Among the peasants of the Spanish province of Andalusia the word "salt" is synonymous with gracefulness and charm of manner, and no more endearing or flattering language can be used in addressing a woman, whether wife or sweetheart, than to call her "the salt-box of my love." The phrase "May you be well salted" is also current as an expression of affectionate regard.
Scotch fishermen have a traditional custom of salting their nets "for luck, and they also sometimes throw a little salt into the sea "to blind the fairies."
In the Isle of Man the interchange of salt is regarded as indispensable to every business transaction, while Manx beggars have even been known to refuse an alms if proffered without it.
In Syracuse, Sicily, salt has won distinction as a symbol of wisdom through a curious misinterpretation of the words sedes sapientiae of the so-called Lauretane litany; these words becoming in the mouths of the people sale e sapienza, salt and wisdom.
Salt and bread, representing the necessaries of life, are the first articles taken into the dwelling of a newly married pair in Russia. And in Pomerania, at the close of a wedding breakfast, a servant carries about a plate containing salt, upon which the guests place presents of money.
In olden times bread and salt were reckoned the simplest and most indispensable articles of diet, and were offered to guests as a guarantee of hospitality and friendliness. The universal reputation of salt as a symbol of good-will is shown in the proverbs and current sayings of many nations. Cicero, in his treatise on Friendship, wrote that age increased the value of friendships, even as it improved the quality of certain wines; and he added further that there was truth in the proverb, "Many pecks of salt must be eaten together to bring friendship to perfection."
Inasmuch as salt is a necessary and wholesome article of diet, a generous use of it is reckoned beneficial. Evan Marlett Boddy, F. R. C. S., in his "History of Salt," p. 78, comments with some asperity on the custom, prevalent at the tables of English gentlefolk, of placing salt in the tiniest receptacles, as if it were a most expensive substance. He regards it as anything but edifying "to see the host and his guests, in the most finical, grotesque manner, help themselves to the almost infinitesimal quantities of salt, as if it were a mark of good breeding and delicacy." On the contrary, he continues, such stupid customs of "good society" are truly indicative of mental weakness and profound ignorance.
In a treatise on the "Dignity and Utility of Salt," by Jean de Marcounille Percheron, Paris, 1584, this mineral is likened in value to the four elements recognized by the ancients,--earth, air, fire, and water; and indeed, on account of its importance for the maintenance of health in the animal economy, salt has been termed a "fifth element." So highly did the Thracians of old prize this commodity that they bartered slaves in exchange for it, whence originated the phrase Sale emptum mancipium.
The Egyptian geographer, Cosmas, stated that a salt currency was in use in Africa in the sixth century; and Marco Polo wrote that salt was a common medium of exchange among certain Asiatic peoples in the thirteenth century. In Tibet, for example, pieces of salt shaped in a mould, and weighing about half a pound each, served as small change; eighty such pieces were equal in value to a saggio of fine gold, corresponding to the Roman solidus, worth about three dollars. Salt was, moreover, used as money at this time in Yun-Nan and other provinces of southwestern China.
Felix Dubois, in his "Timbuctoo the Mysterious," p. 123, comments on the rarity of salt in the interior of the Soudan, and says that it is the most valuable commodity of that region, the true gold of the Soudanese. The bulk of the salt supply of Timbuctoo comes from the salt mines of Taudeny, which are situated in the great Sahara desert, some three hundred miles away to the north. Here the salt is found in abundance beneath a scanty layer of sand, and is dug up in lumps and fashioned into blocks. Small pieces of this rock-salt are useful to the traveler as money, and are readily accepted as such by the Soudanese merchants.
The camels of southern Mongolia require a certain amount of salt in order to remain in good condition. Instinctively, therefore, they browse upon the saline efflorescence which is found on the grassy plains or steppes of Asia. Baron Humboldt, in his "Aspects of Nature" (Berlin, 1808), wrote that these plains were covered with juicy, evergreen soda plants; and that many of them glistened from afar with flakes of exuded salt, which much resembled newly fallen snow. When camels do not find this efflorescence, they sometimes show their craving for its saline flavor by taking white stones in their mouths, supposing them to be lumps of salt.
Owing to the universality of its use, salt has been termed the "cosmopolitan condiment." The craving for this substance is not confined to man, but is shared by the lower animals, and its hygienic value for horses and cows is well known. Wild animals travel long distances over deserts and prairies, or through swamps and jungles, to reach "salt-licks."
