Riddle: I am everywhere, but I am difficult to obtain. When I am wet, I am invisible. When I am dry, you can hold me in your hand. I can fertilize or sterilize. I preserve, and I destroy. I am found in water, but I make you thirsty. I am a rock, but you consume me. Too much of me will kill you. Without me you will die. I am a paradox, a mystery.
Answer: I am salt.
The scientific compound known as sodium chloride (NaCl) is not just a seasoning we sprinkle on food to enhance taste. It is essential to existence. Like our planet, humans are composed primarily of water. And like the earth’s seas, the body’s fluids are salty. Even more importantly, it is the body’s saline content that conducts the electrical charge that is the life force itself. When salt levels fall, the body goes into seizure. And when the salt imbalance is severe enough, the body dies.
Anthropologists theorize that humans began searching for salt when they stopped being strictly carnivorous and began to eat plants, needing a supplement for the lack of salt once supplied by the blood in animal flesh. Since most vegetation has a very low saline content, herbivorous animals also require sodium supplement and will seek out natural salt deposits. Early human settlements grew up around these `salt licks.’ When the group’s needs exceeded the local source, people devised other methods to acquire the precious stuff.
Communities near coastlines harvested salt directly from the sea. Salten-crusted sand along the shore was collected, mixed with water, and boiled. When the water evaporated, it left behind pure sea salt. People living far inland found another source: underground salt domes created millions of years ago by the evaporation of inland seas.
By the 10th century BC, the European Celts had discovered huge rock-salt deposits in several regions of the Alps and subsequently established a sophisticated salt-mining culture at three locations known as Hallstatt, Hallein-Durrenberg and Reichensall (hal and sal both being Indo-European terms for salt). Archeological excavations have revealed numerous mummified miners complete with clothing and tools, all perfectly preserved by salt’s desiccating quality. These ancient Celts used salt to treat physical and mental disturbances, heal burns, and they perfected the methods of salting meat. Control of salt mining and trading allowed the Celtic salt barons to become immensely rich. More than 2,000 tombs filled with jewels and goods from all over Europe and the Middle East prove that they prospered as a result of their salt trading.
As one of the first articles traded by humankind, the world’s oldest land routes connected salt resources to habitation sites. The Via Salaria, or Salt Road, was the main thoroughfare on which caravans of merchants carried their harvests from the Celtic salt centers to Rome. Initially Roman soldiers were paid a handful of sal (salt) each day, but eventually the salt ration was replaced with money so that the fighting forces could buy salt instead of having to transport it. The payment was known as a salarium. It is the origin of the word salary and the saying that `a man is worth his salt.’
Migrating ever westward, the Celts arrived finally in Ireland where the ocean-lapped beaches and briny inland waterways allowed for easier methods of acquiring salt than mining for it deep within the earth. Seawater that had been swept into shallow pools by the tides evaporated, leaving behind crusty pockets of pure sea salt.
Salt was the primary element needed to salt meat — beef for the landowner and pig for the poor man — so that they would survive the winter. Salt preserved the fish that was eaten on Fridays, Fast Days, and during Lent. It also was a key element in cheese and butter making. So precious was this `white gold’ that it is mentioned not once but many times in the Brehon Laws. Specific regulations are spelled out as to who may mine salt as well as when, where, how, and how much may be collected and stored. And an Irish chief was advised to always have a sack of salt in his house, as well as a sack of malt and one of charcoal for whisky-making.
Additional customs evolved regarding salt’s role in ritual and ceremony. A wealthy man would be honored at his wake with a dish of salt (and a glass of hard cider) placed beside the funerary bier, though the poorest corpse might only be allotted a few grains of salt tucked in a pocket. At meals, table seating was such that upper classes sat `above’ the salt and closer to the chieftain while the serving classes sat further down the table `below’ the salt. Regardless of wealth and position, however, newly married couples each ate three mouthfuls of oats mixed with salt to ensure a full life.
During the prehistoric Triassic Period long before even dinosaurs roamed the earth, as the seas retreated all around the planet an extreme climatic change occurred and arid desert conditions prevailed. With the intense evaporation as seawater disappeared in the heat, shallow marine basins dried out resulting in places in thick strata of red mudstone sandwiching massive beds of salt, especially in the Carrickfergus region of Northern Ireland where rock salt has been mined since 1851. Today, the operation of Kilroot Mine is worked by the Irish Salt Mining &Exploration Company Limited which produces half a million tons of de-icing rock salt per year.
Until the nineteenth century, salt’s primary use had been to flavor and preserve food. In 1810, England’s Sir Humphry Davy separated common salt into its two components: sodium and chlorine. Alone, each substance is noxious, volatile and lethal. Combined with other elements they enable the manufacture of soap, glass, paper, dyes, textiles, medicines, explosives, aluminum, pesticides, herbicides, solvents, petroleum, and plastics. Once treasured for its culinary applications, salt’s value today is almost exclusively industrial, with its greatest consumer being the automobile.
Like bread, salt is a symbol of civilization. To have bread one must sow, harvest, mill, mix and bake. Salt is equally difficult to acquire. It must be mined, extracted, pulverized, transported and safely stored. It requires clever handling and signifies wit and wisdom. It is dangerous and it is holy. Poisonous enough to kill and pure enough to seal oaths, sanctify birth and anoint the dead. Like existence itself, the salt that we so casually sprinkle on our food is one of life’s greatest enigmas. And knowledge of how to acquire this precious substance is one of the Celts’ greatest gifts to humankind. Slainte! ♦