Four salt shakers with salt spilled from the open one

A superstition in Western cultures holds that spilling salt is an evil omen. However, salt has had a variety of meanings in religions around the world.


The European belief in the ill luck that comes from spilt salt is quite old, going back to ancient Rome.[1] The 1556 Hieroglyphica of Piero Valeriano Bolzani reports that "(s)alt 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."[2]

This may not be the actual explanation since salt was a valuable commodity in ancient times[3][4][5] and, as such, was seen as a symbol of trust and friendship. A German proverb held that "whoever spills salt arouses enmity".[2] According to Charles Nodier, among "savages", the "action of spilling salt ... indicates among them the refusal of protection and hospitality from such strangers as they may have reason to suspect are thieves and murderers."[6]

This led to the common misconception that due to salt being such a valuable item Roman soldiers were paid in it. There is no historical evidence for this belief.[7][8] The idea is so widely held and has been for so long that the etymology of the word salary comes from the Latin salarium was originally salt money (Lat. sal, salt), i.e. the sum paid to soldiers for salt.[9]

One widespread explanation of the belief that it is unlucky to spill salt is that Judas Iscariot spilled the salt at the Last Supper, and, indeed, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper depicts Judas Iscariot having knocked over a salt-cellar.[1] This is often taken as a questionable explanation because spilling salt was generally considered a bad omen already, and the imagery predates Leonardo's usage.[10]

Some have scoffed at the omen. Herbert Spencer wrote that "A consciousness in which there lives the idea that spilling salt will be followed by some evil, obviously allied as it is to the consciousness of the savage, filled with beliefs in omens and charms, gives a home to other beliefs like those of the savage."[11] Even now a variety of methods are used to avert the evil omen of spilled salt. The most common contemporary belief requires you to toss a pinch of the spilt salt over your left shoulder, into the face of the Devil who lurks there.[12] Though generally disregarded as an ineffectual superstition, Professor Jane Risen of the University of Chicago has published research that shows such "jinx avoidance behavior" can have a positive effect on people's actions after a perceived bad luck event.[13]

Salt in religions throughout the world

One of the reasons that this superstition has been so enduring and widespread is that salt has long held an important place in religions of many cultures.

  • Salt is mandatory in the rite of the Tridentine Mass.[23]
  • Salt is the third item (which includes an Exorcism) of the Celtic Consecration, or Gallican Rite, employed in church consecration.[23]
  • It may be added to the water "where it is customary" in the rite of Holy water.[23]


  1. ^ a b Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (27 September 2013). Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 19th Edition. Quercus. ISBN 978-0-550-10764-0.
  2. ^ a b Lawrence, R.M. (1898). The Magic of the Horseshoe. Houghton, Mifflin. p. 169. ISBN 9780557502912. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  3. ^ Alper Gölbaş (1 January 1970). "Anadolu Kültür Oluşumunda Tuzun Rolü- The Role of Salt in the Formation of the Anatolian Culture | Alper Gölbaş". Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  4. ^ Bloch, David. "Economics of NaCl: Salt made the world go round". Mr Block Archive. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  5. ^ Bloch, David. "Salt and the evolution of money". Mr Block Archive. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  6. ^ The Gentleman's Magazine. Bradbury, Evans. 1878. p. 716. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  7. ^ "The history of salt production at Droitwich Spa". BBC. 21 January 2010. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  8. ^ Gainsford, Peter. "Salt and salary: were Roman soldiers paid in salt?". Kiwi Hellenist: Modern Myths about the Ancient World. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  9. ^ "salary | Search Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  10. ^ Wasserman, Jack (2003). "Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper: The Case of the Overturned Saltcellar". Artibus et Historiae. 24 (48). JSTOR: 65–72. doi:10.2307/1483731. ISSN 0391-9064. JSTOR 1483731.
  11. ^ Spencer, H. (1875). The Study of Sociology. International scientific series. Appleton. p. 5. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  12. ^ Welsh, Chris. "Spilling Salt". Timeless Myths. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  13. ^ Dassanayake, Dion. "Knocking on wood and throwing salt over your shoulder 'can reverse bad luck', says study". Express. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  14. ^ "Research article: Salt". Encyclopedia of Religion. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  15. ^ a b "10+1 Things you may not know about Salt". Epikouria. Fall/Winter (3). 2006. Archived from the original on 4 July 2008. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  16. ^ Quipoloa, J. (2007). "The Aztec Festivals: Toxcatl (Dryness)". The Aztec Gateway. Archived from the original on 16 September 2015. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  17. ^ Gray, Steven (7 December 2010). "What Lies Beneath". Time Magazine. Archived from the original on 17 August 2013. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  18. ^ "The Final Journey: What to do when your loved one passes away". Archived from the original on 6 March 2016. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  19. ^ "Religion: Chasing away evil spirits". History of salt. Cagill. Archived from the original on 14 March 2014. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  20. ^ Can you pass the salt, please? Archived 27 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Robert Camara, 30 March 2009
  21. ^ a b c d "Dictionary and Word Search for '"salt"' in the KJV". Blue Letter Bible. Sowing Circle. 1996–2013. Archived from the original on 14 April 2013. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  22. ^ "Matthew 5:13". Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  23. ^ a b c Wikisource:Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Salt
  24. ^ Naftali Silberberg Why is the Challah dipped in salt before it is eaten? Archived 20 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine,
  25. ^ Cunningham, Scott (1989). Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Llewellyn Worldwide. pp. 60, 63, 104, 113. ISBN 9780875421186. Retrieved 10 July 2018.