White Gold: A Brief History of Salt

Catherine Lugo
17 Min Read

People in my family have always been lovers of salt.  That grainy white stuff in the shaker on the dinner table was the star of our family meals for years; pepper was just its lonely subordinate.  That white, crystalline solid that’s extracted from seawater and salty lakes, the stuff that’s been around since dirt, was used to flavor and season just about everything in our house.  My own love of it hails from the days I watched my father sprinkle everything from pizza to watermelon.  He salted every bite of his hamburger, every single fry he put in his mouth, and even his apple pie.  I came to the conclusion that he would have salted salt.

As I grew up, I began to realize what a very salty world ours was, and it wasn’t just my family; the whole world seemed to be in love with the stuff.  It reigned everywhere.  Salt shakers were on tables in almost every home, they were in every restaurant, fast-food especially.  And as if fast food didn’t already have enough sodium in it, more was offered you at the drive-through window.

Growing up around so much salt made me curious about why it was so popular, and how it came to be so.  It’s in almost everything we eat and drink, and yet we’re told it’s bad for us.  We must cut down on salt, we’re told, maybe even cut it out of our lives entirely.  But sodium is vital to the human body, helping us regulate our bodily fluids, and in essence, helping us survive on the planet.  Salt is a preservative, a texture enhancer, a flavor enhancer, a nutrient source, a binder and a color enhancer, and is even an important road-maintenance substance in icy weather.  I learned that it has 14,000 uses that span technology, economics, and even religion.  And there I was limiting this gastronomical giant to perking up the taste of my scrambled eggs.  The history of salt is a long and illustrious one.

Old Salt Roads 

Evidence of salt processing dates back some 8,000 years ago.  In 9,000 BCE, the start of the Neolithic period, agriculture and the making of pottery were spreading across the land.  Settlements, like the famous town of Jericho, sprung up along salt-trade routes.  These were roads created especially for transporting salt and they crisscrossed the globe, much like gas and oil lines do today.  These ancient roads were used mostly for transporting salt, but also for transporting other staple goods.  They formed a network of roads traveled by the people of old to get their salt from one place to another.  It was taken from salt-rich regions to salt-poor regions—making salt merchants much like the Robin Hoods of their day.  It was a precious traded commodity, so valuable that it was known in those days as “white gold” by many local people.

One of the best-known salt roads was the medieval road known as The Old Salt Route in Germany.  It linked the 1,000-year-old town of Luneberg in lower Saxony—the most important salt deposit in Northern Europe at the time—with the Port of Lubeck.  Port Lubeck was the gateway to the Baltic Sea that made it possible to ship “white gold” all over the ancient world.  From there, the salt was supplied to all the coasts along the Baltic Sea.  Trade was also common between Nepal and Tibet.  Caravans of pack animals brought rice up from Nepal’s southern plains of the Himalayas in exchange for salt from the dry lakes on the Tibetan Plateau.  The salt roads of those days literally kept economies alive and thriving.

To the Neolithic culture, also known as the New Stone Age, salt was fundamental and was the cause of much wealth, as well as the cause of many wars.  The New Stone Age was a time before written history, lasting from about 9,000 BCE to 3,000 BCE; during this time, people were becoming more social and proof of the role it played in their lives is evident in the fact that many Neolithic people settled near salines, or salt evaporation ponds.  From these ponds, they collected and processed what they needed for daily living.  They used what they processed to season and to preserve meat, to tan hides for clothing, and they used it in the making of pottery and bread.  Neolithic pottery found in a site in Lunca-Poiana Slatina in the Siret Valley of Northeastern Romania was made with salt.

Solar Evaporation 

Living near a dried-up pond, or saline, Neolithic people could extract salt through primitive methods like solar evaporation (a nifty use of solar power).  Pond water that had been evaporated by the sun, left behind raw deposits in the form of crystals.  All the people had to do was collect the surface salt and process it by simply scraping up the crystals left behind by the evaporation and then washing, drying, sifting, or grading them as needed.

Religious Rites 

In many religions, salt is still considered sacred and is believed to have the power to protect people from the evils of sin, sickness, and demonic influence.  In Buddhism, its power to chase away evil spirits is well known.  In the Catholic Church, blessed salt is a sacrament that derives its power from the prayers spoken over it by church officials.  It is used as a focal point to direct a person’s faith toward Jesus; this Catholic belief is centuries old.  Catholics believe that blessed salt is an instrument of grace and healing; it can be sprinkled anywhere an extra dose of safety is required, such as across the threshold of a home to prevent burglary, or in your car to ensure safe driving and prevent accidents.  Many people in Asia still carry a small bag of it in their car to ensure a safe journey.

Many cultures today believe in putting blessed salt in your drinking water or in your food as a seasoning to bring amazing spiritual and physical benefits.  A believer can present any amount of it to a priest for a blessing.  Jewish rituals included dipping bread in it as a remembrance of sacrifices made by former believers.  The root of the word salvation is “salt” and covenants in the Old and New Testaments were often sealed with salt.  In those days, covenants might have been sealed by eating salt, or by sprinkling it in the hands of those making the covenant, so that it was impossible to retrieve the salt, thus invalidating the covenant.  This practice was known as “salt sharing” and it was the contract negotiation of ancient times.

