USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘salt’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
general
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Pass the Salt Superstition

Main Piece:

“It is bad luck to hand someone the salt without setting it down on the table first to break the connection.”

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 47-year-old female. She says she first heard this superstition when she was having dinner with a couple of friends.  They were enjoying dinner when one of the ladies asked for the salt.  The person closest to the salt picked up the salt shaker and handed it to the person who had asked for the salt. The lady who had asked for the salt was reluctant to take the salt from the other person’s hand.  She then asked if it could be set down at the table because she did not want to take the salt shaker from the other person’s hand. The lady who had passed the salt asked why she had to set it down. The other lady responded that it was bad luck to pass the salt from one hand to another without setting it down first. My informant says she has since adopted the superstition claiming there is no harm in following the tradition and likes to think she is avoiding bad luck. I asked my informant where she thinks this superstition began, to this she responded she is unsure, but she thought it had something to do with the Jewish faith because the people she has encountered that strictly follow this superstition are Jewish.

I had heard this superstition before but was curious to know where it originates from and why this is the case. In looking into this superstition I found countless of other superstitions, beliefs, and traditions about salt. Such as the bad luck implied with spilling the slat on the table, and if one does so then they must immediately pick up a pinch of the salt and throw it over their left shoulder. It is also believed salt is a protector and would keep away evil spirits. To keep an unwanted visitors away some believed that if one sprinkles salt at the door right after they leave then sweep it up and burn it they will not return. I also discovered a belief in Buddhist tradition making it common to throw salt over your shoulder when returning home or after a funeral to keep the evil spirits away.

After finding so many beliefs about salt I looked into those related particularly just to the Jewish faith following my informant’s intuition this was a Jewish belief. To my surprise, there were also other Jewish superstitions related to salt. These included placing pockets of salt in the corners of a room or the pockets of clothing to drive evils away(myjewishlearning.com), and throwing salt over your shoulder if you spilled the salt. The likely reason for so many salt superstitions and beliefs is likely due to the value of salt in the Middle Ages. Salt was extremely rare and expensive therefore the thought of spilling it would be unspeakable; similarly to spilling a bag of miniature diamonds in current day standards(something of very high value). In Judaism salt seems to have positive connotations. It is customary to sprinkle it over the challah(ceremonial Jewish bread) and is used as a preserver making what it touches last forever, elevating its status (jtsa.edu).

I found it very difficult to find any information about the passing of the salt specifically. The most common salt superstition I found was about spilling the salt. I can’t seem to recall where I heard this but remember someone mentioning passing the salt being a taboo due to the high value of salt. Therefore setting the salt down before the other person picks it back up acts as breaking the connection between the holder of the salt and the person who is about to hold it. Therefore, if anyone spills the salt it will be clear whose fault it was. Whoever picks the salt back up is now responsible for the salt. This eliminates any debate or misplacing of fault if the salt is spilled.

“SPILLING SALT.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (1876-1904), vol. XI, no. 4, 04, 1881, pp. 413. ProQuest, http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy1.usc.edu/docview/136551260?accountid=14749.

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/popular-superstitions/

http://www.jtsa.edu/sprinkling-salt-on-the-challah

Contagious
Customs
general
Material
Protection

Venezuelan Salt Passing Superstition

Context: The informant was speaking about niche Venezuelan traditions.

 

Piece:

Informant: The other thing in terms of beliefs is when passing the salt, if someone asks you to pass the salt, you don’t give it to them directly in the hand because it is believed that if you do that you will fight with that person, so you essentially put the salt on the table instead of passing it directly.

Collector: And this is what you do?

Informant: Oh totally!

Collector: And who did you learn that from

Informant: Oh my mom, always. I believe it is only a Venezuelan thing— I know people from other places in Latin America and they don’t do it

 

Background: The informant, a middle aged Venezuelan woman, grew up in Venezuela and still practices many Venezuelan traditions. This belief is a superstition she strongly believes in, unique to Venezuela.

