Why was salt so valuable? I don't understand it since it's very abundant in most areas and can even be taken from seawater. I have read several books and articles and none are very clear on this.
Salt was mainly used for preserving food, especially meat and fish. At times it was the only real way of preserving this food, so there was a huge demand for it. And while there is salt in sea water it has to be boiled out and that needs energy, e.g. from wood. And there might not have been enough wood near every coast, so not every place was suited for salt evaporation (in warmer areas that is completely different though, as you surely know). And yes it can also be mined, however that opens up risks and is not extremely fast either. Essentially it was quite hard to satisfy the demand for salt making it expensive. The ratio of demand and supply is what made the price.
"Abundance" is only one factor in cost. The other factor is the effort needed to extract the salt. Even today, extracting salt from seawater is a "nontrivial" task. Other sources such as salt mines, are only slightly less costly. So while "supply" was high, "effective" supply was low, after extraction.
Salt was historically in heavy demand. Until "refrigeration,"the only way to preserve meat for more than a few days was through salt.
So the combination of high demand and low (effective) supply made salt expensive.
Why was salt valuable? - History
There are a lot of different salts (like potassium nitrate for gunpowder and sodium bicarbonate for baking) but only one that truly meets our dietary needs and satisfies our craving for that salty taste – sodium chloride (NaCl). Containing two elements necessary for our survival, its cultivation goes back thousands of years to the birth of civilization.
The human body needs sodium and chloride for respiration and digestion and without it, we “would be unable to transport nutrients or oxygen, transmit nerve impulses or move muscles, including the heart.”[i]
In the wild, herbivores seek out salt licks. When humans ate primarily wild game, we ingested sufficient salt to meet our dietary needs however, as our diet changed to mostly cultivated crops (read vegetables and grains), we needed to supplement salt.
As a rare yet necessary commodity, over the ages, it has taken on a supernatural aspect:
In Judaism . . . salt . . . keeps the agreement between God and his people [and] . . . in both Islam and Judaism, salt seals a bargain. . . . Indian troops pledged their loyalty to the British with salt. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans included salt in sacrifices and offerings . . . .In traditional Japanese theater, salt was sprinkled on the stage to protect the actors from evil spirits. In Haiti, the only way to . . . bring a zombie back to life is with salt . . . .[ii]
Human cultivation of salt is ancient, and the earliest known salt harvesting is believed to have occurred at Lake Yuncheng, in the Chinese province of Shanxi around 6000 BC. Although salt surely must have been used in a variety of ways, one of the most popular, salting fish to preserve it, appears in the records of the Xia Dynasty by about 2000 B.C.[iii] By 500 BC, the happy consequence of preserving soybeans in salt, a savory liquid that later became known as soy sauce, was discovered.
Ancient Egyptians also prized the compound, and salted fish and birds have been found in tombs of the wealthy that were sealed over four thousand years ago. Back then in the Old Kingdom, salt was harvested from lakebeds via a process sometimes referred to as “dragging and gathering.” These saltworks were known in Arabic as sebkha.[iv]
In common use in Egypt, salt was mixed with water and vinegar into a sauce known as oxalme, and (separately) combined with fish and fish parts into a condiment similar to today’s fish sauce. Served with a variety of dishes, one ancient epicure wrote “there is no better food than salted vegetables.”[v]
Egyptian mummies were preserved in a practice “remarkably similar” to that used for curing fish and birds where “the body is placed in natron [known as the divine salt], covered entirely over for seventy days – never longer.” Ironically, during the looting of tombs from Thebes and Saqqara in the 19 th century AD, authorities taxed the mummies as if they were salted fish.[vi]
The Egyptians began trading salt (in the form of salted fish) to Middle Eastern societies like the Phoenicians circa 2800 BC. The Phoenicians, in turn, traded with everyone else around the Mediterranean. By 800 BC, the Phoenicians were also producing large quantities of salt from lakebeds in North Africa, and they traded it, along with salted fish, for other goods across the Mediterranean.[vii]
