When we think about salt, symbolism and spirituality is hardly top of our mind over something like food. But the reality is that salt actually has a rich, symbolic history for people and has been an important symbol in religion and society. So, let’s delve into salt symbolism and uncover exactly what it means to us.
What is the symbolism of salt?
Because salt has held such a prominent position in human history, it’s no wonder that it has come to symbolize many things to different people. Here are the symbols associated with salt.
Salt symbolizes preservation
Historically, salt was used as a preservative in the days before refrigeration and artificial preservatives. It drew the moisture out of food which then allowed it to last far longer. As such, salt quickly became associated with its ability to preserve.
Salt symbolizes cleansing
Humans have used salt as a medical tool as far back as ancient times. It was used to treat wounds and infections and was even touted as treatment for the prevention of putrefaction, reduction of tissue swelling, treatment of diarrhea. The history of salt as a medical tool has naturally led to salt being associated, symbolically with cleansing, medicine and health.
Salt symbolizes pain
The idiom “rubbing salt in the wound” has its origins in medical history but has taken on new meanings. When using this phrase, being is referring to the idea of kicking you while you’re down. This likely stems from the pain of treating an open wound with salt.
Salt symbolizes luxury
Throughout history, salt has often been regarded as a luxury commodity that only the upper echelons of society could afford.
Salt symbolizes monopoly
While salt seems a common and cheap thing these days, historically it was often a very well protected commodity. There were strict monopolies on salt in British controlled India and the Qin and Han dynasties in China.
Salt symbolizes rebellion
Salt was at the center of Gandhi’s non-violent protest of the British occupation of India. He wrote the following in the Indian Opinion:
“The tax levied on salt in India has always been a subject of criticism. This time it has been criticized by the well-known Dr. Hutchinson who says that ‘it is a great shame for the British Government in India to continue it, while a similar tax previously in force in Japan has been abolished. Salt is an essential article in our dietary. It could be said that the increasing incidence of leprosy in India was due to the salt tax. Dr. Hutchinson considers the salt tax a barbarous practice, which ill becomes the British Government.”
This culminated in Gandhi’s Salt March where he gathered salt by hand in the village of Dandi in open rebellion against the laws of the British empire. Though he was arrested, it is seen by many as the beginning of India’s march to independence.
Salt symbolizes destruction
In ancient warfare, when a city was sacked, it was often customary to spread salt around the city and even sow it into the soil. Perhaps the most famous story of which is the sacking of Carthage during the Third Punic War, where general Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, allegedly plowed over and sowed the city of Carthage with salt.
It’s not completely clear from ancient texts whether this was a sign of cleansing the lands, or a curse to stop future peoples from building there.
Spiritual Meaning of Salt
Spiritually, salt is typically associated with cleansing. Salt is seen as a tool to charge or cleanse certain healing crystals while adding salt to bath water is seen as a great way to achieve spiritual cleansing as well.
Salt in Language
Salt as a symbol has been used in a few common phrases and idioms.
Add salt to the wound
In ancient times, salt was indeed used as a way to cleanse wounds, preventing infections. This method, while effective in some cases, was also extremely painful. When you consider the pain of a fresh wound, adding salt would intensify the pain, making it much worse. The phrase evolved over time to symbolize the act of making a bad situation even worse or exacerbating someone’s distress.
Worth your salt
The word “salary” comes from the Latin word “salarium”, which was the money paid to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt. Salt was a highly valued commodity in ancient times, used not only for flavoring and preserving food but also in various religious and cultural rituals. Being “worth one’s salt” implies that a person was worth the money or resources expended on them, especially in the context of their job or duties.
Salt of the earth
This phrase has biblical roots. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to his followers as the “salt of the earth”. Salt, as mentioned before, was a valuable and essential commodity. It preserves, gives flavor, and is seen as pure, as its whiteness repels many impurities. To be called the “salt of the earth” is to be considered fundamental, dependable, and unpretentious. Over time, the phrase has come to describe a person or group considered as the backbone of society, usually because of their virtues, integrity, and hard work.
To take with a grain of salt
The idea of taking something with a grain of salt can be traced back to Pliny the Elder’s “Naturalis Historia” written in 77 CE. In it, Pliny describes a recipe for an antidote to poison which involves taking the antidote with a grain of salt. Over time, the phrase evolved into a metaphor for taking something (especially a piece of information) with skepticism or caution, the same way one might take a potentially harmful substance with a protective measure.
Salt in the Bible
Salt, in its manifold implications, has also played a pivotal role in biblical narratives. The Bible, a timeless repository of lessons and symbols, employs salt to convey themes of covenant, purity, and judgment, among others.
Salt as Covenant
In the Old Testament, God often speaks of the “covenant of salt” with the Israelites, emphasizing its eternal nature. In Leviticus 2:13, God commands the people, “Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.” Here, salt is not merely a physical substance but an emblem of the everlasting bond between God and His people.
Salt as Purity and Wisdom
The words of believers are expected to be seasoned with salt, suggesting purity and wisdom. Colossians 4:6 suggests, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” It acts as a guideline to believers, exhorting them to infuse their speech with understanding and kindness.
Salt as Judgment and Loss
The story of Lot’s wife in the book of Genesis is one of the most iconic biblical mentions of salt. As God destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah due to their wickedness, Lot’s wife, against divine instruction, looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. This dramatic transformation serves as a stern reminder of the repercussions of disobedience and the lingering attachments to sin.
Salt as Preservation and Influence
Jesus Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, referred to his followers as the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). This metaphor underscores the Christian’s role in society, not only to preserve the teachings of Christ but also to influence the world positively. However, Jesus also warns that if the salt loses its taste, it’s no longer useful, emphasizing the importance of maintaining one’s faith and virtues.
Salt as a Symbol of Wealth and Hospitality
In biblical times, salt was a highly valued commodity, often used for trade. Thus, being gifted salt symbolized a gesture of high esteem and friendship. Elisha’s miracle of healing the waters of Jericho with salt (2 Kings 2:19-22) also underscores its value and purifying capabilities.
Salt is clearly far more than just something to flavor your food. Its history is tied to the history of humanity and has made its mark in different civilizations and religions. Its symbolism is powerful and the spiritual meaning of salt is worth paying attention to.