Salt is such a critical component in the lives of humans that the history of salt predates recorded historical documents. Numerous text and literary works have been dedicated to the topic of salt. This discussion will be a limited historical reference to salt. If you are interested in a more broad historical overview I urge to to look into some of the texts such as "Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky and "Salt: Grain of Life" by Pierre Laszlo.
Salt is needed for survival and is so valuable that civilizations were being built around this precious commodity. Archeologic sites show Neolithic settlements near salt springs and we know that many societies were built near salt water. Salt was highly valued by Egyptians who used the mineral in religious offerings and mummification as well as for trade. Hebrews, Greeks, and Chinese also placed a high value on salt. In Rome roads were built specifically for salt transport and in the Sahara caravans consisting of thousands of camels were utilized to transport salt over hundreds of miles where it was used for trading. Salt was and is such a necessity that history essentially was formed around this precious mineral. If you dig into the history of ancient societies I am sure you will find a reference to salt, either near a body of water or buried underground.
There are many uses of salt which will be discussed in detail in later posts. Salt is such a key component in peopleʼs lives that annually 200 million tons of salt is produced, with the United States and China being the leading producers. Furthermore, civilizations have formed around salt and salt has had a critical impact on human history. Now that you have a basic chemical understanding of salt we will move onto salt in history and how these two simple elements (sodium and chloride) have come together to shape human history.
When researching pre-modern warfare it was found that the effects of salt deficiency were a major contributor to who won or lost the war. Soldiers who became salt deficient were not able to heal their wounds or have the energy to fight which would quickly lead to the demise of the warring country. It is documented that thousands of Napoleanʼs troops died when retreating from Moscow due to salt deficiency- in particular they could not heal their wounds and their immune system was depressed and not able to fight disease properly.
Furthermore, salt played such an important role in economy and revenue that decreased salt production would also lead to the collapse of the warring countries due to lack of funding for the war. This was true not only in ancient warfare, but also in more recent wars. During the Civil War in America, many salt facilities were targeted to be destroyed. In particular, Saltville in Virginia and facilities in Louisiana were targeted by the Union Army. A battle between the North and Rebel armies pursued for 36 hours over the capture of Saltville, Va, where the salt works were considered crucial to the Rebel army. These salt facilities were so crucial that the Confederate President offered to waive military service to anyone willing to tend the coastal salt kettles.
Not only did salt determine who won the war, but salt also caused wars. The French Revolution began over the gabelle, or salt tax. Imposed in 1259 to finance the conquest of the Kingdom of Naples. The people were outraged over the tax and thus salt fueled the French Revolution.
The first commodity to ever be taxed was salt in China in 2200 BC by emperor Hsia Yu. Why would they place a tax on salt? This answer may be easier then you think. Since every person and animal relies of salt for survival, they government realized they would be able to make a profit by taxing this valuable mineral. In ancient Greece salt was typically used for trade, specifically it was used during the slave trade, which gave rise to the term "not worth his salt". In Roman civilizations soldiers were given salt rations known as "salarium argentum", from which we get "salary". In Timbuktu, the gateway to the Sahara, merchants valued salt as highly as books and gold. As mentioned previously, a tax placed on salt in French is what led to the French Revolution and the tax was not officially removed from the books until 1946. In the United States, a modern marvel, the Erie Canal "the ditch that salt built", was partially constructed from the salt tax revenue. The British monarchy supported itself with high salt taxes, leading to a bustling black market for salt. In 1785, the earl of Dundonald wrote that every year in England, 10,000 people were arrested for salt smuggling! And finally a very compelling and famous salt march (Salt Satyagraha), led by Mahatma Gandhi in protest over British rule in 1930, led a 200-mile march to the Arabian Ocean to collect untaxed salt for India's poor.
Salt has long been part of religious rituals. Greek worshippers consecrated salt, Jewish Temple offerings include salt and on the Sabbath day Jews dip their bread in salt in remembrance of sacrifices made. In the Old Testament Lotʼs wife is turned into a pillar of salt. Covenants in both the Old and New Testament were often sealed with salt (origin of the word "salvation"). In Leonardo DaVinciʼs "The Last Supper" shows Judas spilling a bowl of salt (a sign of evil and bad luck), even to this day if you spill salt it is custom to throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder to ward of evil spirits. In Buddhism salt repels evil spirits and Buddhists will throw salt over their shoulder before entering a home after a funeral to scare off any evil spirits that may be clinging to their back. In 1933, the Dalai Lama was buried sitting up in a bed of salt. Shinto religion also uses salt to purify, before a Sumo wrestler enters the ring for a match (an elaborate Shinto rite), salt is thrown into the center of the ring to drive away negative spirits. In Southwest United States, the Pueblo worship the Salt Mother. Other native tribes have rights to who is allowed to consume salt and a Hopi legend believes that salt was placed far from civilization to punish mankind by requiring hard work and bravery to harvest the precious mineral. Today in India the gift of salt is a symbol of good luck and honors Mahatma Gandhiʼs liberation of India.
As you can see in this brief overview of salt history, salt has formed societies and caused others to collapse in war. It is brought great revenue to civilizations and allowed for life to continue. It was and still is a major component in religious rituals and customs around the world. In preceding topics we will see the uses of salt and why this mineral was considered more precious then gold.