Written records describe the production and trade of sea salt in China, as well, and date to 1800 BC. The Chinese process involved “putting ocean water in clay vessels and boiling it until reduced to pots of salt crystals.” By 450 BC, innovator Yi Dun was boiling brine (salty water) in iron pans to distill salt and by 252 BC, Li Bing had ordered the drilling of the first brine wells. Natural gas, a by-product of these brine wells, was used to heat the pans and distill the salt by about 200 AD.[viii]
Rome, like other Italian cities, was purposely built near a saltworks that was situated at the mouth of the Tiber River. When the Romans moved their saltworks further away, they also built their first great road, the Via Salaria (or Salt Road)[ix]
From as early as the 6 th century BC, Rome’s political leaders were controlling the trade of salt. A popular way of mollifying the masses, the price of salt was often kept artificially low, particularly during times when the republic (or the empire) needed popular support.[x] During the Punic Wars (264-146 BC), however, a high tax was placed on salt and used to fund military campaigns. Indexed according to the purchaser’s distance from a mine, the tax scheme was devised by a man given the title of (I kid you not) the Saltinator.[xi]
By the 1 st century BC in China, salt had become such a hot commodity that China’s leaders were also controlling its trade. So important was salt to the Chinese economy that in 81 BC, Emperor Zhaodi convened a council to discuss its monopoly (along with the one on iron) the resulting debate is recorded in the famous Discourse on Salt and Iron. During the Tang dynasty in the 1 st century AD, “half of the revenue of the Chinese state was derived from salt.”[xii]
In Northern Europe, salt was being harvested as early as 400 BC in mines outside of the Austrian mountain town of Salzburg (meaning literally “salt town.”)[xiii] Of Celtic descent, these ancient Alpine salt miners were often caught inside their unstable caves when water and other forces caused the walls to shift and collapse. Later salt miners would find their shoes, clothes and bodies well preserved:
In the year 1573 . . . a man, 9 hand spans in length, with flesh, legs, hair, beard and clothing in a state of non-decay, although somewhat flattened, the skin a smoky brown color, yellow and hard like codfish, was dug out of the Tuermberg mountain . . . .[xiv]
It is believed the Celtic miners traded this salt across the Roman Empire and beyond, including into Britain, France, Spain, North Africa and Turkey.[xv] Other Europeans were also producing salt, including the Venetians, whose trade of salt with Constantinople made them very wealthy.
Back in Africa, by the 6 th century AD, south of the Sahara, “Moorish merchants routinely traded salt ounce for ounce with gold,” and in Ethiopia, salt slabs, called amoles, were used as currency. In fact, Ethiopians continued to rely on salt as a “common medium of exchange,” at least through 1935.
In the intervening years, salt has played a pivotal role in the political economy of the world in a thousand different ways from starting wars to freeing people from colonial rule. Ironically, however, in the last quarter of the 20 th century, salt itself was under fire, seen as a culprit that contributed to high blood pressure and the risk of stroke and heart attack. Now, the tide is turning again with recent scholarship indicating that too low of a salt intake could have adverse effects for heart patients and that the previous concerns about high-salt consumption and blood pressure may well be baseless.
For instance, in 2011, two Cochrane reviews found no evidence that low sodium diets improved peoples’ health. They stated,
After more than 150 random clinical trials and 13 population studies without an obvious signal in favor of sodium reduction, another position could be to accept that such a signal may not exist. (More on this in an article by our resident medical expert: Myth or Fact: Sodium Raises Blood Pressure)
Despite these recent studies, the CDC still estimates that excessive salt consumption costs $20 billion each year in additional health care expenses. That said, their estimates may well be based on faulty assumptions about sodium consumption given extensive research done, particularly in the last decade, looking at the age old idea of salt and cardiac issues, finding no such connection when it comes to high-sodium intake. Again, see the sodium/blood pressure article for more details.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
Mark Kurlansky on the Cultural Importance of Salt
Yesterday, I posted the first part of an interview with author Mark Kurlansky, who, in addition to writing about Clarence Birdseye, the father of our modern frozen food industry, penned a sweeping biography of salt. For many of us, it’s a mundane compound that we casually use to brighten up the flavors in our cooking, but salt has a rich and tumultuous history and considerable cultural importance the world over. Here is part two of our conversation:
Why write about salt?
I always wanted to write a book about a common food that becomes a commercial commodity and therefore becomes economically important and therefore becomes politically important and culturally important. That whole process is very interesting to me. And salt seemed to me the best example of that, partly because it’s universal. Only hunter-gatherer societies aren’t concerned with salt. So almost every society and culture has a story of salt, either the producing or selling of it or how to get it.
How do you go about researching and writing about something that predates written history?
There’s a lot about the early history of salt that isn’t known, including who first used it and when or how it was discovered that it preserved food. We were sort of handed, in history, this world where everyone knew about salt. And it’s not clear exactly how that developed. The one thing that is clear is that it’s when a society goes from hunter-gatherer to agriculture that it becomes interested in salt. In agriculture, livestock, just like human beings, need salt, so you have to provide salt for livestock and also sometimes to maintain the pH of the soil. Also, a major source of salt is red meat, which hunter-gatherers eat almost exclusively, so they have no need for salt. But once your diet becomes cereals and vegetables, you’re not getting the sodium chloride you need so you need additional salt.
Is there a defining moment in history that signifies salt’s importance in human culture?
How to choose? The importance that it played in the French Revolution is one example. The salt tax is one of the great grievances that led to the French Revolution, and one of the first things that the revolutionary Assemblée Nationale did was repeal the salt tax. Showing the same thing is the Ghandi salt march, where he used salt to bring together the masses for a movement—also protesting a salt tax. I think that the great lesson of salt history is that salt lost its value. This thing that people were willing to fight and die over and form economies with became much less valuable and much less important than it had been over a fairly short period of time.
Why fight over salt?
You have to remember that before the industrial revolution, a very large part of international trade was food products, and the only way a food product could be salable internationally was if it was preserved in salt. There was no refrigeration or freezing. It became central to international trade.
What turned salt from a commodity worth fighting over to a commonplace, inexpensive condiment on our grocery store shelves?
Two things. One of them was that the relationship—in geological terms—between salt domes and oil deposits was discovered and then there was this frantic search for salt domes to find oil deposits in the great oil boom in the early 20 th century. It was discovered that the earth was full of salt much more than anyone realized—just huge swaths of salt beds running over all the continents. And almost at the same time was Clarence Birdseye—salt was no longer the leading way of preserving food.
You also touch on how salt is integrated into religion and mythology. Why was salt important to our spiritual lives?
Things that become important to economies become ritualized and become deified. Because I’m Jewish I always thought it was interesting that in Judaism, salt seals a bargain, particularly the covenant with God. Some people when they bless bread, they dip it in salt. Same thing exists in Islam. But I spent a lot of time in Haiti and I always found it interesting—maybe useful to know—that salt cures a zombie. Good to know if you’re ever in danger of zombification.
Update: For those of you looking to explore salt beyond the run of the mill iodized variety, you might try one of the following:
Bolivian Rose: Salt from Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni flats unfortunately isn’t readily available—Mimi Sheraton had to order her supply from La Paz, and unless you can handle the shipping charges, this is going to be cost-prohibitive for most home chefs. Still looking for a taste of this region? Try salt from the Andes Mountains as an alternative.
Fleur de Sel: Harvested from the waters of the Atlantic in the summer, this French salt isn’t meant to cook with, but rather, to finish dishes with its delicate, salty flavor. David Lebovitz recommends Fleur de Sel de Geurande, which is hand-harvested and termed by some as “the caviar of salt.”
Red Alea Salt: Who says that salt always has to be white? This crimson Hawaiian salt is harvested from tidal pools and owes its color to the high iron content of the volcanic clay content of those pools. Mild in flavor, it can be used in soups or stews.
Salt Made from Human Tears: The site claims that its line of salts are derived from tears harvested from humans during various emotional states: laughing, crying while chopping onions, sneezing. Don’t believe everything you read online, but at the very least, if you’re hunting for a novelty gift for the gourmand in your life, these might fit the bill.
About Jesse Rhodes
Jesse Rhodes is a former Smithsonian magazine staffer. Jesse was a contributor to the Library of Congress World War II Companion.
