I.“Thus the fire began to work upon the air and brought forth Sulphur. Then the air began to work upon the water and brought forth Mercurius. The water began to work upon the earth and brought forth Salt. But the earth, having nothing to work upon, brought forth nothing, so the product remained within it. Therefore only three principles were produced, and the earth became the nurse and matrix of the others. From these three principles were produced male and female, the male obviously from Sulphur and Mercurius, and the female from Mercurius and Salt. Together they bring forth the “incorruptible One,” the quinta essentia…”
Anonymous alchemical treatise “De sulphure” (quoted by Jung in “Mysterium Coniunctionis”)
II.“Yet the real carrier of life is the individual. He alone feels happiness, he alone has virtue and responsibility and any ethics whatever. The masses and the state have nothing of the kind. Only man as an individual human being lives; the state is just a system, a mere machine for sorting and tabulating the masses.”
C.G. Jung, “Mysterium Coniunctionis”
in the salt cellar
I once saw in the salt mines.
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those
when I heard
in the desert.
In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.
And then on every table
in the world,
we see your piquant
of the ancient
holds of ships,
the high seas,
of the unknown, shifting
byways of the foam.
Dust of the sea, in you
the tongue receives a kiss
from ocean night:
taste imparts to every seasoned
dish your ocean essence;
wave from the saltcellar
reveals to us
more than domestic whiteness;
in it, we taste infinitude.”
Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Salt”
In the early sixteenth-century England the Church strictly controlled the access to God’s word by forbidding translating the Bible into English. The scholar William Tyndale defied the ban, working ceaselessly on his translations of the Holy Book right until his cruel death by execution. In his Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg sings the praises of the “soaringly poetic” and yet “always earthed” English of Tyndale’s Gospels. Those rhythmically beautiful English words, with their “instant memorability and authority” shook the foundations of the church establishment. The famous verses from the Gospel of St Matthew still sound beautiful in Old English:
“Blessed are the povre in sprete: for theirs is the kyngdome off heven.
Blessed are they that morne: for they shal be comforted.
Blessed are the meke: for they shall inherit the erth.
Blessed are they which honger and thurst for rightewesnes: for they shal be filled
Blessed are the mercifull: for they shall obteyne mercy.
Blessed are the pure in herte: for they shall se God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shal be called the chyldren of God.
Blessed are they which suffre persecucion for rightwenes sake: for theirs ys the kyngdome off heven.
Blessed are ye when men shall reuyle you and persecute you and shall falsly say all manner of yvell saynges against you ffor my sake.
Reioyce and be glad for greate is youre rewarde in heven.
For so persecuted they the prophets which were before youre dayes.
Ye are the salt of the erthe.”
Alchemists viewed salt as a paradoxical, arcane substance, which in itself had corruption and protection against it. Like the alchemical salt, the language of Tyndale corroded the establishment, while simultaneously crystallizing the newly risen power of the individual, who was now able to get acquainted with the Holy Book without the church’s mediation.
Paracelsus equated Sal (salt) with the soul, “the stable basis of life, its earth, ground, body.” Jung offered many enlightening quotes from the alchemist Vigenerus, who saw salt as “that virginal and pure earth which is contained in the centre of all composite elementals, or in the depths of the same.” Hillman calls salt “the ground of subjectivity” and “felt experience.” While the alchemical sulphur is masculine and solar, salt is feminine and lunar. It deals with life, the individual soul embodied in the concrete and the material. Thanks to salt, says Hillman,
“we descend into the experiential component of this body – its blood, sweat, tears, and urine – to find our salt. … salt is the mineral, impersonal, objective ground of personal experience making experience possible.
Salt is soluble. Weeping, bleeding, sweating, urinating bring salt out of its interior underground mines. It appears in our moistures, which are the flow of salt to the surface. “During the work the salt assumes the appearance of blood” … Moments of dissolution are not mere collapses; they release a sense of personal human value from the encrustations of habit. “I, too, am a human being worth my salt” – hence my blood, sweat, and tears.
Pain implicates us at once in body, and psychic pain in psychic body. We are always subjected to pain, so that events that hurt, like childhood traumas, abuse, and rape, force our subjectivity upon us. These events seem in memory to be more real than any others because they carry the force of subjective reality.
These traumatic events initiate in the soul a sense of its embodiment as a vulnerable experiencing subject.”
Too much salt, however, may bring about fixation on past wounds – the immobile bitterness of Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.
The right amount of salt denotes wit (cum grano salis), emotional, erotic participation and excitement, which arouses passion and desire. Hence the Ancient Romans called a man in love “salax” (modern English still uses the word “salacious” with a similar meaning). All meanings of the alchemical salt seem to revolve around the feminine, the earthy, the body (including the emotional body), the feeling nature, the moistness of being. The ancients valued salt so much that they associated it with fecundity, and by extension with money and wealth (the word “salary” is derived from “salt”). Jones explains (quoting Schneider):
“The sea was unquestionably the fructifying, creative element. … the offspring of sea creatures are to be counted by thousands and hundreds of thousands. This was all the more easily ascribed to the salt of the sea, since other observations believed to have been made were connected with it.”
For the Egyptians, salt guaranteed rebirth. Mummies were washed and preserved with the use of a brine solution called natron, which was perceived as birth-fluid, or as Barbara Walker puts it, “the Mother’s regenerative blood.” Natron was also used by the Egyptians as a beautifying, cleansing product, as a way to get rid of toxins and cleanse the household of vermin, as well as for spiritual purification. In ancient Rome, it was the Vestal virgins who were responsible for handling salt in sacrificial religious rituals. As Hillman wrote,
“The inherent capability of salt to crystallize its own essence is what I would call the inherent virginity of salt. By virginity here I mean the self-same, self-enclosed devotion to purity.”
Alchemists were not interested in the common salt, but in what they called Sal Sapientiae (salt of wisdom). On the one hand, salt and sulphur were viewed as opposing substances, as it was believed that “Sal inflicts on Sulphur an incurable wound.” (Jung) However, salt, the feminine and lunar principle, needed the solar and masculine ardour of sulphur to avoid the risk of rigidity and puritanism. When does the soul need salt? asks Hillman:
“There is another time and place for salt: when the soul needs earthing. When dreams and events do not feel real enough, when the uses of the world taste stale, flat and unprofitable, when we feel uncomfortable in community and have lost our personal ‘me-ness’ – weak, alienated, drifting – then the soul needs salt.
We mistake our medicine at times and reach for sulfur: action, false extraversion, trying harder. However, the move toward the macrocosm may first have to go back toward the microcosm, so that the world can be experienced and not merely joined with and acted upon as an abstract field. World must become earth; and this move from world as idea to tangible presence requires salt.
This effect of salt proceeds from its own fervor, a fervor of fixity that can be distinguished from the fervor of sulfuric enthusiasm and its manic boil of action, as well as from the fervor of mercury and its effervescent volatility.
When we sit still and sweat it out, we are stabilizing and adding salt to the solution so that it becomes a genuine one. Problems seem not to go away until they have first been thoroughly received.”
James Hillman, “Salt,” chapter in Alchemical Psychology
Ernest Jones, “The symbolic significance of salt in folklore and superstition”
C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis
Barbara G. Walker, Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets