival, since proof exists that this mineral was held sacred very early in the history of the human race.

The Romans began their feasts by prayers and libations to the gods. The table was consecrated by placing upon it the images of the Lares and saltcellars. A family saltholder was kept with great care, and to spill the salt at table was esteemed ominous.[1]

The prominence of salt as a religious and social symbol is doubtless due to the fact that it became a necessity to most nations at an early stage of civilization, and that it was a luxury very hard for primitive man to obtain in many parts of the world. There are still, even in this era of commerce, portions of central Africa where the use of this mineral is a luxury confined to the rich.

In ancient times and among inland peoples the possession of a salt spring was regarded as a special gift of the gods. The Chaonians in Epirus had one which flowed into a stream where there were no fish, and the legend was that Heracles had allowed their forefathers to have salt instead of fish.[2]

The Germans waged war for the possession of saline springs, and believed that the presence of salt in the soil invested the district with peculiar sanctity, and made it a place where prayers were most readily heard.[3]


  1. Horace, Od. ii, 16, 14, Test.
  2. Arist., ut supra.
  3. Tacitus, ut supra.