Salt had more value than gold in ancient times – Know why!
You probably must have heard at least one elder of your family say that “salt was once worth more than gold” because of the importance it held in food preservation.
New Delhi: Salt is a mineral that absolutely no kitchen in the world can function without. It is basically one of the sole ingredients responsible for giving food the taste that we so desire.
There are many myths and lies surrounding the white taste-inducing mineral that we have all been led to believe.
One of them, however, takes the cake and surprisingly, it has nothing to do with health.
You probably must have heard at least one elder of your family say that “salt was once worth more than gold” because of the importance it held in food preservation. Sound familiar?
Well, if a YouTube historian by the name of Lindybeige is to be believed, this is downright false. The historian explains that, going by trade documents from Venice in 1590, you could purchase a ton of salt for 33 gold ducats (ton the unit of measure, not the hyperbolic large quantity). However, the existence of similar figures from ancient Egypt tell a different story, which says that, salt was never worth more than gold.
Then, what, you may wonder, is the truth behind the notion? As it happens, there’s a reasonable and interesting explanation for it.
The Venetian trade documents in question, say that, only one of those 33 ducats was actually equivalent to the cost of the salt itself. The rest was spent on transportation, tax, and profit, which people recompensed gladly, since salt was a necessity for survival.
This basically means, that the reason you have been hearing about salt being more valuable than gold, all this time, is wrong. The fact is that it was actually salt trade that held more worth than the gold industry.
A brief history of salt
Salt has become an inexpensive and readily available commodity that most of us take for granted. But in older times salt was heavily taxed and wars were fought over it. In some ancient civilizations, salt was in such high demand that it was actually minted into coins to serve as the basic currency.
Where salt was scarce, it became as valuable as gold. As the Roman stateman Cassiodorus observed, “Some seek not gold, but there lives not a man who does not need salt.” Salt was traded ounce-per-ounce with gold – if that were still the case we’d have to pay $300-$400 per ounce of salt!
Because everyone, rich and poor, craves salt, rulers going back at least as far as the Chinese emperor Yu in 2200 B.C. have tried mightily to control and tax it. Salt taxes helped finance empires throughout Europe and Asia, but also inspired a lively black market, smuggling rings, riots, and even revolutions.
Pure salt consists of the elements sodium and chlorine. Its chemical name is sodium chloride and its formula is NaCl. Its mineral name is halite.
Table salt is a chemically simple combination of two components, sodium and chlorine. The basic components of salt are, by themselves, potentially dangerous. Sodium will ignite immediately if it comes into contact with water, and chlorine is poisonous if ingested. In combination, though, the two elements form sodium chloride, commonly known as salt.
The Human Side of Salt
In the body, salt is as important to humans as water or air, in fact each of us contain from four to eight ounces of salt. Salt helps maintain the normal volume of blood in the body and also helps keep the correct balance of water in and around the cells and tissues. It is also necessary for the formation and proper function of nerve fibers, which carry impulses to and from the brain, and plays an important part in the digestion of food and is essential in making the heart beat correctly.
The sodium found in salt is an essential nutrient. Sodium, together with calcium, magnesium and potassium, helps regulate the body’s metabolism. In combination with potassium, it regulates the acid-alkaline balance in our blood and is also necessary for proper muscle functioning. When we don’t get enough sodium chloride, we experience muscle cramps, dizziness, exhaustion and, in extreme cases, convulsions and death. Salt is essential to our well being.
For years, many researchers have claimed that salt threatens public health, mostly by contributing to high blood pressure. Recently, though, other researchers have begun to change salt’s reputation. A recent review of salt studies conducted over the past two decades concluded that there’s no reason for doctors to recommend reducing sodium intake for people with normal blood pressure. It may be that most of us are protected from excessive salt by our kidneys, which regulate the body’s sodium level and eliminate any excess.
Salt as a Healing Agent
Salt cures aren’t new. In the early 19th Century, sick people traveled to rudimentary spas such as French Lick Springs in Indiana and Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, to soak in salt springs. Today’s more luxurious spas offer salt baths, glows, rubs and polishes to exfoliate dead skin, stimulate circulation and relieve stress.
