Salt of the Earth

Aug 22, 2006
When cleaning off my altar to move it, I discovered something of a problem. I'd set this particular altar up in a phase where I was quite into ceremonial magic, everything laid out properly according to all those Wicca 101 books I'd picked up in my first years. Candles, altar cloth, pentacle, goblet, check; some scattered pinecones and summer flowers, check; and...a bowl of salt. Okay, the good tools are obvious, pack them up and go. Most of the natural materials I returned to the garden. But the salt? I couldn't just throw it in the trash; it had been on my altar, and it deserved better than that. I couldn't bury it, as I did the other bits and pieces which wouldn't be coming with me; salted soil is barren, and that's hardly what I intended to leave behind. Eventually I washed it down the sink with water from the bowl on the altar, but it set me thinking.

Salt. Who the hell thought that one up? As a symbol of earth, it hasn't got a lot going for it, other than just sort of generally being a mineral. Lots of other things do that. It's a consumable, yes, and associated with hospitality, but the reason for that is also its rarity -- salt was expensive, for a long time, and it was a sign of hospitality because giving away something that expensive is damn impressive. (Come to think of it, looking at what I paid for the jar of sea salt I've kept on my altar, salt is still expensive.)

So it's supposed to represent Earth. In that case, why not use...earth? Dirt's free. It's plentiful. And when you don't need it anymore, when you've cast something with it and it needs to be properly disposed of, when you just need something fresher, there's an obvious place to put it. This seemed so logical to me that I had to go look in all those Wicca 101 books that I'd kept around and see if they had really told me to put a bowl of salt on my altar. Except they were all packed already. Today I remembered that I was going to do that, so now that my books are all unpacked, I went and looked. And yes, that's exactly what they told me to do, universally and without explanation. (Although Cunningham's Wicca For The Solitary Practitioner says salt or earth can be used, it's salt in all the diagrams.)

Well, who really expected Wicca 101 books to have explanations anyway? Ephilias Levi was slightly more helpful -- in the conclusion to A History of Magic he devotes about a page to alchemical understandings of the elements, although they are other elements in question: alchemists, he tells us, associated spirit with sulphur, fire, and the Father; the 'mediator' (which I do not know enough alchemy to sufficiently explain) with mercury, change, and the Mother; and base matter with salt -- "because of the fixed salt which remains after combustion" -- and the Child, or that which is "subjected to education by nature." In a similar sort of vague Victorian language there is a tenuous connection to Earth mentioned in there as well, but hardly in the Four Elementals sense of the word. So. The Better Magick Through Chemistry crowd associated earth with salt because it's what's left over after you burn up sulphur. (Of course, I have no idea if these apocryphal alchemists did any such thing, but Levi thinks they did, and if a Victorian wrote about it you've probably found its origins in modern practice.)

A quick google through hermetic.com turns up the fact that Crowley and most other hermeticists also seem to follow the salt-for-earth rule, with a couple of glancing references (sadly unsourced) to the Sulphur-Mercury-Salt triad that seems to affirm my suspicion that the source for this practice is in alchemy. There's also a couple of references to anointing with earth and water in the form of salt water, which makes a little more sense, particularly if one lives in the sort of place where one doesn't have to manufacture salt water. In the American Midwest, well.

Unfortunately, that's about the limit of my useful research at the moment; not necessarily because I've run out of resources, but I'm not quite sure where else to look. (This has been my eternal frustration in researching modern Paganism; Llewellyn books don't have bibliographies, and while I'm moderately familiar with Victorian occultists, there's a huge gap in the middle there, not to mention trying to figure out where the Victorians got it in the first place.) Is there anyone out there with some experience or research in early Wicca who can help explain this somewhat baffling phenomenon?

Symbolism is all well and good, after all, and I'll steal drama and Latin and ripped-off yoga from the ceremonialists quite cheerfully, but as for me, the salt is going back in the kitchen cupboard and I'm digging up a piece of the back garden to put on my altar.

9 comments:

Deborah said...

I'm working up a response about the use of salt, which I will post on my blog (and send you a trackback). For now I'd like comment that Llewellyn does request bibliographies from its authors and my books, at least, always have them.

Jenavira said...

Flipping through the back of my books I see now you're right; sorry about that. I suppose what I mean is that Llewellyn books (and hell, most books meant for a general audience) aren't annotated as well as scholarly works, which is frustrating when you're trying to find the source of a particular piece of information but not, generally, a poor practice.

rose said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I've always wondered about this. Living near the ocean, I do use salt water in a lot of my rituals, but I've always been more comfortable using rocks or dirt to represent Earth when working with the elements.

Inanna said...

I love this post.

That's all.

Jenavira said...

Rose - What I can't figure out is why it took me so long to wonder about it. It's a good example, though, of how easy it is to fall into the "this is the way it's done" kind of formula, even when most Pagans don't have any real interest in working with alchemy or the high ceremonial magic derived from it.

Inanna - Thanks! :D

Kay said...

Great post! The one thing I really do enjoy using salt for -- a base for burning resins like copal or dragonsblood. The liquid drips down into the salt and then re-hardens, leaving behind chunks that can be used to wonderful effect in the bathtub - either for plain R&R or a ritual bathing. That way, when they go down the drain, it's with intent as well....

Fiacharrey said...

I liked your article and it prompted me to do a little research too. You can check out my article here.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention, it comes from the sea, so it should represent the sea.

Deborah said...

So, here's my blog on it.

Anonymous, I'm not sure I buy the 'comes from the sea' thing. I mean, all life comes from the sea, as the chant goes. Plus, salt licks and other land-based salt sources haven't been in the sea in a good long time.

I also wouldn't say "the sea" and "water" are the same. Water can be seawater, it can be freshwater, it can be the body's water (blood, sweat, tears), it can be rain. So salt wouldn't, for me, represent the breadth of wateriness that plain, pure water does.