Each of us has at least four ounces of it in the tissues of our bodies. It is vital for all life on earth and has uses almost beyond counting. Salt, once literally worth its weight in gold, forms some amazing shapes when sculpted.
In ancient Greece, slaves really were bought and sold for it, and indeed this practice gave rise to the saying, ‘Not worth his salt’. Roman emperors sometimes paid soldiers with it, giving rise to the word ‘salary’. In Ethiopia, salt bars were once used as currency, and salt was money in both Borneo and Tibet!
It is recorded that the Onodaga Indians, of what is now New York State, made it by boiling brine from natural springs in 1645, and historians believe Native Americans were making salt 500 years before that. Europeans have mined salt for centuries, and one old Polish mine at Wielczska near Krakow is now a very popular tourist site because of the amazing sculptures within it. A complete cathedral carved out of the salt!
Early Chinese coins were made of it, and even the earliest known treatise on pharmacology – The Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu – of 4700 years ago contains records of over forty types of salt. Estimates put the amount of salt in the oceans at 26 million tons per cubic kilometre. If all the seas dried up tomorrow, a layer of salt 50 metres thick would cover the entire planet!
French emperor Napoleon retreated from the Russian front, in 1777, because he hadn’t enough for his troops and horses, and taxes on salt caused so much public anger that they were a major contributing factor to the French Revolution. The twentieth century saw the peaceful protests in India, by followers of Mahatma Ghandi, against the British ‘salt tax’.
Colonial America got most of its salt from England, and also had objections to what was seen as unfair taxation, but at the start of the War of Revolution, Benjamin Franklin made a supply deal with Bermuda. After the war ended, in 1783, salt works were established along the Atlantic coast. Major deposits were found at Syracuse, New York – still proudly nicknamed ‘salt-city’ today. The famed Erie Canal – known as ‘the ditch that salt built’ – opened in 1825.
Lots of folklore and myth has been attached to salt. How many of us still throw some over our left shoulder – for luck – if we happen to spill some? Sailors believe it bad luck even to mention the stuff when at sea, and Japanese actors will still sprinkle the theatre stage with it, to ward off evil spirits. In the Arab world, the highest declaration of friendship is the sharing of one’s salt.
Salt played an important role in the American Civil War. In December 1864 Union forces fought a 36-hour battle to capture Saltville, Virginia, and deprive Southern forces of the valuable resource.
By the end of the 19th century, underground salt mining was big business in America, and underground salt mines are among the most beautiful and strange places you could ever wish to see.
Did you know that there exists, 1200 feet beneath the city of Detroit, an eerie underground city with over 50 miles of roads, some as wide as four lane highways? It is a place that knows neither day nor night, a gigantic mine spread over 1400 acres beneath the city. The Detroit Rock Salt Co. was formed in 1907, though mining actually began there in 1896.
Those who work in the mine say that it is like no other kind of mining, being clean and dry. Pure rock salt apparently has a distinct smell to it, and everyone believes that breathing the air in this underground city is healthier than that on the surface! Strangely enough, no fossils have ever been found there, even though it’s a dried-up sea, and no sign is ever seen of the usual mine visitors, rats and mice. They simply find nothing to eat!
Inhabited by giant trucks, with seven-foot wheels, that carry huge loads, this mine did close in 1983, but the Detroit Salt Co. re-opened it. So vast is the salt-vein into which they tap – 80,000 square miles – that mines in Ontario and Ohio are also mining it. Reserves of salt in this area are estimated at enough to last for 70 million years!
For those among you who are religious, there are over 30 references to salt in the Bible. Jesus called his disciples ‘the salt of the earth’, and ‘Holy salt’ does indeed represent purity in the teachings of the Unification Church. At Roman Catholic baptisms, grains of salt are placed on the child’s tongue, symbolic of the words of the Lord.
In March 1998, a Texas meteorite was found to contain the largest salt crystals ever seen in an object from space. Over 4.5 billion years old, they existed possibly even before our own planet. Salt is truly universal, without a doubt.
Next time you pick up that saltcellar, you might reflect that the contents are more valuable to your life than precious metals. You could not live without it, and once you might have been sold into slavery for just a few ounces. The salt of the earth. White gold.