Sunday, 19 August 2012

Salt of the Earth

Real Salt

There is a term often used in this part of the country and other more rural areas of the US.  We describe certain people as salt of the earth.  A quick search online doesn't return this use at all, yet it is the way I've heard it used the most.  The closest I can find is a definition of "Those of great worth and reliability." (  This appears to be the use of the phrase in the UK, and is stated as coming from Chaucer's usage in the Summoner's Tale.  Read in context, Chaucer's usage seems tongue and cheek.  The lord in the tale is sincere, using it the way the definition above describes it, but the narrator, the summoner, seems to intend it to be an insult, not at the friar in the tale, but at the friar in the party with the summoner, who had just told his tale.

The phrase comes from Matthew 5:13 in the Bible, from the Sermon on the Mount, "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men."

Lake Salt

The way we use it, while coming from the Bible verse, and being related to Chaucer's usage, has grown to indicate much more than either of these.  "Salt of the earth" doesn't just mean someone who is worthy or reliable, it implies someone whose whole life can be described that way.  It is someone who does "honest work", usually someone who works the land, like a farmer or a rancher.  This implies a hard worker.  It is someone who isn't young, though not necessarily old, who has devoted their whole life to working the land.  This implies commitment and persistence.  It is someone who is honest in every way, for whom a hand shake is binding, someone who would never cheat anyone in a deal, would lay everything out on the table, would make sure all the facts were known before accepting an offer, but also shrewd and cunning in negotiations, getting the most they can out of the deal without falsely representing anything, a good bargainer.  So, honesty, integrity, shrewdness, cunning.  Someone who keeps their word and vows, someone who will never go back on their word or cheat on their spouse, and always repays their debts to the best of their ability and accepts the consequences if somehow they can't, who would never run away for trouble and hardship. So, once again, integrity and commitment, but also humility and forthrightness.  Typically, it's used to describe a "good Christian man or woman", in terms of someone that embodies what was believed to be an ideal Christian in the early 1900s, which includes all the above qualities, plus love and hospitality and generosity.  "Down home country folk", rural, hardworking, honest folk.  Those who provide to the people of this nation the stuff of life, grains and vegetables, meat and dairy.  Family owned and operated ranches and farms.  Rising early before the dawn to get chores done and animals fed.  Large breakfasts and suppers (not lunches), and small dinners, going to bed early.  Of course, all these are stereotypes and ideals, but these are the things the term has come to represent.

As an example, when the Squirrel Creek Fire threatened many ranches about 30 miles west of Laramie, the fire fighters and other workers from out of state were shocked at the response they got.  I was not, I was shocked that it wasn't that way other places, giving them reason to be shocked.  They went to the ranches to ask them to evacuate.  Almost all agreed immediately, which surprised the people from out of state.  They said in other places, most people needed convincing.  Here, they responded with, of course.  We'll get our livestock ready and get out real quick.  Would you like some breakfast or coffee before you leave?  No?  Ok, well, once this is over, come by and have some coffee and we'll talk and you can relax.  Thanks for coming by, thanks for the work you're doing.  If you need water to fight the fire, use our water rights (which is a huge thing in the West, for those not familiar; people have died over water rights, and there is no bigger field for lawyers to specialize in that water and mineral rights).  If you need to build fire blocks, go ahead and use bulldozers on our land, we can restring fences as we need to, fighting the fire is more important.  Ranch after ranch, the same thing.  That is "salt of the earth".

So, what is salt?  Scientifically, a salt is any ionic compound that is formed from a reaction of an acid and a base that results in a neutral compound.  Not too helpful for those not already familiar with this definition.  An "ionic compound" is compound held together by ionic bonds.  An "ionic bond" is a chemical link between two atoms that is caused by an electrostatic force resulting from opposite charged ions.  Okay, keep getting deeper here.  An ion is an atom or molecule that has lost or gained one or more electrons, resulting in a positive or negative charge.  So, in an ionic bond, we have one atom that has lost an electron and another that has gained one.  Electrostatic purely means they are held together because of their charge, so we've accounted for that.  So, in a salt, what we have is an acid and a base coming together and reacting.  During the reaction an electron moves from one to the other, and the resulting unbalanced charges holds the two atoms together, resulting in a salt.

