From as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans, the spilling of salt has been regarded as an ominous event. Romans would exclaim “May the gods avert the omen!” once salt was spilled. European traditions say that an accidental overturning of a salt container is the work of the Devil himself, and that some salt must be thrown behind the spiller in the hopes of hitting the Devil’s eye. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, Judas Iscariot is depicted as just having spilled the salt.
A less ominous belief developed in America, where it was believed that if salt was spilled, there was going to be a quarrel, usually with your best friend. Throwing some of the spilled salt over the left shoulder was the only way to break the spell, said some. Others said that throwing the spilled salt onto the stove or into the fire would reverse the bad luck. Still others went so far as to say that crawling under the table and coming out the opposite side was necessary to thoroughly neutralize the bad luck.
Medieval Europe was full of traditions that suggested that salt was extremely distasteful to evil spirits. In Quebec, French Canadians would sometimes scatter salt around the door of their stables to prevent mischievous goblins from entering and bothering the horses. In Sicily, it was believed that a horse entering a new stall was prone to be molested by fairies. To prevent this, a little salt was sprinkled on the horse’s back in order to prevent such an occurence. Early on, salt was put into a child’s mouth during baptism, and in some countries it was placed into holy water to ward off evil. Many Scottish households would keep the salt container on top of the family Bible.
Other superstitions involve remedies for salt. Some Germans believed that a boy could be cured of homesickness by placing salt in the hems of his trousers and making him look up the chimney. In India, salt and wine would be rubbed on scorpion bites, in belief that those items would end the cause of the pain.
In Eastern Europe, in order to tell whether a child was the victim of enchantment, the mother would lick his or her forehead. If she tasted salt, she could be reasonably sure that the child had been influenced by an evil spirit.