Salt and spirits

I just got around to Gordon’s interview with Joshua Cutchin on a Rune Soup podcast from last month. It’s pretty interesting (I mean, food, right?) but it got me thinking again about an issue that has always perplexed me: What’s the deal with salt and spirits?

From around minute 33 to 34 Gordon and Cutchin discuss salt in the context of faery food–or rather, the absence of salt.

shinto-offerings
Shinto offerings. The salt, rice, rice wine, and water are in the white vessels in the back row; the salt is in a little conical pile.

From what I know (and I’m not an expert, just spitballing here) it seems to be a widespread belief in European cultures–at the very least in northwestern Europe–that faeries/spirits are repelled by salt. So don’t give them salt as an offering unless you want them to bugger off. I have heard the same argument made about ancestor spirits, but by contrast, I’ve never heard that deities are bothered by salt; and in fact, some traditions use salt to purify before approaching a deity (I’m thinking of khernips here).

But I’ve always been a bit dubious about that because in Shinto salt is one of the essential offerings (along with sake, uncooked rice, and water) for both kami and ancestors. These four offerings are considered the essential foodstuffs in Shinto–the four elements of food, as it were–so while other things can also be offered, you cannot omit these four.

Salt, rice, rice wine, and water are also ritually pure, as emphasized by their white/transparent color. Purity vs. pollution is a huge deal in Shinto, and spirits are pure, so the offerings must also be pure, and the offerer must purify themself ritually before offering. Salt is considered purificatory and apotropaic in Japanese culture just as much as it is in Europe; in fact if this isn’t a human universal it is about as close to it as we get.

Now of course it’s easy to say, well, kami aren’t the same as faeries, and that’s true as far as it goes; but there is massive overlap between the two domains, and cultural differences notwithstanding, human ancestors are human ancestors. I want to know why kami and faeries, Japanese ancestors and European ancestors ostensibly have opposite attitudes toward salt.

  • Are there cultural differences on the other side?
  • Is this purely a human scheme imposed on the spirits, which is actually irrelevant to them?
  • Or does this reflect different modes of human interaction with spirits?
mori-shio
Mori-shio is salt placed outside the doorways of homes and businesses to repel bad luck, etc.

So both the Japanese and Europeans are agreed that salt is apotropaic. Kami and Japanese ancestors not only aren’t dispelled by salt, they seem to have some analogical kinship with it as pure beings/things. Yet faeries and European ancestors are dispelled by salt. This would seem to suggest faeries/Euro ancestors belong to a class of potentially dangerous or impure beings subject to the apotropaism of salt. They lack that analogical kinship with salt. Of course the folklore agrees that faeries are indeed potentially dangerous, but then so are kami. Does this reflect a difference in human attitudes to safe spirit contact?

Kami is kind of a catch-all term for spiritual beings that are not human, from giant powers of the land like volcanoes and the ocean, to pan-Japanese deities (at least, as close to the Western concept of deity as you’ll find in Japan) like Inari or Tenjin, to local spirits that behave pretty much exactly like faeries do in Europe. One difference between kami and faeries (as I provisionally understand it) is that whereas all faeries are tricky and temperamental, though some are basically good (i.e., well-disposed to humans) and others are bad (ill-disposed to humans), every kami or human ancestor has both a “rough” (aramitama) and a “gentle” (nigimitama) soul. One village’s protective kami can be the next village’s monster or plague demon. So whether a kami is dangerous or not depends to a large extent on the perspective of the humans involved with it and the relationship that has been cultivated.

Some accounts say that a kami first appears in its aramitama guise and must be pacified to reveal its nigimitama nature. (This reminds me of what the fox says in The Little Prince, viz. that he won’t play with the prince until the prince takes the time to establish a bond of friendship.) Does salt perhaps banish the aramitama while having no effect on the nigimitama?

