Spilling Salt: Possible Origins and Remedies

Of all the traditions surrounding good luck and bad luck, few are more curious than the ritual surrounding what to do when we spill salt. Salt is one of the most common seasoning ingredients, we add it to food and put it on our food, we use it to preserve food that would otherwise turn bad quickly. It is vital that we get enough of it in our diet, so it’s hardly surprising that we have the following ritual.

Spilling Salt is Bad Luck: Theories of Origins

This is a distinctly European superstition, although some suggest that it goes back much further than this. Several reasons for the development have been put forward, some based on logic and reason while others have a distinctly more superstitious origin.

Judas: The first suggested reason is that Judas Iscariot spilt salt during the course of The Last Supper (the night before he is said to have betrayed Jesus). Therefore, spilling salt is inviting the bad luck of Judas down on the person who spilt it. In Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as spilling a salt cellar

Salt is essential: One rational reason is that, despite salt being such a commonly available seasoning and preservative, its use was so vital to those societies where this tradition originated that they dare not become wasteful. This could have been a scare tactic so that people do not take the precious resource for granted

What salt can do: A third explanation is to do with salt’s properties. When sown into the ground, it destroys essential nutrients and makes it barren for a very long time. Therefore, to spill even a small amount on the ground has the potential to affect a harvest. Not so much these days with intensive farming

Ancient Germany: One interesting theory from early German history suggests that salt has symbolic meaning as a valuable commodity of trade. Exchanging it was a symbol of friendship, alliance or protection. Therefore, spilling it was an act of hostility

Ancient Rome: Slightly related to some of the examples already presented, salt has long-lasting qualities, which is why it is used as a preservative. It is not much of a leap to the metaphor that salt is symbolic of something long lasting. It became synonymous with friendship and at meal times, was presented to guests before any food appeared

What To Do to Prevent Bad Luck

While the act of spilling salt is considered both a social faux pas and bad luck, there is a simple action that we can do to remedy any bad luck coming our way. Modern tradition dictates that the moment one spills salt, the offending person must scoop some of the salt (usually no more than a pinch) into their right hand and then toss it over their left shoulder. This curious display is repeated in even those households that would otherwise scoff at most superstitions.

It is said that the devil resides over our left shoulders. Noticing the act of spilling salt, one must then toss it over that shoulder to blind the devil and prevent the bad luck from occurring, stopping him in his tracks.