Throwing Salt Over Your Shoulder

Context: The informant is my mother, identified as L.M., a woman born, raised, and living in Northern California. As a child, her immediate family lived in the same general area as all four of her grandparents, and most of her aunts, uncles, and cousins. At dinner with my parents during the Covid-19 Shelter in Place timeframe, I asked her if she knew of any family superstitions or protection rituals. She was also raised in a practicing Catholic household.

Main Piece: “I do remember one from a Thanksgiving Dinner with our extended family. I was six or seven years old, and we were all sitting around the oval table in my parents’ dining room. I think that both sets of my grandparents were there, plus my great aunt, my mom, dad, and brother, and another aunt and uncle or two, and some cousins. We were ready to eat our turkey dinner, and I asked my brother to pass the salt, which I then accidentally spilled on the table. My great aunt, who was French, told me to quickly throw some salt over my shoulder. I went ahead and did what she said, assuming it had something to do with avoiding bad luck, but my great aunt and grandmother said it was done to ward off the devil. I thought at the time it was just fun, but never learned the origin of this custom.”

Analysis: One widespread explanation of the folk belief that it is unlucky to spill salt is that Judas Iscariot spilled the salt at the Last Supper and even Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper depicts Judas Iscariot having knocked over a salt-cellar. Because Judas betrayed Jesus Christ in the Bible, people began associating salt with lies and disloyalty. Some Christian beliefs hold that the devil hangs around behind your left shoulder, waiting to take advantage of you and force you into bad behavior. If you spill salt, the devil sees it as an invitation to step in and do evil. Throwing it over your shoulder into his face blinds him and renders him helpless. And the belief is that If you spilled the salt, you must be the one to throw it over your shoulder or you won’t thwart the bad luck or the devil. This superstition is now commonplace and is no longer associated with Catholocism. It is depicted in a lot of contemporary media and its origin is widely unknown.