salt flat Altiplano salar de uyuni Bolivia

The Salt of the Earth

Basil Karatzas
Total Views: 44
September 24, 2014

There are crocodile tears, but salt tears are always the ones that are genuine, memorable, passionate and sometimes pedagogical. It has been said that the cure for everything is salt, in salt tears, sea water and sweat (Isak Dinesen). Although life cannot exist without salt, for those of us involved with seaborne affairs, whether for business or pleasure, salt has a center place in our lives. It’s not only the washing of a boat off the salt after a sailing excursion, it’s the constant attention to keep up with the rust caused by the corrosive yet life-living sea water effect on the steel – most prevalently seeing in the ballast tanks of ships. The ‘ball’ (Plimsoll Line engraved on the hull of the ships) is another indirect reminder of water salinity affecting trade by affecting the draft of ships. Even the Navy has on occasion used the so-named ‘Salt and Pepper’ uniform (black pants and white shirts for the summer), and more recently ‘SALT’ has become the ticker symbol for a publicly traded shipping company.

Salt everywhere!

Salt (NaCl, sodium chloride) is a mineral substance made of molecules of sodium and chlorine in equal amounts and forming a translucent, white, cubic crystal in its pure form. In strictly chemical terms, salts are created by the neutralizing reaction between an acid and a base.  Naturally occurring salt is a crystalline mineral known as rock salt (halite); salt is also readily present in vast quantities in the sea as the main mineral constituent of sea water with concentration in the open ocean of approximately 35 grams (1.2 oz) per liter (3.5% salinity). Salt’s melting point is 801 °C (1,474 °F), its boiling point is 1,465 °C (2,669 °F), its freezing point is ?21.12 °C (?6.02 °F at 23.31 wt% of salt), and the boiling point of saturated salt solution is around 108.7 °C (227.7 °F). Salt’s density is 2.17 grams per cubic centimeter and it is readily soluble in water.

Rock salt (sel gemme in French, literally ‘gem salt), produced in salt mines, occurs in vast beds of sedimentary evaporite minerals that result from the drying up of enclosed lakes, playas, and seas. Salt beds may be hundreds of meters thick and underlie broad areas. In the United States and Canada, extensive underground beds extend from the Appalachian basin of western New York through parts of Ontario and under much of the Michigan Basin. Salt domes are vertical diapirs or pipe-like masses of salt that have been essentially “squeezed up” from underlying salt beds by mobilization due to the weight of overlying rock. Salt domes are a gross indication of the presence of trapped crude oil deposits underneath, and they have extensively been used for storage of crude oil underground (such as in the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve). Sea salt, also known as bay salt or solar salt, is produced by evaporation of seawater and primarily used for cooking and flavoring.  Sea salt is readily produced in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, where the weather is hot and dry, through ‘salt pans’ (salt evaporation ponds) allowing for the seawater to evaporate. Salt water produced by evaporation can be Fleur del sel, sel gris, esprit du sel, and pink, black, and brown salts. In certain places, such in Kalloni, Lesbos, Greece, sea salt can naturally have higher iodine for the production of the much desirable iodized salt. Saltiness is one the five basic tastes, the rest being sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and umami.

Dissolved salt into water can abundantly be found in the open ocean; however, there are many salt water lakes worldwide with varying degrees of salinity. Most of such lakes (or ‘seas’ as some of them are known) are endorheic lakes (terminal lakes where water can flow in but cannot flow out, and only means of escape for water is by evaporation). The Dead Sea is the most famous of all with salinity ten times higher than ocean seawater where no life can exist; the Great Salt Lake in Utah, US, is considered ‘America’s Dead Sea’ with varying salinity ranging from twice to sevenfold of the open ocean. The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, Lake Van in Turkey, Qinghai Lake China and Lake Urmia in Iran are other prominent salt lakes of our planet.