The Source of Salt
All salts come from a sea, but not all salts come from the oceans we know today. The oceans that once covered the earth left a generous supply of salt beds and underground deposits which provide pure salt unpolluted by modern mankind. Crystaline salt deposits are found on every continent, from oceans that contained an estimated four-and-a-half million cubic miles of salt.
There are two basic methods for removing salt from the ground: room-and-pillar mining and solution mining. In room-and-pillar mining, shafts are sunk into the ground, and miners break up the rock salt with drills. The miners remove chunks of salt, creating huge rooms that are separated by pillars of salt. The room-and-pillar method requires that about half the salt be left behind as pillars. In solution mining, a well is drilled into the ground, and two pipes are lowered into the hole. The pipes consist of a small central pipe inside a larger pipe. The brine is either shipped as a liquid or evaporated in special devices called vacuum pans to form solid salt.
Salt’s Many Uses
Only about five percent of the world’s annual salt production ends up as seasoning at the dinner table. The vast majority pours into chemical plants, where it leads the five major raw materials utilized by industry: salt, sulfur, limestone, coal and petroleum.
Salt pickles cucumbers, helps pack meat, can vegetables, cure leather, make glass, bread, butter, cheese, rubber and wood pulp. Salt has some 14,000 uses, more than any other mineral.
Salt is essential. In humans, it is a basic component of taste, along with sweet, sour and bitter.
During the lifetime of the average American, he or she will use:
- 750 pounds of zinc
- 800 pounds of lead
- 1,500 pounds of copper
- 3,600 pounds of aluminum
- 26,000 pounds of clay
- 28,000 pounds of salt
- 33,000 pounds of iron
- 365,000 pounds of coal
- 1,240,000 pounds of sand, gravel and cement
In Your Kitchen
In cooking, salt acts as more than seasoning, pulling flavors together and accenting them. As a dry crystal, it preserves meat and fish by drawing out the moisture. It also acts as a meat tenderizer. It can be employed in a dough that is wrapped around meat or fish and turns into a flavor-sealing crust as it bakes.
Not all salt is the same. The ordinary table salt that most of us eat is too refined it lacks the minerals we need. Also, yellow prussiate of soda and other additives and preservatives are added to prevent caking, dextrose is even added to improve flavor. About half of all table salt is supplemented with potassium iodide, which wards off goiter. RealSalt contains 50 natural occurring trace minerals like calcium, potassium, sulphur, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, copper, iodine and zinc.
Masonen, P. 1995. Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean World . [Online] Available at: https://org.uib.no/smi/paj/Masonen.html
Rouge, D. 2007. Saharan salt caravans ply ancient route . [Online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mauritania-caravan/saharan-salt-caravans-ply-ancient-route-idUSL162118220070221
Sacred Valley Salt Co. 2019. Salt Vs. Gold . [Online] Available at: http://sacred-valley-salt.com/salt-vs-gold/
SaltWorks. 2019. History of Salt? . [Online] Available at: https://www.seasalt.com/history-of-salt
Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. 2019. Trading Gold for Salt . [Online] Available at: http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/educators/lesson_plans/currency/essay2.html
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. Timbuktu. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Timbuktu-Mali
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000. The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade (7th–14th Century) . [Online] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gold/hd_gold.htm
Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods. Read More
A Brief History of Salt
S alt comes from dead, dried-up seas or living ones. It can bubble to the surface as brine or crop out in the form of salt licks and shallow caverns. Below the skin of the earth it lies in white veins, some of them thousands of feet deep. It can be evaporated from salt “pans,” boiled down from brine, or mined, as it often is today, from shafts extending half a mile down.
The history of the world according to salt is simple: animals wore paths to salt licks men followed trails became roads, and settlements grew beside them. When the human menu shifted from salt-rich game to cereals, more salt was needed to supplement the diet. But the underground deposits were beyond reach, and the salt sprinkled over the surface was insufficient. Scarcity kept the mineral precious. As civilization spread, salt became one of the world’s principal trading commodities.