Salt plays an important role in Sumo wrestling; to this day, wrestlers still practice the 1,000-year-old tradition of throwing some in the ring before a match.  It’s a Shinto belief that the wrestling arena must be purified with it before each and every match.  This is done by throwing a handful into the center of the ring to ward off evil spirits and protect the wrestlers from injuries.  Salting the ring also acts as a disinfectant for cuts and scrapes caused by the wrestling itself.


Have you ever heard that spilling salt is unlucky?  If this happens to you, all you have to do is take a pinch of it and throw it over your left shoulder.  Be sure that you throw it only over your left shoulder because, as this old belief goes, your guardian angel is behind your right shoulder, and you wouldn’t want to throw it into the eyes of your guardian angel.  So be sure to throw the salt over your left shoulder, where the evil spirits dwell.  This spilling ritual dates back to Biblical times and can be seen in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of “The Last Supper”; in it, Judas Iscariot is shown spilling the salt.

Many a home in the Old World was protected by sprinkling it in every room before moving in any furnishings or even hanging a single picture.  The sprinkling of salt was believed to protect a home from all evil spirits that might already dwell there or be planning a stopover.  It was also used to keep away any unwanted company.  Perhaps you had a visitor that you didn’t want to return, all you had to do was sprinkle some on the floor and doorstep of your home as soon as they left.  Then sweep it up and burn it; your unwanted guest would not revisit.

A version of this ritual is still a part of Buddhist folk tradition today.  It’s very common to throw salt over your left shoulder before entering your home after you return from a funeral.  This is done because you could never be sure that evil spirits wouldn’t follow you home from the funeral site.  Salt over your shoulder—in essence, thrown in the face of the devil—scared away evil spirits so they wouldn’t enter your home.

In many places in Europe, it was placed in a deceased person’s coffin so that the devil wouldn’t be able to take possession of the departed person.  And there’s an old saying that you should never run out of salt, because, it states, “Short of salt, short of money.”  Superstition also says it’s bad luck to lend it to anyone or to even pass it to someone at the table: ”Pass the salt, pass the sorrow.”  It’s best to let the other person at the table pick it up for themselves.

Ancient Romans believed that salt protected newborns from evil demons, and, on a child’s eighth day, he/she was rubbed down with salt.  Meanwhile, in Britain, as late as the 19th Century, children had a small bundle of it wrapped in cloth placed in the cradle to protect them until they could be baptized.  The first time the baby left the house, a bit of it was placed in their pocket.

Since salt was such a valuable commodity, people of old were very careful not to spill it, and the belief that it was bad luck to spill it may have come about as a way to help encourage people not to waste the precious “white gold” that had so many uses and was so central to their lives.

The Pueblo Indians of the southwest United States believed in, and revered, the Salt Mother, whose home was a great salt-lake.  It took days of trekking over rough ground to reach the lake.  Salt Mother told the Indians that anyone who made the journey to see her would “have their health and fortune in the water, and if ill in the body, would be made well.”  Native peoples of many tribes knew the value of salt.  They used it for healing and in their spiritual rituals, as well as for food preservation and flavoring.


Salt has also been an important part of medicine.  It actually has astonishing healing powers that have been known and practiced by the ancients for centuries.  Need a cleansing?  Take an internal salt-water bath to cleanse and flush out toxins from your digestive tract.  It is also known for its amazing respiratory healing powers and its ability to detoxify.  European monks treated many patients with respiratory ailments by having them sit in natural salt caves and breathe in the salty air.

Inhaling salt helps the respiratory system by passing micron particles of pure salt that then penetrate and cleanse the entire respiratory system including sinuses, nasal cavities, throat, and lungs.  The salty-air bath will flush out impurities like asthma- and allergy-triggers; conditions like cold, flu, bronchitis, and hay fever can be treated with this historic method as well.

Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, used saltwater inhalation therapy for bronchial and lung disorders.  In the 1800s salt spas were common in Europe, where people with respiratory ailments were helped by breathing in “salt dust”.  Salt used in a wound will help dry it out and will also pull out toxins from the body.  It can help bacteria from multiplying and spreading and it also works as an abrasive to clean out a wound.


Troops in battle need salt, and when they don’t have it they suffer.  Salt has been fought over many times.  Thousands of Napoleon’s troops died during the French retreat from Moscow due to lack of salt to heal their wounds.  Roman soldiers were actually paid in salt.  During our own Civil War, salt production facilities in Saltville, Virginia and Avery Island, Louisiana were targets of the Union Army.  A 36-hour battle was fought to capture Saltville and possess the salt works there.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis offered to waive military service to anyone who was willing to guard coastal salt-kettles to supply the South’s war effort.  Besides needing salt for their diet and the healing of wounds, troops needed it to tan leather, dye cloth for uniforms, and to preserve meat.

The next time you reach for your shaker of “white gold” to season your food, remember the long history of salt and its many uses.  It’s a very ordinary condiment with a very extraordinary history.

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