Fleur de Sel

The salt most people think of is Sodium Chloride, commonly called table salt of rock salt.  This is what people use on food, and the salt most commonly used in both folk practice and religious practice world wide.  It comes from two sources, but ultimately one.  It is obtained either from salt water (usually sea water, but also some lakes like the Dead Sea in Israel/Jordan, and the Great Salt Lake in Utah) or from rock deposits.  I say ultimately one source, because the salty water bodies are salty because of water leaching salt out of rocks and washing it down the the body, so seas and lakes get their salt from rock deposits ultimately.  Of course, salt is formed by sodium and chloride in water reacting, so the rock deposits are created by water ultimately, so chicken and the egg here.

Now, "salt of the earth" is of course an interesting phrase.  Is it referring to salt that comes from the earth, or to having the effect on the world that salt has on food?  In the Greek in the use in the Bible, it says ΤΟΑΛΑϹΤΗϹΓΗϹ (there were no spaces or punctuation in the original Greek), to halas tEs gEs.  The sigmas on the end of "hala" and "gE" purely mean they are singular nouns.  "to" mean "the" and "tEs" means "of the".  "hala" does in fact mean salt, specifically salt used to season food, salt sprinkled on sacrifices, saline fertilizers, salt shared between two people, and speech that controlled and consciously intended to be polite. "gE" is the same word we usually pronounce as Gaea.  But Gaea and gE are not the world we live *in* but the world we live on.  It's used for arable land, for ground we stand on, for land as opposed to sea, as earth as opposed to heaven (ouranos, Uranus, as in the expanse of the sky), as the inhabited earth where men and animals live, as in the land enclosed in fixed boundaries as a country.  (Interestingly, "wasteland" is eremos, meaning lonely, desolate, uninhabited, desert, wilderness, uncultivated land, deserted, and is not gE, is not Gaea, who is only the inhabited and arable regions of earth.)  The second possible sense I started with, the world as a whole, is actually usually ouranos, not gE.  So we are talking about the salt of arable, inhabited land, the salt of fertile land.

Now, back to the chemical explanation of salt, we have a reaction between two opposite forces that ends in a strong bond.  Consider the use of salt as shared between two people to show a bond between them.  This is not based on the chemical structure of salt, obviously, because it would have been unknown when the custom developed.  What would have been known?  This ritual is more than just seasoning your food, it represents an unending bond (whether in reality it is unending or not).  Why salt?

Looking at the other uses for the word, obviously not as fertilizer for already arable land, as that implies a repeated process.  So that only leaves two things in the list above, season of food, and sprinkling on sacrifices.  The second is interesting, as a sacrifice obviously isn't lasting.  It seems to imply the same ritual as sharing salt, that you sprinkle the salt on the sacrifice to share salt with the god in question, to form a lasting bond and agreement, just like with a person.  But what about seasoning food?

Season.  The English word we use to understand this use currently means "to improve the flavour of by adding spices", and has since the 1300s.  But is comes from the Old French word assaisoner, meaning "to ripen, season".  We still use that sense, though not as often, for curing meat.  This Old French word comes from the root we get the noun season from, seison or saison, meaning "to sow", from the Latin sero.  This lent the sense of the changing of the seasons. So to season meat is to let it cure for a time.  This implies seasoning food with salt not being the prinkling on for flavour but the use of salt in curing meat, to preserve it.  To make it last.

