WHAT IS SALT?
When atoms of sodium (a solid base) bond with atoms of chlorine (an acidic gas), the solid sodium chloride (NaCl) is formed, which is commonly known as salt. Sodium and chlorine are abundant elements in nature, but are never found on their own; together they create the common mineral, Halite. The crystals are often mixed with other minerals that affect its coloring and of course, its chemical makeup. The sodium and chlorine bond creates an almost perfect cubical crystalline form. What’s fascinating about that, is that no matter how you break up salt, it’ll shatter into smaller cubic pieces.
WHERE DOES SALT COME FROM?
Salt comes from water and rocks, and it is harvested from both throughout the world. As freshwater runs down from mountains and through river beds, it collects and carries with it various elements that mix together and can form the different kinds of salt and other minerals found in nature. The most common place we know salt can be found is in our oceans. While they have been around for billions of years, scientists think the saltiness of the oceans has increased over time due to volcanic activity. Chlorine is a volcanic gas and sodium is found in volcanic igneous rock, so with all the volcanoes and faults found along the ocean floor, chlorine and sodium are constantly being added to the ocean, mixing, and forming salt. The mineral makes up about three percent of the ocean water. Salt from the ocean is collected and refined through the common practice of solar evaporation.
TYPES OF SALT
Halite is the most common type of salt. Calcium is also a form of salt, and sulfur is a mineral salt. Two other types of salt are sylvite (Potassium Chloride, KCl) and epsomite (a magnesium sulfate). Sylvite is an evaporite, like common salt, but is one of the last minerals to be left behind after evaporation, so it is found in extremely hot and dry climates and near volcanoes. It is often used as a table salt substitute. Epsomite forms in caverns, and can be found in some mineral hot springs, like those in Epsom, England. You may have heard of epsom salts, which are used for healing, relaxation, beauty, and even gardening.
There are also different kinds of sea and rock salt that come from all over the world and are used for various culinary efforts. Food 52 and America’s Sea Salt Company (Salt Works) offer a quick look at several kinds of salt for these purposes.
If you’ve ever done an experiment in elementary school where you left salt water alone to evaporate, you might recall studying an irregular blob of salty crystals left on a jar lid or a piece of string. And I bet that all of your classmates’ crystals looked slightly different than yours, but just as interesting. When saltwater evaporates, it often leaves behind curious-looking formations of salt, and over time, these can build up to look pretty neat. Around the world, there are natural salt statues rising out of salty seas, carved figurines in the walls of old salt mines, and vast expanses of hard-packed deserts of salt instead of sand. Below are brief descriptions about how these salt formations occur.
Salt flats were left after ancient seas evaporated and left behind vast expanses of salt. Salt flats are also considered salt deserts, and nearly every continent has one.
- Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia, is the largest salt flat in the world (and salty lake water can still be found on it). It is also a source of half of the world’s Lithium and a popular destination for tourists to visit.
- The Bonneville Salt Flats and Salt Lake Desert in Utah and the Badwater Basin in Death Valley are also among the largest of the world’s salt flats.
Formations in salty waters are created as the briny water evaporates. Salt is left over and builds up over time, because of a process that is often referred to as the “Barrier Theory”. The Dead Sea has quite a few fascinating salt formations because of its high salinity. View the slideshow below to see some of these geological formations and salt mines.
Salt is also found in many religions. One of the first things that piqued my curiosity about salt was the belief that standing within a ring of salt could keep evil spirits at bay. Which made me wonder . . . why salt? In my search for information about salt being used in this manner, I discovered that the granules have been revered throughout the centuries and played a key role in many religious ceremonies and rituals.
Throughout history, salt has often been considered an element of purity and one associated with preservation, so it stands to reason that humans have associated salt with sacred spaces and rituals. Pierre Laszlo, author of Salt: Grain of Life, says of salt in religious culture, “It symbolizes immutability. It is a food, or an accompaniment to food, that is incorruptible, that stands for invariance and permanence and thus can be taken for a feature of the divine.” Salt, in its presumed divinity, is a part of nearly every major religion and has been honoured and sanctified in various faiths and cultures across nearly every continent, purifying food, drink, and homes throughout human history. To many societies it was as important as water and therefore valuable for cultural practices and economic development.