Salt has been known to humans from time immemorial, for its taste but also for its many uses and applications in life. Salt has had a prominent stage in different cultures and religions through the ages. 200 million years ago, Switzerland and Central Europe were covered by seawater. Due to tectonic shifts and the creation of the Alps, salt deposits were trapped deep in the mountains. Alpine salt has been mined for centuries in the Salt Mines of Bex. Spring water, traditional salt (Sel à l’Ancienne), taken directly from the saliferous rock, is high in minerals, and it is traditionally dried on larch wood.

Some of the earliest evidence of salt processing dates back to around 6,000 years ago, when people living in Romania were boiling spring water to extract the salts; a saltworks in China has been found dating to approximately same period. More modern records show a widespread culture of salt mining in Central Europe with mining taking place as early as in 800 B.C. Salzburg, Hallstatt, and Hallein lie within 17 km (11 mi) of each other on the river Salzach in central Austria in an area with extensive salt deposits. Salzach literally means ‘salt river and Salzburg ‘salt castle’, both taking their names from the German word Salz meaning salt and Hallstatt was the site of the world’s first salt mine. The town gave its name to the Hallstatt culture that began mining for salt in the area in about 800 BC. Around 400 BC, the townsfolk, who had previously used pickaxes and shovels, began open pan salt making. In the early years of the Roman Empire, roads such as the Via Salaria were built for the transportation of salt from the salt pans of Ostia to the capital. The Via Salaria (salt road) owes its name to the Latin word for ‘salt’, since it was the route by which the Sabines came to fetch salt from the marshes at the mouth of the Tiber, one of many ancient salt roads in Europe. During the first millennium BC, Celtic communities grew rich trading salt and salted meat to Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome in exchange for wine and other luxuries.

The word salary originates from the Latin word salarium (meaning ‘money for salt’) which referred to the money paid to the Roman Army’s soldiers for the purchase of salt. The word salad literally means “salted” comes from the ancient Roman practice of salting leaf vegetables.

Salt has been having many uses throughout history: seasoning / flavoring, preservation, disinfectant and cleaning agent (soaking / washing infected body parts with salted water or treating a sore throat by gargling with salt water, burial (salt was one of the spices that was traditionally used to prepare a body for burial, in biblical times), unit of exchange (in biblical times, salt was considered quite a valuable mineral, a commodity for trading in the marketplace) and thawing and melting ice (used even in our times for iced roads).

The most important value of salt throughout history has been its use as a preservative (desiccant or substance that promotes drying). Salt has also hygroscopic properties (absorbing moisture from the atmosphere) thus maintaining a dry atmosphere which contributes to preservation most notably in closed environments (caves, underground vaults, etc).  Salt also draws water out of cells via the process of osmosis (water moves across a cell membrane in an attempt to equalize the salinity or concentration of salt on both sides of the membrane). As early as 3,000 BC Ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom were preserving meat and fish with salt, and the first Europeans in America experienced great commercial success when they learned to salt the fish they caught in order to transport it to their home markets. Some products are preserved using fermentation through salting since salt dehydrates the growing medium and acts to maintain fluids in the yeast or mold growing environment (cheeses, etc). Un-iodized salt, free from anti-caking agents, is used for this type of preservation.

Salt in ancient times was a valuable commodity due to its scarcity to the common people and high price, and as such a symbol of trust and friendship. In ancient times, Romans gave salt, and thus wisdom, to newborns. Guests were presented with salt as a gesture of friendship, which may be reflected in Cicero’s ‘Nemini fidas, nisi cum quo prius multos modios salis absumpseris’ (‘trust no one unless you have eaten much salt with him’) – we call it ‘breaking bread’ and ‘business lunch’ in our times. A German proverb held that ‘whoever spills salt arouses enmity’. The 1556 Hieroglyphica of Piero Valeriano Bolzani reports that “salt was formerly a symbol of friendship, because of its lasting quality. For it makes substances more compact and preserves them for a long time: hence it was usually presented to guests before other food, to signify the abiding strength of friendship. Wherefore many consider it ominous to spill salt on the table, and, on the other hand, propitious to spill wine, especially if unmixed with water.” Salt can disappear but cannot de-materialize even when dissolved into a liquid such as water since it will appear once again as soon as the water evaporates, and thus the symbolism of loyalty, trust and friendship. In the ‘Last Supper’ (Il Cenacolo, or L’Ultima Cena) painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1494 – 1498, Judas Iscariot is tipping over the salt cellar with his elbow. Spilling salt had been a sign of bad luck and also a sign of betrayal referring to the near-Eastern expression to ‘betray the salt’ meaning to betray one’s Master.

