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Salt is Our Common Moon

The ancient reverence for salt has slowly plateaued into bland appreciation. Over the past few hundred years, salt's high status has dramatically faded. Gone are the grand pronouncements, the mysticism and the love. We have reduced salt to a thing. Inanimate. Material. Dead. 

But not so long ago, we exulted salt to a position of awe and respect almost beyond belief. Salt was our soul, the soul of the earth, the moon, and the origin of art,  femininity and life. It was said to be the core of the earth with an ability to make and un-make itself. Paracelsus called salt "the natural balsam of the living body" and reasonably cited blood, tears, semen, urine and sweat as evidence. Jung saw a strong connection between salt and the moon. Citing numerous alchemical thinkers, he shared the notion that salt is the quintessence, above all things and in all creatures. And the Rosarium Philosophorum suggests that the ubiquitous power of salt warrants a gentle cognomen "our common moon." 

There is a bit of subtlety here. Alchemical salt does not mean table salt, at least not directly. Instead, salt simultaneously refers to material salt and an underlying substance of existence that is manifest in various ways. In alchemy the two concepts are intimately connected because things are ensouled. And salt provides one explanation for the life within things, the life within us. At the height of alchemical thinking, salt was our soul.

Asthmatic children in a halotherapy room in Solotvyno, Ukraine.

Asthmatic children in a halotherapy room in Solotvyno, Ukraine.

The word "halo" has two meanings in Greek. As a noun, it means a disk of the sun or the moon and the light around the head of a holy person. As a prefix, halo- means salt and sea. Today you can find this prefix in halotherapy, which means salt therapy. Halotherapy usually refers to the practice of entering a salt room where salt covers the walls and is sometimes piped in through an atomizer as a fine mist. Patients then breath in the salty air, as they do in my film Salt in the Air. Every asthmatic I spoke with felt that this treatment alleviated their symptoms and helped them breath better. In children, the practice sometimes set a foundation for permanent or semi-permanent remission.

There is a lot more to say here about the history of salt and how we previously imagined it. We may think of these old notions as magical thinking today, but salt retains its ability to amaze. A few of the salt miners in Ukraine told me that salt moves underground, that it "flows" like a river beneath the surface of the earth. With that in mind, note this description from the Paleontological Research Institution, an affiliate of Cornell University. Salt "is a peculiar substance. If you put enough heat and pressure on it, the salt will slowly flow." That fact alone is illustrative of a lively material, mysterious and profound.