Salt symbolism and navigation

Dr. Kamal Abdulmalik

05 May 2023

Salt is one of those things we know and experience from a young age, so much so that we don't think about it much.

Scientifically known as sodium chloride, salt is obtained by salt mines, or by evaporating seawater or spring water. The earliest documented traces of salt use date back to 6000 BC, and we find it in the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Indians, Greeks, Hittites and Byzantines, and history shows that salt was so indispensable that it caused war among the peoples of the ancient world.

Salt comes in different shapes and a variety of colors ranging from white, pink, purple and gray. Due to its distinctive qualities and use in pre-medieval life and customs, salt has for centuries been a symbol of taste, purity, preservation, sincerity, well-being and welcoming. However, salt is also associated with bad connotations such as reproach, pollution, bad thoughts and sometimes death.

■ Taste - The symbolic meaning of taste is derived from its use in food by different civilizations through the centuries. In Arab culture, salt was associated with the sweetness of form, goodness and beauty, so the beauty is called «Maliha» as we find in the poet's saying: Say to Maliha in the black veil / What did you do with a worshipful monk?

■ Purity - Salt was a symbol of purity and was used by ancient civilizations to ward off evil spirits, embalm bodies and heal wounds.

■ Conservation - This symbolic meaning stems from the use of salt as a preservative for food and for embalming the dead.

■ Fidelity - Salt acquired the symbolism of fidelity in folklore, as it was used to emphasize the pledge of fidelity to another person. Shall we not say: "We have lived and salt", a metaphor for friendship and devotion?

■ Luxury - In the old days, salt was an affordable commodity only for kings and the rich, hence its connotations of well-being and breadth of living.

■ Welcome - The welcoming characteristic of salt is derived from the traditional Slavic welcome ceremony, where guests are served bread and salt.

■ Discipline - Salt became a symbol of chastisement after Lot's wife became a pillar of salt because she broke the divine command and turned to Sodom (in the Torah of Genesis).

■ Bad thoughts - This symbolism is derived from salt water, where water represents pure feelings, while salt represents negative emotions.

■ Contamination and death – Salt is associated with pollution and death due to its ability to dry plants and damage drinking water.

Salt refers to different meanings in dreams, when salt appears in a dream, it means that the dreamer will soon experience joy, happiness or profit. When salt spills in a dream, it is a warning to the dreamer that there are family problems.

In English, salt has several expressions, including:

■ Add salt to the wound Sprinkle salt on the wound - use when causing additional pain or making bad situations worse.

■ Worth your salt is worth its amount of salt – used to mean that one serves the expected purpose as it should. This expression is said to have originated in the days of slavery, when the value of slaves was measured compared to salt.

■ Salt of the earth Salt of the earth - used to mean goodness and importance This expression is associated with the Gospel: "Sermon on the Mount" found in Matthew 5:13.

■ To take with a grain of salt Handle it with caution (with a little salt) and is used to advise against believing everything that is being said, especially when it seems exaggerated or does not represent the truth.

Visiting Scholar at Harvard University

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