Salting the earth, or sowing with salt, had been the ritual of spreading salt on conquered cities to symbolize a curse on their re-inhabitation. It originated as a symbolic practice in the ancient Near East and became a well-established folkloric motif in the Middle Ages. An ancient legend says that Odysseus feigned madness by yoking a horse and an ox to his plow and sowing salt. Tossing salt however can be a favorably superstitious sign in certain cases, to avert the evil omen, as the common contemporary gesture of tossing a pinch of the spilt salt over one’s left shoulder, into the face of the Devil who lurks there. 

Salt has also a prominent place in religion as well. Salt is used to make holy water in the Roman Catholic Church rite, and as such figures as a religious symbol of sanctity, associated with exorcism. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ says to His people “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” (Matthew 5:13), meaning that the people of God were to stand out from the rest of the world and impact others in a positive way. In the Old Testament (Ezekiel 16:4) newborn babies were rubbed with salt (“As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths”) meaning that rubbing a newborn with salt is to indicate that the child would be raised to have integrity, to always be truthful. Still in the Old Testament, Genesis 19, when the angel commands Lot and his family to “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away”, Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt when she glances over her shoulder to see the destruction (burning sulfur over) of city of Sodom. Sodom, a city close to the Dead Sea, a sea well known through history for its salt rocks and tenfold salinity of the open sea, was enjoying the riches (and much more…) of closeby salt deposits, and Lot’s wife is punished by the same token that made their city notorious. The Scriptures don’t say whether her death was a punishment for valuing her old life so much that she hesitated in obeying, or if it was a simple consequence of her reluctance to leave her life quickly. 

Besides having a well-referenced presence in religion, salt has been the cause of political resistance and even revolution through the ages. There was a time when people were paying a ‘salt tax’ (a tax levied directly on salt, usually proportional to the amount of salt purchased – salt was extremely valuable as a preservant, and, in some cultures, nearly worth its weight in gold). How would one ever thought of a ‘salt tax’? But again, today we have no issue paying a ‘federal communications tax’ on our mobile phone bill just to communicate!  Salt offered an easy target for taxation for the authorities, but equally well, offered a highly visible target for social effort to dodge paying or even repealing the tax which fuelled human antipathy and revolt on repeated yet different historical circumstances.

The Salt War of 1540 was a result of an insurrection by the city of Perugia against the Papal States during the pontificate of Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese). Pope Paul III decided to levy a new tax on salt for all his subjects, revoking treaties between Perugia and previous popes, treaties which Paul III had confirmed at the beginning of his pontificate. Perugian protests were to no avail and the Perugians decided to rebel. On on 4 June 1540, papal troops, led by the pope’s very own son (Pierluigi Farnese), forced Perugias to surrender. Shortly thereafter, the enormous fortress Rocca Paolina (Pauline Fortress) was constructed not to protect Perugia, but, in Julius III’s words, “to slow down the burning of the Perugians and get rid of the opportunity to rebel against the Holy See”. The fort was for centuries a symbol of oppressive papal rule, and despite the fact that a later Pope, Julius III, gave the Perugians back a semblance of local rule in 1559, the city became part of the Papal States and remained so until Italian unification in 1860.

