THE origin of the use of common salt as a condiment is hidden in the mazes of antiquity. Although we have no evidence that this important article of diet was known to the antediluvians, there is still abundant proof that it was highly esteemed as a seasoner of food long before the Christian era. In a Greek translation of a curious fragment of the writings of the semi-fabulous Phoenician author, Sanchoniathon, who is said to have lived before the Trojan war, the discovery of the uses of salt is attributed to certain immediate descendants of Noah, one of whom was his son Shem.
From the mythical lore of Finland we learn that Ukko, the mighty god of the sky, struck fire in the heavens, a spark from which descending was received by the waves and became salt. The Chinese worship an idol called Phelo, in honor of a mythological personage of that name, whom they believe to have been the discoverer of salt and the originator of its use. His ungrateful countrymen, however, were tardy in their recognition of Phelo's merits, and that worthy thereupon left his native land and did not return. Then the Chinese declared him to be a deity, and in the month of June each year they hold a festival in his honor, during which he is everywhere eagerly sought, but in vain; he will not appear until he comes to announce the end of the world.
Among the Mexican Nahuas the women and girls employed in the preparation of salt were wont to dance at a yearly festival held in honor of the Goddess of salt, Huixtocihuatl, whose brothers the rain-gods are said, as the result of a quarrel, to have driven her into the sea, where she invented the art of making the precious substance.
The earliest Biblical mention of salt appears to be in reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis xix. 24-26.) When King Abimelech destroyed the city of Shechem, an event which is believed to have occurred in the thirteenth century B.C., he is said to have "sowed salt on it," this phrase expressing the completeness of its ruin. (Judges ix. 45.) It is certain that the use of salt as a relish was known to the Jewish people at a comparatively early period of their history. For in the sixth chapter of the Book of Job occurs this passage: "Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt?"
In Eastern countries it is a time-honored custom to place salt before strangers as a token and pledge of friendship and good-will. The phrase "to eat some one's salt" formerly signified being in that person's service, and in this sense it is used in the Book of Ezra, iv. 14, where the expression, " we have maintenance from the king's palace," means literally, " we are salted with the salt of the palace," which implies being in the service of the king. And from the idea of being in the employment of a master, and eating his salt, the phrase in question came to denote faithfulness and loyalty.
As an instance of the superstitious reverence with which salt is regarded in the East, it is related that Yacoub ben Laith, who founded the dynasty of Persian princes known as the Saffarides, was of very humble origin, and in his youth gained a livelihood as a freebooter. Yet so chivalrous was he that he never stripped his victims of all their belongings, but always left them something to begin life with anew.
On one occasion this gallant robber had forcibly and by stealth entered the palace of a prince, and was about departing with considerable spoil, when he stumbled over an object which his sense of taste revealed to be a lump of salt. Having thus involuntarily partaken of a pledge of hospitality in another man's house, his honor overcame his greed of gain and he departed without his booty.
Owing to its antiseptic and preservative qualities, salt was emblematic of durability and permanence; hence the expression "Covenant of Salt." It was also a symbol of wisdom, and in this sense was doubtless used by St. Paul when he told the Colossians that their speech should be seasoned with salt.
Homer called salt divine, and Plato described it as a substance dear to the gods.
Perhaps the belief in its divine attributes may have been a reason for the employment of salt as a sacrificial offering by the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, all of whom, moreover, regarded it as an indispensable relish.
Plutarch said that without salt nothing was savory or toothsome, and that this substance even imparted an additional flavor to wines, thus causing them "to go down the throat merrily." And the same writer remarked that, as bread and salt were commonly eaten together, therefore Ceres and Neptune were sometimes worshiped together in the same temple.