Salt routes crisscrossed the globe. One of the most traveled led from Morocco south across the Sahara to Timbuktu. Ships bearing salt from Egypt to Greece traversed the Mediterranean and the Aegean. Herodotus describes a caravan route that united the salt oases of the Libyan desert. Venice’s glittering wealth was attributable not so much to exotic spices as to commonplace salt, which Venetians exchanged in Constantinople for the spices of Asia. In 1295, when he first returned from Cathay, Marco Polo delighted the Doge with tales of the prodigious value of salt coins bearing the seal of the great Khan.
As early as the 6th century, in the sub-Sahara, Moorish merchants routinely traded salt ounce for ounce for gold. In Abyssinia, slabs of rock salt, called ‘amôlés, became coin of the realm. Each one was about ten inches long and two inches thick. Cakes of salt were also used as money in other areas of central Africa.
Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, which is why the Roman word for these salubrious crystals (sal) is a first cousin to Salus, the goddess of health. Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia. A soldier’s pay&mdashconsisting in part of salt&mdashcame to be known as solarium argentum, from which we derive the word salary. A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.
“With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt,” says Leviticus 2:13. Because of its use as a preservative, salt became a token of permanence to the Jews of the Old Testament. Its use in Hebrew sacrifices as a meat purifier came to signify the eternal covenant between God and Israel. In one biblical case, salt symbolized a lack of fidelity. In Genesis 19:1-29, two angels of the Lord command Lot, his wife and two daughters to flee the sinful city of Sodom without ever looking back. When Lot’s wife cast a fleeting glance backward (her faith was uncertain), she was immediately transformed into a pillar of salt. A Roman religious ritual, however, in which grains of salt were placed on an eight-day-old babe’s lips, prefigures the Roman Catholic baptismal ceremony in which a morsel of salt is placed in the mouth of the child to ensure its allegorical purification. In the Christian catechism, salt is still a metaphor for the grace and wisdom of Christ. When Matthew says, “Ye are the salt of the earth/’ he is addressing the blessed, the worthy sheep in the flock, not the erring goats.
During the Middle Ages, the ancient sanctity of salt slid toward superstition. The spilling of salt was considered ominous, a portent of doom. (In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, the scowling Judas is shown with an overturned saltcellar in front of him.) After spilling salt, the spiller had to cast a pinch of it over his left shoulder because the left side was thought to be sinister, a place where evil spirits tended to congregate.
The social symbolism of salt was painfully evident in the medieval equivalents of the Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. As late as the 18th century, the rank of guests at a banquet was gauged by where they sat in relation to an often elaborate silver saltcellar on the table. The host and “distinguished” guests sat at the head of the table&mdash”above the salt.” People who sat below the salt, farthest from the host, were of little consequence.
Salt taxes variously solidified or helped dissolve the power of governments. For centuries the French people were forced to buy all their salt from royal depots. The gabelle, or salt tax, was so high during the reign of Louis XVI that it became a major grievance and eventually helped ignite the French Revolution. As late as 1930, in protest against the high British tax on salt in India, Mahatma Gandhi led a mass pilgrimage of his followers to the seaside to make then-own salt.
If the importance of a food to a society can be measured by the allusions to it in language and literature, then the significance of salt is virtually unrivaled. Nearly four pages of the Oxford English Dictionary are taken up by references to salt, more than any other food. “A grain of salt” may be a recipe for skepticism. But there can be no doubt about how salt has seasoned history.
A Brief History of Sea Salt Uses Through the Ages
Salt is the most valuable and controversial mineral in the history of mankind. (I know, it’s hard to believe it’s not gold!) It’s odd to think that salt has such a rich history, since it so readily sits in a grinder or shaker on our tables. Salt created, destroyed and preserved civilizations, formed friendships, healed wounds and wove its way into numerous religions. Here are a bunch of fun facts to beef up your trivia knowledge.
The Roman Empire was built and destroyed by salt, and at one point Venice was the “wealthiest” city in the world. Speaking of preserving, we have some of the greatest relics of an ancient civilization due to salt. The Egyptians preserved bodies so well, that they became mummified. The wealthier you were, the better your body was preserved for the next life. There were also salt offerings to the gods found in many tombs.