KEEPING EVIL AT BAY
Protective salt rings and lines of salt in front of doorways and windows is a common folkloric practice that is used to ward off evil spirits. You may have seen something like this in a movie about ghosts or evil entities. The protagonists in the CW series Supernatural use salt regularly to off fight spirits and demons. The beings they fight come from all different cultures, and salt is the most common deterrent for the otherworldly beings, even including fairies in one episode. According to some European folklore (mainly Scandinavia, Germany, and the British Isles), salt deters fairies because they must count every grain of it if it is spilled in front of them. Also, throwing salt behind you or on your back, or on the back of an animal, will keep a fairy from latching onto you. Rings of salt are also protective measures to keep away spirits and witches or their spells.
Spirits, fairies, and witches aren’t the only beings that salt can deter. In West African vodou, which then made its way to Haiti, it was believed that feeding salt to a zombie (No, not apocalyptic Walking Dead zombies; zombies that are created by vodou priests) would kill it and release the spirit so it can return to the grave. Salt could not, however, revive the person and bring them back from the dead.
A CULTURAL AND SACRED ELEMENT
With over thirty references to salt throughout the Bible, salt has become a common element in Christianity, especially Catholic rituals. One of the earliest stories in which salt is mentioned in the Bible is when Lot’s wife looks back on Sodom and Gomorrah and is turned into a pillar of salt because she did not heed the angels’ warning. Covenants in the Bible were often sealed with salt, and even Jesus himself can be said to have high regard for the white substance when he said that people are the “salt of the earth.” Catholic holy water is purified by salt and then blessed by a priest. Salt used to play a major part of a Catholic baptism and was sprinkled on a baby’s lips, along with the usual anointing with the holy water. Most baptisms now just use holy water (which as aforementioned, is already salty). Among some Jewish traditions, there were temple offerings of salt and bread dipped in salt as a remembrance of offerings and covenants.
Greek rituals often consecrated salt and the substance was used as payment for slaves, which is how historians think the phrase “worth their salt” originated. After a Buddhist funeral, salt is thrown over your shoulder to repel evil spirits and ensure that none have attached themselves to you. Shinto tradition requires salt to purify the ring before a sumo wrestling fight. In India, salt is a symbol of good luck. And the prophet Muhammad once said that God’s four blessings were water, iron, fire, and salt. The Egyptians learned of salt’s preservative characteristics and used it in their mummification processes and also traded with it. In fact, many cultures used salt for trading purposes in addition to ritual use.
Salt worship and adoration was also present in the North and South American cultures. The Zuni tribe of the Pueblo people worshipped a “Salt Mother” (and Salt Woman, Ma’l Oyattsik’i) who came from a salt lake in New Mexico (now Zuni Salt Lake, which is a holy sanctuary for the Zuni people). The Salt Mother said that all who came to her home, the salt lake, would be healed and would have good fortune. Salt is culturally important to the Zuni who believe it is a gift from the Salt Mother and is a part of her. The Zuni (among other Pueblo tribes like the Hopi, Navajo, Acoma, Laguna, and Apache) used it for healing purposes, seasoned and preserved food with it, traded with it, and used it in various religious ceremonies. One ritual to honor the Salt Woman also removes negative energy and evil spirits from the home by placing salt in a pan and banging the pan to make noise and sprinkle the salt around the home.
Some Southwestern and western native tribes restricted who was allowed to eat salt because it was considered taboo at various times and events in one’s life, such as during menstruation cycles, pregnancy, birth, and initiation rites. The Oneida did not allow boys to eat salt while their voices were changing.
Even today, although not tied to any one religion, people have continued to turn to salt for healing and purification. Salt lamps, salt scrubs, and salt baths have become common household items as more and more people return to the belief that salt has the ability to fight off the invisible, negative forces in our lives.
This post merely scratches the surface about salt and its uses around the world. There are many other people out there who have been intrigued by this mineral deposit, and instead of trying to cover everything here, I would like to leave you with some resource recommendations should you wish to learn more about salt and its importance to religion, trade, and food.