So the ritual of sharing salt to form an alliance or cement a deal and the sprinkling of salt on a sacrifice for the same reason both seem to be connected to salt's ability to preserve. It's uncertain how this ability was discovered, but salt does so through the process of absorbing the water out of bacteria and other microorganisms keeping them from interacting with the meat, hence spoiling it.  Salt absorbs.  This is the other use we see in ritual and folk magic contexts, the use of salt to absorb, either to become a carrier for what we want, or to aid in the removal of what we don't.  This absorption would have been observed along with the preservation, because they really are one and the same.

Now, once more, back to the chemical explanation.  There's a principle in folk magic across the world that applies very obviously here.  It's that the surface appearance of something reflects its inner nature, and vice versa.  So, by observing what we can see, we can identify what we can't see, and by changing what we can see, we can change what we can't see.  Salt, seen to preserve and being therefore connected to lasting bonds, does reflect this at an molecular level, for the ionic bond that holds salt together is very very strong, and it is very difficult to break it back apart again.

The absorption, however, is actually the opposite of what it seems.  Salt does not absorb anything on a chemical or physical level, it is absorbed.  What happens with curing is that the salt on the surface of the meat contains a bit of water, or, more accurately, the water on the surface contains so much salt that is is undetectable.  The way osmosis and cell membranes work is that the water in the cell flows toward this super concentrated salt water, trying to delude it.

On a spiritual or magical level, these same things apply.  Salt does preserve, and does so the same way. When used to preserve (this includes using it for protection by sprinkling it across a doorway or using it for a protective circle around you), it doesn't repel the bad things, including negative energy and curses, it draws them in.  Think of it as ultra-salty bad water.  It draws the other bad stuff to delude it down to an equal amount of salt outside and in, so it draws the negativity and curses around the salt, keeping it from you.

Same for using it to absorb.  It doesn't really absorb, it holds the thing you put with it to it, it dissolves itself in it.  And works quite well for that.

Back to the salt of the earth.  We still haven't truly defined which way this means.  Obviously, people who are salt of the earth aren't salt of the sea. But is it a description for them coming from the earth, or of them preserving and holding the earth?  Are they a product of the earth, or an agent working on the earth?

I would say both.  They do come from the earth.  These are people that have lived on and depended on the land all their lives.  Their food comes from the land, their water comes from the land, their shelter comes from the land.  They depend day in, day out on the land.  Just like their crops or their animals.  They are as much a product of the land as the livestock and produce is.

On the other hand, these are people putting their attention and intention toward the land and the weather that controls the land.   These are people pouring their energy and power into the land.  There's a song by Rich Mullins called First Family, which really shows this, and is what I think of when I think of the farmers and ranchers:
Talk about your miracles
Talk about your faith
My dad he could make things grow
Out of Indiana clay
Mom could make a gourmet meal
Out of just cornbread and beans
And they worked to give faith hands and feet
And somehow gave it wings 
What comes forth from the ground is a partnership between the earth and the salt of the earth.  The salt, like the salt discussed above, pulls life up from the earth and around them.  Osmosis.  Salt of the earth.  And this process preserves the earth, for the rancher or farmer will die with the land if the land is over worked or not treated right.  The salt and earth are one.  The farmer and the land are one.  The rancher and the land are one.  The King and the Land are one.  Kether and Malkuth.  In a very real way, it's the vitality of the farmer or rancher that keeps the Land from being the Wasteland, Gaea from being Eremos.  Just like the Fisher King.

And so who are we, as Witch?  Are we the salt of the earth?  Do we work with the Land, work with the spirits, to produce what we need and keep it and them alive, or do we enslave the Land and spirits?  Are we the salt that is saline fertilizer, or are we the salt that too much kills the land?  How do we approach our practice, as partners with the spirits or as conquerors?

~Muninn's Kiss


  1. Incredibly interesting post. I've been hearing "so an so is the salt of the earth" all my life. However, the info about salt was what really interested me and the connection you made about the phrase to those who work the land.

  2. I quite enjoyed this. In my own workings I don't rely on salt often except in a protective capacity; traditionally salt was usually considered capable of neutralizing magic and frightening away magical creatures. I do put it in my holy water, however.


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