Why Do You Throw Salt Over Your Shoulder?

Old Wives’ Tales are among my favorite topics to delve into. Many people that I grew up with on the East Coast of America were familiar with the idea of throwing salt over your shoulder, especially if you accidentally spilled salt in the first place. I realized that I often perform this action mindlessly...but why do we do it and how did this old wives tale get its start?

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There seems to be an association with accidentally spilling salt and bad luck. This association makes sense when you realize how powerful salt would have been to people in a time before refrigerators, electricity, and grocery stores. Salt had the power to make food last, to cleanse, and was an important ingredient in many dishes worldwide. So, wasting salt by spilling it would likely be considered unlucky. If that’s the case...why do we waste more salt by throwing it over our shoulder? Well, one idea is that bad luck is given to you by the devil, a demon, or some unseen but horrific creature. If that’s the case throwing some salt over your shoulder may temporarily blind, confuse, or cleanse the creature and avoid it from touching you with bad luck.

Some tie it back to biblical times and relate it to the story of Lott’s wife who looked back onto Sodom (a place of great sin) when she was being led towards a moral place. In act of anger, god turned her into a pillar of salt. This places the devil ‘behind you’ and the good before so you throw salt behind your shoulder when you do something bad or perhaps are being tempted to blind him. It is believed throwing it over your left shoulder has become a popular addition to this old wives tale because your left side is the ‘sinister’ shoulder.

This practice goes back a significant amount of time and one can see that in the famous The Last Supper painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. If you look closely at Judas in the painting you may notice that he is in the process of knocking over a small salt cellar. This action is meant to be a metaphor for his coming betrayal of Jesus.

Salt is often considered a powerful mineral because of its close associations with the ocean, purification, and preservation. Because of this it is often considered incorruptible or has the power to fix corrupted things. To me, it is unsurprising that is has power and folklore-inspired action behind it that is meant to stop evil or bad luck.

Do you know of any other folklore surrounding salt? I’d love to hear more and see how they connect!

The above image is by Flickr user Clifford.rhode and is licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).