Analysis: This piece is a superstition that connects to other folkloric beliefs regarding salt. This belief/superstition probably stems from the taste of salt and how it is tart and not exactly enjoyable– implying that by passing salt, it passes bad energy. This piece is different from salt ideologies spread in America. For example, if you spill salt you must throw it over your shoulder or else there is bad luck. There seems to be a similar connotation to salt, and it conveniently correlates with the salty flavor that implies discomfort.

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Mexican Salt Superstition

Interviewer: I know you ain’t very fond of passing the salt shaker when eating without putting it on the table first. Why is that?

Informant: Well, there’s a little bit more that goes into it than just not wanting to pass the salt. I do believe luck is real, and it’s something that can be affected by other people. I feel that when someone hands the shaker directly to you, it could pass their bad luck or bad energy to you… or you could end up fighting(arguing) with that person in the future. That doesn’t worry me too much, because I don’t really get into fights with people often. However, since I play golf, I understand that sometimes luck can be the difference between a birdie or landing in a sand trap. There are also events in life that you’ll only experience if you luck out or, in some cases, have terrible luck… So I don’t hand someone the salt shaker directly because I don’t want to take any chances.

Interviewer: And are there other people that share this belief?

Informant: My mother used to believe the same, and my sister also believes that passing the salt can be bad luck. My husband doesn’t really like the idea of superstition, he’s a very religious man.

Interviewer: And is there anything you can do if you accidentally hand someone the salt shaker?

Informant: Yes, you quickly shake some salt in your hand and toss it over your shoulders. It’s a way of putting the bad luck “behind you,” so you don’t have to worry about it anymore. But I think it’s better not to come across the bad luck at all if possible.

 

Analysis

Although I don’t know how widespread this particular belief is, I do have my theories as to how it came to be originated. The belief in luck is quite popular, but I think this specific case stems from a certain expression in Spanish (Mexico): “Echar la sal” (lit. to throw salt on something), which usually means to predispose something to failure, to “jinx it,” or to outright ruin it. I think it’s very possible the expression influenced and birthed this superstition.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Jewish Bread and Salt for New Homes

I guess it’s a Jewish tradition to bring salt to somebody when they move somewhere new. When I moved into my first apartment, my mom brought a loaf of bread and salt. I think she said it’s supposed to be so you never go hungry, and then the salt brings flavor. She also sprinkled the salt on the floor because she said it protects against evil, and I couldn’t vacuum the salt for at least twenty-four hours. She said that her parents did the same thing when she moved into her first apartment, so she was passing that tradition on to me.

Context: The informant’s maternal grandparents are both Jewish, and the informant practiced Judaism throughout his childhood.

Interpretation: This is an act of love and concern from whoever brings the homeowner salt and bread. In this case, it also connects the informant to his grandparents by bringing their tradition into his home. Lastly, it is a religious practice that connects Jewish people to one another by practicing the same traditions.

 

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Salt Moat: Folk Belief

My dad would frequently get big containers of salt and then her would just open them up and then sprinkle it all around the house, so in essence there’d be an outline of salt around the house and it was more of I guess a superstition of us believing that it could help fend off, like, negative energy or just occurrences that would happen that would be… would just be any sort of negative thing. 

The Informant, my housemate, is an Econ major at USC. He was born and raised in Texas. The Informant told me about his dad’s way of warding off negative energies at around midnight on 4/22 while he played PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, an intensive online battle royale game. He spoke like he was skeptical of the actual powers of this salt border and he admitted he doesn’t truly believe. He says he doesn’t believe in the positive effects, but would be slightly worried about the possibilities if his dad skipped the salt.

Salt seems to be the center of many folk beliefs – from the conversion magic of throwing salt over your left shoulder after a spillage to ward off bad luck, to this border of salt to keep bad energy out of the house.

