Why is it said that spilling oil or salt brings bad luck? Origin and meaning of superstition

Why is it said that dropping a little salt or a few drops of oil on the ground brings bad luck and is an omen of misfortune? The origins of this popular superstition can be traced back to the fact that in the past, both oil and salt were available very valuable assets and used not only in the kitchen, but in numerous areas of daily life: being goods that represented well-being and prosperity, losing them meant suffering economic but also symbolic damage. Not surprisingly, they also hired symbolic meanings, partly preserved to this day. Moreover, although industrial production has made oil and salt two goods within the reach of almost all citizens, the superstitions have not disappeared and the population continues to believe that dropping one of the two foods brings bad luck. Popular creativity, however, has also developed the remedies to cancel out the negative effects.

The superstition of spilling oil or salt is present, albeit in different shapes and sizes, in different Western cultures: Europe, Americas, Oceania. In many Western countries it is especially “scary” to pour salt, while in others even oil is considered harmful. Let's start with the latter: in the ancient world, producing oil was much more difficult and expensive than today. The precious liquid came only from olives and, unlike today, it was not only used in cooking, but also to produce medicines and cosmetics, to power lamps and for various other applications. In essence, it was a indispensable product of daily life.

For this reason, since the time of the Sumerians, oil took on an enormous value not only commercially but also also symbolic, representing well-being and prosperity. In ancient Eastern cultures, such as the Jewish one, kings were consecrated through the anointing with flavored oil.

Anointing of David (painting by Paolo Veronese).

Oil has retained, and perhaps even increased, its symbolic value in Christianity: just think of the fact that Jesus was “anointed by the Lord”, as evidenced by the word itself Christ, which actually means “anointed”. Furthermore, the ancient tradition was preserved through the anointing of kings upon accession to the throne, present in various monarchies, and in the rite ofanointing of the sick.

As the centuries passed, oil production became more economical and “varied”because along with olive oil many other types have spread, but the superstition according to which spilling the precious liquid is an omen of misfortune has not disappeared.

Salt in the ancient world was also very valuable and was used for various functions. In the kitchen, it was used not only to add flavour, but also to preserve foods and sometimes it was even used as a currency and payment system. For example, Roman soldiers were on some occasions paid in salt (this is where our word “salary” and expressions like “salt bill” and the like come from).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the superstition of spilling salt is widespread and has also found expression in one of the most famous works of art of all time, the Leonardo's cenacle: in the painting, an overturned salt shaker is placed in front of Judas, which represents the betrayal that the apostle is about to commit.

Leonardo's Last Supper. Judas is to the right of Jesus, with the salt shaker overturned

For every superstition, popular creativity has invented one or more remedies to undo the damage. In the case of misfortunes caused by the fall of one of the two foods in question, the most common remedy is throw a pinch of salt over your left shoulder, strictly using the right hand. The remedy is valid both if you drop the oil and if you drop the salt.

However, as with other superstitions, there is also a more practical solution: use reason and remember that spilling oil, salt or any other food has no negative consequences of any kind, other than the hassle of having to clean!

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