It may be that this natural craving for salt, which is common to man and beast, may have suggested a custom of etiquette in Abyssinia. For when a native of that country desires to pay an especially delicate attention to a friend or guest, he produces a piece of rocksalt, and graciously permits the latter to lick it with his tongue; a custom not a whit more ridiculous than the ceremonious offering of snuff and the social sneeze of modern civilization.
In certain portions of the Dark Continent salt is esteemed a great luxury, and is relished by native children quite as keenly as candy in more favored lands.
In the region of Accra, on the coast of Guinea, salt is said to rank next to gold in value; and according to Mungo Park, among the Mandingos and Bambarras, west African tribes, whose members are unusually intelligent, the phrase, "flavoring one's food with salt," implies the possession of wealth.
The Namaquas, inhabitants of the Hottentot country, share so little the sentiments of their neighbors regarding salt that they consider it a superfluous article having no value whatever.
About the year 1830 there appeared in England a volume by a certain Doctor Howard, with the following curious title: "Salt, the forbidden fruit or food; and the chief cause of diseases of the body and mind of man and of animals, as taught by the ancient Egyptian priests and wise men and by scripture, in accordance with the author's experience of many years."
As may well be imagined from its title, this book treats of salt as a most obnoxious substance, abstinence from which as an article of diet is essential to the maintenance of health.
The use of salt as an article of food was, moreover, thought to render one irascible and melancholic, and in illustration of this view may be quoted the following passage from "Euphues and his England," by John Lyly, Maister of Arte (1580):--
In sooth, gentlemen, I seldome eate salte for feare of anger, and if you give me in token that I want wit, then will you make cholericke before I eate it; for women, be they never so foolish, would ever be thought wise.
I staied not long for mine answer, but as well quickened by her former talke as desirous to cry quittance for her present tongue, said thus: "If to eat store of salt, cause one to fret; and to have no salt, signifies lack of wit, then do you cause me to marvel, that eating no salt, you are so captious; and loving no salt, you are so wise, when indeed so much wit is sufficient for a woman, as when she is in the raine can warne her to come out of it."
In a recent article in the "Journal of Hygiene," the writer affirms that the general belief in the necessity of the use of salt for the maintenance of health is mischievous; for many people, in their zeal to make the most of a good thing, are wont to eat salt as a seasoner of all kinds of food. Thus an abnormal craving for the saline flavor is acquired and the condiment is used in excess, thereby unduly taxing the secretory organs, whereas in reality but a small quantity of salt is requisite. Persons addicted to the so-called "salt habit" have a perverted taste, and are naturally total failures as epicures; for how can any one assume to be a dainty feeder who disguises the true flavor of every dish, and whose palate refuses to be tickled by the choicest morsels, unless these smack strongly of salt?
But even in our times the use of salt as a relish is sometimes deprecated as unnecessary, if not positively harmful. Thus it is argued that this substance arrests or retards the physiological processes of disintegration and renewal of the cells which compose the tissues of the living body, processes essential to the maintenance of life and health.
A recent advocate of this theory maintains that the fondness for salt shown by some domesticated animals is due to an acquired taste rather than to an instinctive craving; for dogs and cats easily grow to like such artificial products as ice-cream and beer. As to the occasional visits of wild animals to salt-licks, the fact that such visits are comparatively infrequent has been thought to prove that these animals periodically require the medicinal effects of saline waters, on the same principle which leads people of wealth and fashion to visit certain spas of Europe or America. The writer above mentioned suggests that, whereas each article of food has its own individual flavor, the addition of salt makes them all taste alike. And if an inveterate user of salt will forego this favorite condiment for a month, he will then for the first time be enabled properly to appreciate the true flavors of meats and vegetables.
In the "Revelations of Egyptian Mysteries," by Robert Howard, the use of salt as a relish is characterized as an infringement of that law of nature which forbids animals to partake of mineral substances as food. History may, indeed, vouch for the antiquity of the custom, but can furnish no proof of its propriety. Indeed, the writer alleges in the above work that salt is a most pernicious substance, and the direct cause of many ills.
