The belief that spilling salt brings bad luck (especially, a quarrel between friends) was first noted in the 16th century, and is widely known today; to avert the evil, one should take a pinch of the spilt salt with the *right hand and throw it over the *left shoulder - into the fire, according to older sources, or 'to blind the Devil', as is now sometimes said. To explain this belief, some people claim that *Judas spilt the salt at the Last Supper, but the symbolic role of salt in folklore is strong enough to account for it.
   Just as it keeps food wholesome, so salt was used to repel spiritual and magical evil, both in Catholic ritual and in folk practice, and as a symbol of incorruptibility and virtue (Matthew 5: 13). The use of salt as *magical protection is recorded from various parts of England, though less regularly than in Scotland and Wales. A handful thrown into the fire would torment witches and drive them away; in Lancashire this had to be done for *nine successive mornings, with the words: 'Salt, salt! I put thee into the fire, and may the person who has bewitched me neither eat, drink, nor sleep, till the spell is broken' (Harland and Wilkinson, 1873: 235).
   A widespread custom in the days when the dead were laid out at home was to put a plate of salt on the chest of the corpse, and keep it there till the *funeral; in Cumberland in the early 20th century it was 'almost universal among the poorer classes' (Folk-Lore 31 (1920), 154), and the same was probably true elsewhere. The reason, it was generally said, was to prevent the body swelling; however, the salt might once have been regarded as a magical defence against evil spirits, or against the possibility of the *ghost walking.
   Like *bread and *coal, salt is one of the appropriate token gifts brought when first footing on New Year's Day, or given to a new *baby, or brought into a new house; in these cases it represents prosperity.
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 338-44; Radford, Radford, and Hole, 1961: 297-9.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


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