Salt is a biological necessity for humans and many other animals, which is reflected in its primacy as one of the four basic Shinto foodstuffs. In other words, Shinto offerings provide the spirits (including spirits of the dead) with the same sustenance as living humans take. If the idea behind offerings is to give something of great importance to humans/the living, salt makes sense. Does the avoidance of salt for faeries and ancestors in Europe reflect a different attitude toward proper nourishment of the dead/non-embodied? It is certainly not the case that the living and dead/non-embodied require completely different foods, since many faeries seem to like things like milk, alcohol, honey, etc. Everyone seems to appreciate water and booze.

I don’t have answers to these questions but would be curious to hear of your experiences. In my own dealings with spirits, none of them has had any aversion to salt as an offering. But as I write that, I realize that none of the spirits to whom I have offered salt is a European faery-type being* or a human ancestor (though I have given food cooked with salt to my ancestors, and didn’t notice any adverse effects).

*Unless Emma Wilby is right about cunning persons’ familiars being faeries (I find her argument persuasive), because that would suggest that rather than referring to a specific type of being, faery in English, or sidh(e) in Gaelic, or Tylwyth Teg in Welsh, are potentially as much catch-all terms for spirits as kami is in Japanese. Wilby thinks that the faery faith in Britain retained shamanic elements from earlier times, in practice if not in doctrine; and that the familiars witches consulted were, individually, either spirits of the dead or faeries (often spirits of the dead living among the faeries, according to testimony). In other words they are the same general type of beings that shamans deal with, i.e., “spirits” sensu lato. And if that is how you define faery, then I have offered salt to faeries and they didn’t mind at all.

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4 thoughts on “Salt and spirits

  1. One difference perhaps is that Kami are ultimately of our world, albeit manifesting in numinous forms, which is to say of our earth element. However Faerie has traditionally been considered much more of an otherworldly place that happens to overlap with ours sometimes. Hence, salt as a basal element for our world being inimical to those of another?

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    1. That’s an interesting hypothesis, and I would agree that, at least as it has come down to us, Faerie as a (more-or-less) place is essentially Otherworldly while the kami are very much in our world (although also of the Otherworld). But I’m not sure that the kami being IN our world means that they are OF it. That is, their nature is always described as numinous albeit (sometimes) manifesting within matter; and similarly my understanding is that faeries, elves, etc. can and do happily take up residence in stones and trees and such just like the kami do.

      But that all just goes to show how difficult it is to draw rigid lines around these concepts. It’s very possible, though, that salt-as-earthly is exactly the logic behind faeries’ ostensible antipathy toward it.

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  2. The Shinto relationship to salt is neat; thanks for sharing that. I haven’t avoided salt much, nor have I made a point of offering it, either. At present, I mostly regard it as something to keep in mind. I.e., if it seems like an offering is going sideways, maybe wonder after salt. It hasn’t been a practical issue so far.

    That said, my suspicion is that it has some relationship to Catholicism and the decidedly confrontational attitude its clergy took to relating to the local spiritual ecosystem. In the Catholic liturgy, salt played a role in baptism, serving as a sort of palate cleanser to the main event and I’ve wondered if there are lines of borrowed power that have wound their way into some Western practices, folk and otherwise. Just speculation, though.

    I really like the rough/gentle model of kami. While I tend not to think in terms of faerie very much, there are things that I work with which are at least potentially captured by that term and I have had precisely that experience with some of them, of moving from the rougher to the gentler.

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    1. Ah, I had not thought of the Catholic dimension but you may be onto something there! Other Catholic paraphernalia, like holy water, has certainly been incorporated into folkloric/religious/occult practices of Western Europe, so it seems quite plausible that there could have been some overlap such that (a hypothetical) use of salt to ward off “evil” combined with a Christian antipathy to faeries, et voila–salt wards off evil + faeries. That could happen even without the general populace having to adopt a wholesale antipathy toward faeries. Now I’m curious how the oft-cited use of iron to ward off faeries might have arisen!

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