Salt was man’s first food seasoning, and it so dramatically altered his eating habits that it is not at all surprising that the action of spilling the precious ingredient became tantamount to bad luck. Following an accidental spilling of salt, a superstitious nullifying gesture such as throwing a pinch of it over the left shoulder became a practice of the ancient Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and later the Greeks.
For the Romans, salt was so highly prized as a seasoning for food and a medication for wounds that they coined expressions utilising the word, which have become part of our language. The Roman writer Petronius, in the Satyricon, originated “not worth his salt” as an insult for Roman soldiers, who were given special allowances for salt rations, called salarium— “salt money” —the origin of our word “salary.” Archaeologists know that by 6500 B.C., people living in Europe were actively mining what are thought to be the first salt mines discovered on the continent, the Hallstein and Hallstatt deposits in Austria. Today these caves are tourist attractions, situated near the town of Salzburg, which of course means “City of Salt.” Salt purified water, preserved meat and fish, and enhanced the taste of food, and the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans used salt in all their major sacrifices.
The veneration of salt, and the foreboding that followed its spilling, is poignantly captured in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Judas has spilled the table salt, foreshadowing the tragedy— Jesus’ betrayal—that was to follow. Historically, though, there is no evidence of salt having been spilled at the Last Supper. Leonardo wittingly incorporated the widespread superstition into his interpretation to further dramatize the scene. The classic painting thus contains two ill-boding omens: the spilling of salt, and thirteen guests at a table.