The Salt Riot, also known as the Moscow Uprising of 1648, started because of the government’s replacement of different taxes with a universal salt tax for the purpose of replenishing the state treasury after the Time of Troubles. This drove up the price of salt, leading to violent riots in the streets of Moscow. The riot was an early challenge to the reign of Alexei I, eventually resulting in the exile of Alexei’s advisor Boris Morozov. Salt tax was a factor of the French Revolution as well: the gabelle (from the Italian gabella (a tax), itself from the Arabic qabala) was a very unpopular tax on salt in France before 1790. In France, gabelle was originally applied to taxes on all commodities, but was gradually limited to the tax on salt. In time it became one of the most hated and most grossly unequal taxes in the country. It was abolished in 1790, then reinstated by Napoleon in 1806; abolished briefly by the French Second Republic, and then finally abolished permanently in 1945. Salt taxation was also a point of the events during the Swiss Peasant War in 1653.

Salt played a role during the Civil War in the United States as well. Salt not only preserved food in the days before refrigeration, but was also vital in the curing of leather. Union general William Tecumseh Sherman once said that “salt is eminently contraband”, as an army that has salt can adequately feed its men.  The most important saltworks for the Confederacy were at Saltville, Virginia. In late 1864, the Union army twice advanced to capture the saltworks, as it was the last prominent source of salt for the eastern Confederate states. The October 1864 Battle of Saltville I saw the Confederate able to repulse the charge, but the next December in the Battle of Saltville II Union forces under George Stoneman managed to destroy the vital saltworks. Two months later the salt works were back to work for the Confederacy, although the destroyed railroad system around the area hampered its distribution. It is said that Florida’s greatest contribution to the Confederate war effort was in producing salt. Floridian salt plants worked 24 hours a day employing 5,000 workers (a popular profession at the time since they were immune to drafting) boiling salt from sea water, mostly in the area between Saint Andrews Bay and St. Marks, Florida.

The Salt March, better known as the Salt Satyagraha, began with the Dandi March on 12 March 1930, and led to the Indian independence movement. Mahatma Gandhi led the Dandi march from his base, Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad, to the coastal village of Dandi in the state of Gujarat.  As he continued on this 24-day, 240-mile (390 km) march to produce salt without paying the tax, growing numbers of Indians joined him along the way. It was a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly in colonial India, and triggered the wider Civil Disobedience Movement. When Gandhi broke the salt laws, it sparked large scale acts of civil disobedience against the British Raj salt laws by millions of Indians. The campaign had a significant effect on changing world and British attitude towards Indian independence and caused large numbers of Indians to join the fight for the first time.

No wonder that in the Malagasy language (in Madagascar) they have the same word for ‘salt’ and ‘sacred’: fanasina.  Salt sacred for the existence of life itself, and sacred for its flavor to life and all the pleasures and endeavors herewith, from sailing ships to swimming in the salty cobalt waters of the Pacific, the jade and turquoise waters of the Caribbean to the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea!

Idioms and Expressions of Salt:

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary and old salt is an experienced sailor, a seafaring man. An ‘old salt’ in the English speaking naval services is often a raconteur, or teller of sea stories. Much of the history and traditions of the naval services are passed from generation to generation of service members by these sea stories as told and retold by old salts.

Back to the salt mines: time to return to work, school, or something else that might be unpleasant conjuring the image of the image of menial labor working in salt mines.

To eat someone’s salt: to be someone’s guest. (Example: The least you can do when you’re eating someone’s salt is to help them out around the house.)

Salt of the earth: the most worthy of people; a very good or worthy person. (A biblical reference, Matthew 5:13.)

To take something with a pinch  / grain of salt and take something with a grain of salt: to listen to a story or an explanation with considerable doubt.

Worth one’s salt: worth (in productivity) what it costs to keep or support one.

To sit below the salt: To be of a low social rank. This phrase, first seen in print around 1597, comes from European dining halls where the host sat at the head of the dining table, and his guests were seated in order of importance along the sides. The salt cellar was placed in the middle of a dining table, which caused another division. Those seated below this point were considered the lowest ranking people at the table.

To salt away: to put money in savings, wherever it comes from. In ancient times, salt was very valuable and was used to pay soldiers in the Roman army. Our modern word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salarium (paying in salt).

To have something hung up and salted: to know everything about something. (Often meant ironically)

To salt something down: to place salt on something, such as icy roads

Please, pass the salt!


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