If, whilst at dinner, you should be so unfortunate as to spill the salt, and it falls towards your right-hand or left-hand neighbour, it is accounted an unlucky omen. Why, nobody can say--with any show of good reasoning. Salt has always figured prominently in religious rites and ceremonies. Both Greeks and Romans mixed salt with their sacrificial cakes, being, as an element, a necessary concomitant of the sacrifice, not a mere adjunct. Thus in the Ferialia, or offerings to the Diis Manibus, when no animal was slain:
"The Manes' rights expenses small supply,
The richest sacrifice is piety.
With vernal garlands a small Tile exalt,
A little flour and little grain of Salt."
That the flour and salt were both designed as propitiatory offerings to redeem them from the vengeance of the Stygian or infernal gods, may be proved from a like custom in the Lemuria, another festival to the same Diis Manibus, where beans are flung instead of the flour and salt; and when flung, the person says:
"And with these beans I me and mine redeem."
That a Pagan should come to regard salt as an emblem of redemptive power is, therefore, not surprising; and from this it is but a step to the belief that a spilling of it at table should be an omen of serious import. In olden times salt was regarded as incorruptible, and it became the symbol of friendship; consequently an overturning of the salt-cellar betokened the breaking of friendship. But there was a "counter" stroke available. If the man towards whom the salt falls will, without hesitation or remark, take up a single pinch of salt between the finger and the thumb of his right hand and cast it over his left shoulder, the threatened misfortune will be averted. Tradition has it that the left shoulder is selected to appease the devil.'
Such superstitions are among those complex growths of ideas, the disentanglement of which is quite an impossibility. There are nations to whom salt was an almost sacred symbol; there are others--Egypt, for instance--to whom it was a common metaphor for calamity and desolation. But as a superstition it has some peculiar, insistent force, for the spilling of salt is a common accident, and it is by no means uncommon to see the rite of throwing over the left shoulder carried out immediately; not, it is true, with any real fear of evil, but in order, as one lady put it, "to be on the safe side." Some writers believe that da Vinci's picture of the Last Supper, in which Judas Iscariot is represented as overturning the salt, is the real origin of the salt superstition.