The widespread notion that the spilling of salt produces evil consequences is supposed to have originated in the tradition that Judas overturned a salt-cellar at the Paschal Supper, as portrayed in Leonardo da Vinci's painting. But it appears more probable that the belief is due to the sacred character of salt in early times. Any one having the misfortune to spill salt was formerly supposed to incur the anger of all good spirits, and to be rendered susceptible to the malevolent influences of demons. When, in oriental lands, salt was offered to guests as a token of hospitality, it was accounted a misfortune if any particles were scattered while being so presented, and in such cases a quarrel or dispute was anticipated.
Bishop Hall wrote, in 1627, that when salt fell towards a superstitious guest at dinner, he was wont to exhibit signs of mental agitation, and refused to be comforted until one of the waiters had poured wine in his lap. And in Gayton's "Art of Longevity" we find these lines:--
I have two friends of either sex, which do eat little salt or none, yet are friends too; of both which persons I can truly tell, they are of patience most invincible; whom out of temper no mischance at all can put; no, if towards them the salt should fall.
The Germans have a saying, "Whoever spills salt arouses enmity," and in some places the overthrow of a salt-cellar is thought to be the direct act of the Devil, the peace-disturber. The superstitious Parisian, who may have been the unfortunate cause of such a mishap, is quite ready to adopt this view, and tosses a little of the spilled salt behind him, in order, if possible, to hit the invisible Devil in the eye, which, temporarily at least, prevents him from doing further mischief. This is probably a relic of an ancient idolatrous custom; and salt thus thrown was formerly a kind of sop to Cerberus, an offering to pacify some particular deity. In like manner the natives of Pegu, a province of British Burmah, in the performance of one of their rites in honor of the Devil, are wont to throw food over their left shoulders to conciliate the chief spirit of evil.
When salt was spilled at table the pious Roman was wont to exclaim, "May the gods avert the omen!" and the modern Sicilian in such a case, invokes "the Mother of Light."
Among the Greeks it was customary to present salt to the gods as a thank-offering at the beginning of every meal. Louis Figuier, in "Les merveilles de l'industrie," places these three happenings in the category of ominous mishaps in a Grecian household:(1) the omission of a salt-cellar from among the furnishings of a dinner-table; (2) the falling asleep of one of the guests at a banquet, before the removal of the salt-cellar to make place for the dessert; (3) the overturning of this important vessel. It seems evident, therefore, that the origin of the belief in the ominous character of salt-spilling is of far greater antiquity than is popularly supposed; and Leonardo da Vinci, in portraying Judas as upsetting a salt-cellar, probably had in mind the already well-known portentous significance of such an act. But some observers have failed to discover any trace of a salt-cellar in the original Cenacolo on the refectory wall of the Milanese convent. In the well-known engraving by Raphael Morghen, however, the overthrown salt-cellar is clearly delineated, and the spilled salt is seen issuing from it. An animated discussion on this moot-point enlivened the columns of "Notes and Queries" some years ago.
The following passage is to be found in a work entitled "Hieroglyphica, a Joanne Valeriano" (1586), being a treatise on ancient symbols:--
Alioqui sal amicitiae symbolum fuit, durationis gratia. Corpora enim solidiora facit et diutissime conservat. Unde hospitibus ante alios cibos apponi solitum, quo amicitiae firmitas ac perseverantia significetur. Quare plerique ominosum habent si sal in mensam profundi contigerit. Contra vero faustum si vinum atque id merum effusum sit.
Which has been rendered into English as follows: "Salt was formerly a symbol of friendship, because of its lasting quality. For it makes substances more compact and preserves them for a long time: hence it was usually presented to guests before other food, to signify the abiding strength of friendship. Wherefore many consider it ominous to spill salt on the table, and, on the other hand, propitious to spill wine, especially if unmixed with water."
In Gaule's "Magastromancer" (1652), overturning the salt is mentioned in a list of "superstitious ominations." According to a popular Norwegian belief, one will shed as many tears as may suffice to dissolve the quantity of salt which he has spilled; and in east Yorkshire, also, every grain of spilled salt represents a tear to be shed. Moreover, saltness has been thought to be an essential attribute of tears, and this intimate connection between the two may have given rise to some of the many superstitions connected with salt. In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in order to avert ill-luck after salt has been spilled, one should not only toss a pinch of the spilled salt over the left shoulder, but should also crawl under a table and come out on the opposite side.
In the "British Apollo" (1708) are these lines:--
We 'el tel you the reason
Why spilling of Salt
Is esteemed such a Fault,
Because it doth ev'rything season.
Th' antiques did opine
'T was of Friendship a sign,
So served it to guests in decorum,
And thought Love decayed,
When the negligent Maid
Let the salt-cellar tumble before them.
In New England the gravity of salt-spilling as an omen, its deplorable severance of friendship's ties, and the necessity for prompt remedial measures, are all fully recognized.
And here the deft toss of the spilled particles over the left shoulder is not always adequate; for in order thoroughly to break the spell, these particles must be thrown on the stove.
Gypsies have a saying, "The salt of strife has fallen."
From the idea of the desecration of a sacred substance, to which allusion has been made, doubtless arose the remarkable superstition that, as a penalty for spilling salt, one must wait outside the gate of Paradise for as many years as there are grains of salt spilled.
In the Lansdowne MSS. 231 (British Museum) occurs this passage:--
The falling of salt is an authentic psagemt of ill-luck, nor can every temper contemn it; nor was the same a grall pgnostic among the ancients of future evil, but a pticular omination concerning the breach of friendship. For salt as incorruptible was ye symbole of friendship, and before ye other service was offered unto yeir guests. But whether salt were not only a symbol of friendship wh man, but also a fig. of amity and recociliation wh God, and was therefore offered in sacrifices, is an higher speculation.
Herbert Spencer affirms that the consciousness which harbors a notion that evil will result from spilling salt is manifestly allied to the consciousness of the savage, and is prone to entertain other superstitious beliefs like those prevalent in barbarous lands. And although idolatry and fetich-worship do not flourish in civilized communities, yet many popular superstitions are akin in nature to the sentiments which prompt the savage to bow down before images of wood or stone.