Without salt, ocean voyages would have been nearly impossible and fishing would have been limited to the confines of home. Explorers and fishermen, throughout history, relied on salt to preserve food for their voyage and the fish they caught while at sea. More than likely, the New World wouldn’t have been found if it weren’t for salt. During the Middle Ages, salt was traditionally gifted as a sign of friendship.
Salt has been incorporated into many religions. The Shinto religion uses salt to purify an area. A handful of salt is thrown into the center of the ring before a Sumo wrestling match, which is a Shinto tradition. This is to ward off evil spirits.
Over 30 references to salt appear in the Bible, with the phrase “salt of the earth” being the most widely known. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, portrays Judas knocking over a salt container. European tradition holds that knocking over salt is a bad omen. The Dalai Lama was buried sitting up in a bed of salt in 1933. Those of Jewish faith dip their bread in salt on the Sabbath as an offering. In Buddhist tradition, salt repels evil spirits. It is customary to throw salt over your shoulder before entering your house after a funeral as it scares off any malicious spirits.
Thousands of Napoleon’s troops died due to a lack of salt. On a retreat from Moscow, the troops’ wounds wouldn’t heal, since they couldn’t treat them with salt. Roman troops destroyed Carthage by salting its fields, making its lands inhospitable. During the American Revolution, as well as the Civil War, American saltworks were under constant attack. The British destroyed a saltwork in New Jersey next to Little Egg Harbor. During the Civil War, many Confederates had to wear wooden shoes, since salt is needed for leather tanning and shoe construction.
Around 2700 BC, the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu, the earliest treatise of pharmacology, was published in ancient China. The bulk of the writing focused on proper salt extraction, the different types of salt and its uses. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wrote about the benefits of salt water for aching muscles. Because of his work, the ancient Greeks bathed in communal salt water baths.
Roman troops were paid in salt, which is where the word “salary” is derived from. The word “salad” also stems from salt, as the Romans would preserve their leafy greens and vegetables with salt. Salami, which was created in Genoa, Italy, also comes from the word salt.
And there you have it, a crash course in the history of salt and its uses. Now go knock’em dead at your next trivia night!
What is a salt covenant?
There is more to salt than meets the taste buds. Salt has been used in many cultures as a valuable commodity. The word salary comes from an ancient word meaning “salt-money,” referring to a Roman soldier’s allowance for the purchase of salt. Someone who earns his pay is still said to be “worth his salt.” Salt has also been used to express promises and friendship between people. It was even considered by the Greeks to be divine. Today in many Arab cultures, if two men partake of salt together they are sworn to protect one another&mdasheven if they had previously been enemies. In some cultures, people throw salt over their shoulders when they make a promise. Who knew sodium chloride was so important?
In the ancient world, ingesting salt was a way to make an agreement legally binding. If two parties entered into an agreement, they would eat salt together in the presence of witnesses, and that act would bind their contract. King Abijah’s speech in 2 Chronicles 13:5 mentions just such a salt covenant: “Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt?” Here, Abijah refers to the strong, legally binding promise of God to give Israel to David and his sons forever.
The Old Testament Law commands the use of salt in all grain offerings and makes clear that the “salt of the covenant” should not be missing from the grain offerings (Leviticus 2:13). Since the Levitical priests did not have land of their own, God promised to provide for them via the sacrifices of the people, and He called this promise of provision a “salt covenant” (Numbers 18:19). Salt has always been known for its preservative properties, and it is also possible that God instructed the use of salt so that the meat would last longer and taste better&mdashand thus be of more value to the priests who depended upon it for their daily food.
The idea of a salt covenant carries a great deal of meaning because of the value of salt. Today, salt is easy to come by in our culture, and we don’t necessarily need it as a preservative because of refrigeration. But to the people of Jesus’ day, salt was an important and precious commodity. So, when Jesus told His disciples that they were “the salt of the earth,” He meant that believers have value in this world and are to have a preserving influence (Matthew 5:13).
The salt covenant is never explicitly defined in the Bible, but we can infer from the understanding of salt’s value and the contexts in which a salt covenant is mentioned that it has much to do with the keeping of promises and with God’s good will toward man.