In Finnish mythology, the mighty god of the sky, Ukko, struck fire in the heavens. A spark from this celestial fire fell into the ocean and turned to salt. Another old legend is that the oceans are made up of the tears of all those who have suffered since the world began; and as tears are salt, the oceans' waters are salt.
Salt was used long before the contemporary era, and it was highly valued by those who included it in their diet. Salt was probably being traded even in Neolithic times. The Israelites believed that no meal was complete without a bit of salt to help digest it. Homer (9th–8th century B.C.E.) called salt divine, and Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) described it as a substance valued by the gods.
At one time salt was regarded as being almost as valuable as gold, and soldiers, officials, and working people in Greece and Rome received all or part of their pay in salt. Money paid for labor or service was termed "salarium," the origin of the word "salary,"—money paid for services rendered. From this custom of paying with salt comes also the popular phrase "to earn one's salt."
It was a custom in early times to place salt before strangers as a token or pledge of friendship. "Take a pinch of salt with me" was the popular method of inviting a friend or acquaintance to one's home to partake of one's hospitality.
In many Asian countries salt was offered to guests as a token of hospitality, and if any particles fell to the ground while being presented it was considered an omen of ill luck. The belief was that a quarrel or a dispute would follow.
Among the Germans there is the old saying, "Whoever spills salt arouses enmity." The ancient Romans believed that to spill salt was to cause quarrels or disputes, and when salt was spilled it was the custom to exclaim, "May the gods avert the omen!" Another old tradition says that if salt is thrown over the left shoulder, it will appease the devil, who will otherwise make enemies of friends whenever salt is spilled.
According to some authorities, the wide-spread notion that the spilling of salt produces evil consequences is supposed to have originated in the tradition that Judas overturned a salt shaker at the Last Supper as portrayed in Leonardo da Vinci's (1452–1519) painting. But it appears more probable that the belief is due to the sacred character of salt in early times.
These old salt superstitions are found in many widely separated countries. Long ago they captured the public fancy, and they have survived. There are still many people who believe that to spill salt is an omen of a quarrel or bad luck, and that to toss a bit of the salt over the left shoulder is to cancel the negative consequences.