The idea conveyed by the phrase, "Enough is as good as a feast," applies in full force to the use of salt as a condiment, for an excess of this substance in one's food certainly spoils its flavor. According to one version of a Roumanian forest-myth, a prince, while following the chase, came upon a beautiful laurel-tree, whose branches were of a golden hue. This tree so pleased his fancy that he determined to have his dinner beneath its shade, and gave orders to that effect. Preparations were made accordingly; but during the temporary absence of the cook, a fair maiden emerged from the tree and streived a quantity of salt upon the viands, after which she reentered the tree, which closed over her. When the prince returned and began eating his dinner, he scolded the cook for using too much salt, and the cook quite naturally protested his innocence.
On the following day the same thing occurred, and the prince thereupon determined to keep watch, in order if possible to detect the culprit. On the third day, when the maiden came forth from the tree on mischief bent, the prince caught her and carried her away, and she became his loyal wife.
This section may be appropriately concluded with the following translation of a Roman legend illustrating the value of common salt as an article of food:
There was once a king who had three daughters, and he was very anxious to know which of them loved him most; he tried them in various ways, and it always seemed as if the youngest daughter came out best by the test. Yet he was never satisfied, because he was prepossessed with the idea that the elder ones loved him most.
One day he thought he would settle the matter once for all, by asking each separately how much she loved him. So he called the eldest by herself, and asked her how much she loved him.
"As much as the bread we eat," was her reply; and he said within himself, "She must, as I thought, love me the most of all; for bread is the first necessary of our existence, without which we cannot live. She means, therefore, that she loves me so much she could not live without me."
Then he called the second daughter by herself, and said to her, "How much do you love me? "
And she answered, "As much as wine."
"That is a good answer too," said the king to himself. "It is true she does not seem to love me quite so much as the eldest; but still, scarcely can one live without wine, so that there is not much difference."
Then he called the youngest by herself, and said to her, "And you, how much do you love me? "
And she answered, "As much as salt."
Then the king said, "What a contemptible comparison! She only loves me as much as the cheapest and commonest thing that comes to the table. This is as much as to say, she doesn't love me at all. I always thought it was so. I will never see her again."
Then he ordered that a wing of the palace should be shut up from the rest, where she should be served with everything belonging to her condition in life, but where she should live by herself apart, and never come near him.
Here she lived, then, all alone. But though her father fancied she did not care for him, she pined so much at being kept away from him, that at last she was worn out, and could bear it no longer.
The room that had been given her had no windows on the street, that she might not have the amusement of seeing what was going on in the town, but they looked upon an inner court-yard. Here she sometimes saw the cook come out and wash vegetables at the fountain.
"Cook, cook!" she called one day, as she saw him pass thus under the window.
The cook looked up with a good-natured face, which gave her encouragement.
"Don't you think, cook, I must be very lonely and miserable up here all alone?"
"Yes, Signorina," he replied; "I often think I should like to help you to get out; but I dare not think of it, the king would be so angry."
"No, I don't want you to do anything to disobey the king," answered the princess; "but would you really do me a favor, which would make me very grateful indeed?"
"Oh, yes, Signorina, anything which I can do without disobeying the king," replied the faithful servant.
"Then this is it," said the princess. "Will you just oblige me so far as to cook papa's dinner to-day without any salt in anything? Not the least grain in anything at all. Let it be as good a dinner as you like, but no salt in anything. Will you do that?"
"I see," replied the cook, with a knowing nod. "Yes, depend on me, I will do it."
That day at dinner the king had no salt in the soup, no salt in the boiled meat, no salt in the roast, no salt in the fried.
"What is the meaning of this?" said the king, as he pushed dish after dish away from him. "There is not a single thing I can eat to-day. I don't know what they have done to everything, but there is not a single thing that has got the least taste. Let the cook be called."
So the cook came before him.
"What have you done to the victuals to-day?" said the king sternly. "You have sent up a lot of dishes, and no one alive can tell one from another. They are all of them exactly alike, and there is not one of them can be eaten. Speak!?
The cook answered:--
"Hearing your Majesty say that salt was the commonest thing that comes to table, and altogether so worthless and contemptible, I considered in my mind whether it was a thing that at all deserved to be served up to the table of the king; and, judging that it was not worthy, I abolished it from the king's kitchen, and dressed all the meats without it. Barring this, the dishes are the same that are sent every day to the table of the king."
Then the king understood the value of salt, and he comprehended how great was the love of his youngest child for him; so he sent and had her apartment opened, and called her to him, never to go away any more.