This folk belief seems odd to me. In my opinion, this sounds more like a story parents tell their children to hide the fact they’re planning on killing all the snails ransacking the garden.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Duppies

Panteha’s mom is from Jamaica, and taught her many legends and folk beliefs from Jamaican folklore. The following is a description Panteha shared with me of folkloric figures called “duppies”:

“So duppies are like, they’re like spirits…so there’s like good duppies and bad duppies. So like a duppy is basically like, someone’s soul that’s still stuck on earth and has been basically just like causing trouble. And there can be like, good duppies that like, they can give you good luck or whatever. But like, obviously no one talks about that; all they do is talk about the bad duppies. And my mom used to do this like, really scary voice when she was talking about it–she was like, ‘duppies sound like this! they sound like this,’ it’s like when Danny’s doing the ‘red rum’ [in The Shining]. They’re supposed to have these crazy like, nasally voices…

You know how like uh, like you have a day where you wake up and you stub your toe and burn your tongue on coffee and like, all these small little things happen? That’s supposedly like, bad duppies just like causing shit for you. And so when that would happen like, literally eating a spoonful of salt is supposed to stop that. So like, I remember like, one specific morning when I was really young, I fell out of bed and like hurt my ankle and like whatever, like burnt my tongue and tripped andy mom was like trying to force me to eat a whole-ass spoonful of salt and I was like, “no,” like I’m not gonna do that. Um and then, ugh, what else…My mom actually didn’t tell me this cause I think she um, didn’t wanna tell me cause I was like a little kid, but I heard from one of my uncles that like, you can shame a duppy or like, scare away a duppy by like, shamelessly exposing your genitals.”

Many cultures hold a belief in malicious or irksome spirits of some kind, which cause trouble for the living but can usually be warded off with certain practices or precautions. Salt often figures prominently in magical remedies for evil spirits’ acts, across cultures. In Jamaica, as in many Caribbean and Latin American countries, West African and indigenous mystical practices coexist with Christianity. Panteha’s mom is an observant Christian, but simultaneously maintains a belief in folk beliefs like that of the duppies.

Folk Beliefs
general

Don’t pass the salt!

“You don’t ever pass salt. It has to go down [demonstrates placing a salt shaker down on the table], you never pass salt . . . That’s a pretty common one. Like if I have, if this is salt, you know like, ‘Oh, pass the salt,’ never pass the salt to someone that you love! You put it down, they pick it up. You can pass pepper, that’s fine, but you never, ever pass salt. Big no.” I asked the informant why she did this and she said, “The passing salt thing? That’s, like, a death sentence, like why would you do that? You, it means you want to, like, cut ties with someone, if you pass them salt. And if you do that and it happens, that’s when you do the salt over your left shoulder, I believe. I never do it, so I don’t have to do that.”

 

The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition within her family. She said, “There’s a lot of things I have no idea why I do them, but I do them because someone might die if I didn’t do them. Like, that’s how we’re taught . . . It’s kind of a life or death situation.” She said she learned this practice from her mother, but also said she thinks most of the superstitions her family practices come from Romania because her great great great grandmother was “the Romanian town palm reader and she read tea leaves and, like, they were a very mystical family.” When I asked her further about why she thinks this was, she said, “Because they were poor, that’s probably why. Because they had nothing. And the pogroms were going on that were attacking the Jews, so stuff like that . . .”

 

I had a long conversation with the informant about superstitions in her family, but it was during her description of this one that she became the most animated and emphatic. It struck me as interesting because she also thought of this practice as being extremely commonplace and straightforward, so much so that she could not believe I would ask why she performed it. It was also interesting that she connected this practice to the one of throwing salt over your left shoulder. The latter is well known to me, although usually in the context of what you do after you spill salt. I do not know why the informant sees this practice as meaning you want to “cut ties with someone” or “death,” but it seems like a trend that salt is involved in important superstitious practices. This could have something to do with salt being an important commodity in a European historical context, or with the fact that it can be used to cure meat and keep food for long periods of time, making it valuable. Since the informant never passes the salt and so never has to throw salt over her left shoulder, it is very possible that she mixed the latter practice up with another. However, the important thing in this context is that it is exactly what she would do were she ever to pass the salt.

