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History of Salt in Religion

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History of Salt in Religion

Salt has long held an important place in religion and culture. Greek worshippers consecrated salt in their rituals. Jewish Temple offerings included salt; on the Sabbath, Jews still dip their bread in salt as a remembrance of those sacrifices. In the Old Testament, Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt. Author Sallie Tisdale notes that salt is as free as the water suspending it when it's dissolved, and as immutable as stone when it's dry – a fitting duality for Lot's wife, who overlooks Sodom to this day.

Covenants in both the Old and New Testaments were often sealed with salt: the origin of the word "salvation." In the Catholic Church, salt is or has been used in a variety of purifying rituals. In fact, until Vatican II, a small taste of salt was placed on a baby's lip at his or her baptism. Jesus called his disciples "the Salt of the Earth." In Leonardo DaVinci's famous painting, "The Last Supper," Judas Escariot has just spilled a bowl of salt – a portent of evil and bad luck. To this day, the tradition endures that someone who spills salt should throw a pinch over his left shoulder to ward off any devils that may be lurking behind.

Because of its use as a preservative, salt became a token of permanence to the Jews of the Old Testament. Its use in Hebrew sacrifices as a meat purifier came to signify the eternal covenant between God and Israel. In one biblical case, salt symbolized a lack of fidelity. In Genesis 19:1-29, two angels of the Lord command Lot, his wife and two daughters to flee the sinful city of Sodom without ever looking back. When Lot's wife cast a fleeting glance backward (her faith was uncertain), she was immediately transformed into a pillar of salt. A Roman religious ritual, however, in which grains of salt were placed on an eight-day-old babe's lips, prefigures the Roman Catholic baptismal ceremony in which a morsel of salt is placed in the mouth of the child to ensure its allegorical purification. In the Christian catechism, salt is still a metaphor for the grace and wisdom of Christ. When Matthew says, "Ye are the salt of the earth”  he is addressing the blessed, the worthy sheep in the flock, not the erring goats. 

In Buddhist tradition, salt repels evil spirits. That's why it's customary to throw salt over your shoulder before entering your house after a funeral: it scares off any evil spirits that may be clinging to your back.

Shinto religion also uses salt to purify an area. Before sumo wrestlers enter the ring for a match—which is actually an elaborate Shinto rite—a handful of salt is thrown into the center to drive off malevolent spirits.

In the Southwest, the Pueblo worship the Salt Mother. Other native tribes had significant restrictions on who was permitted to eat salt. Hopi legend holds that the angry Warrior Twins punished mankind by placing valuable salt deposits far from civilization, requiring hard work and bravery to harvest the precious mineral.


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