Subject: Um… I really don’t know the origins of this one… but… I believe it’s Buddhist or like… Asian. If we’re coming back from a funeral, a graveyard, or anything related to dead people, we don’t enter the house before throwing a pinch of salt over both of our shoulders. And it’s supposed to make sure that dead spirits don’t follow you into the house and haunt you. And I still abide by that.
Interviewer: When did you start doing that?
Subject: Ever since I was a kid, it was almost as customary as wearing like… black to a funeral. When you came back, sure enough, you threw salt over your shoulders.
Interviewer: Oh. Cool. Where did you first learn this?
Subject: Um… I probably got it from my dad. It was one of those things growing up… it falls more in line with Hawaiian superstition and East-Asian superstition than it does with like… Jew… Stuff. *laughter*
Context: The subject is a Sophomore studying Law, History, and Culture at USC. She is of Japanese and Ashkenazi descent, and a third generation resident of Hawaii. She is a very close friend of mine, and is currently quarantined at her home in Irvine, California due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The following conversation happened over a facetime call when I asked her to tell me some traditional folklore connected to her heritage.
Interpretation: I had heard of throwing salt over your shoulder for good luck, but not in the context of after a funeral. I found that is a very common Buddhist folk tradition for scaring off spirits, as my subject mentioned. I thought it interesting that she learned the tradition in Hawaii, and it has Buddhist roots. I think that shows how culturally diverse Hawaii is. In addition to that, it is also a Christian tradition to throw salt over the left shoulder, because many Christians believe the devil lingers on the left shoulder and it can “blind” him. The Christian folk belief is likely how it was popularized in America. It was interesting how my subject described the tradition as being as customary as wearing black to a funeral. I think that traditions and rituals can become so normal that we take them for granted and subsequently forget the reasoning behind them.
For more on the topic, see:
Pettit, Carl. “Why Do We Throw Salt Over Our Shoulders for Good Luck?” TSM Interactive. Jan. 4, 2012. (Dec. 10, 2014) http://tsminteractive.com/salt-shoulders-good-luck/
Sue, Granny. “Pass the Salt Please: Salt Folklore and Superstitions.” Pass the Salt Please: Salt Folklore and Superstitions, 5 June 2017, grannysu.blogspot.com/2017/06/pass-salt-please-salt-folklore-and.html.