 

I agree with the informant that doing things like this to avoid “bad juju” probably has something to do with the performer feeling a lack of control over forces bigger than humanity, such as death. This would make sense in the face of large-scale discrimination and genocide, as occurred in the pogroms. When you are reminded that death could come for you at any moment, it is comforting to think the performance of small actions such as this could help keep you safe.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Go Salt Yourself!

“Pojdi se solit!”

Translation:

“Go salt yourself!”

Used as an expression of frustration, this phrase can be taken to mean, “screw you!” The informant has been saying this particular phrase to me since I was young, whenever I was sufficiently irritating. For years, I was puzzled by why she would repeat this seemingly nonsensical saying to me. Why would an angry person suggest to someone else to salt themselves? Of course, whenever the informant was angry, I would never beg this question, as I imagined it would only aggrivate the situation further.

However, when confronted about the phrase’s meaning, she immediately offered this response:

“Historically, salt was very valuable, as it was not as commodified as it is today. Food lacking salt, however, lacks in flavor. That’s why the saying suggests that whenever you have said something that lacks flavor or character . . . you’ve said something bland . . . you’re suggested to season your coarse words with a bit of wisdom. Some salt to flavor your speech.”

 

Folk speech
Foodways
Proverbs

You Only Know a Person After You’ve Eaten Through a Whole Sack of Salt with Him

Proverb: Само знаеш човек след като си изял цял чувал сол с него.

Transliteration: Znaesh chovek camo cled kato ci izyal cial chuval ot col c nego.

Literal Translation: You only know a person after you’ve eaten through a whole sack of salt with him.

Meaning: It takes time to really know get to know someone.

Analysis:

I was at home from college for a weekend and I was spending time with my family, which involved mostly listening to my mother gossip about her friends. She began to talk about someone whom we both knew that had turned out to be quite a different person that what we had originally thought. We had misjudged that friend’s character, and while it wasn’t anything too serious or dramatic, my mother shook her head and said a Bulgarian proverb I had never heard before: “cамо знаеш човек след като си изял цял чувал сол с него,” or “you only know a person after you’ve eaten through a whole sack of salt with him.”

Upon seeing my confused face, my mother explained that since one would sprinkle only a little bit of salt on one’s food occasionally, it would take an exceptionally long time to eat through a large sack with someone. However, that amount of time is necessary to truly understand a person’s character, given that personalities and circumstances are quickly liable to change.

Since salt has been a common spice used in Bulgarian salads, dinners, and various meals, there was bound to be at least one proverb using it. I feel that my parents and relatives that live in Buglaria use salt much more than I prefer to do, either because they prefer saltier food or I am more used to the plainer cuisines I eat in California. Whatever the reason and wherever I am, people agree that it is important to know and understand whom one is with.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Salt Cross

Form of Folklore:  Folk Belief

Informant Bio:  The informant was born in Yerevan, Armenia, where she attended a Russian school.  At the age of fourteen she and her family moved to America, where she was formally introduce to the English language and had to continue going to a school where the primary language was English.  She has had exposure to both Armenian (from her youth and family) and American folklore (by living and studying in America).

Context:  The interview was conducted in the living room of the informant’s house.

Item:    Armenian Transliteration – “Yerp vor andzreve galis, aghov khach petke arvi getinu vor kuturvi”

English Translation – “When it is raining, you need to make a cross on the floor with salt so that it will stop”

Informant Comments:  As a child, growing up in Armenia, the informant believed that making a cross on the floor in salt actually was the reason why the rain would stop.  Now, she no longer believes this and has not passed this folklore on to any of her children.  She does not think making the cross would be a bad thing, but simply thinks it is not a necessary act to stop the rain.

Analysis:  Making a cross on the floor may have some connection with the fact that most Armenians in Armenia are Christian.  Since rain is sometimes considered to be the “tears of God”, perhaps making a cross on the ground that the rain falls on is a way of making the tears/rain stop.  The roots of this folk belief could be numerous; this is merely one possibility.  I do not think that it is in anyway required to stop the rain.  However, if children would like to feel that they are in some way in control of the weather (even when they are not) I see no harm in telling them about this folk belief.

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