I Throw Salt Over My Shoulder Every Time I Spill It And I Have No Idea Why

What forces of gullibility and folklore conspired to make me believe that there is even a grain (pun intended) of truth to this mess? And why can’t I stop?
Publish date:
December 18, 2014

There I was the other night, making some soup and minding my own business, when I accidentally knocked over the salt shaker. Without even thinking, I turned it right-side-up, pinched some of the spilled grains of salt from the counter with my right hand, and threw them over my left shoulder.

Aside from basic life functions such as breathing and blinking, there isn’t all that much I do without thinking, and yet here I was mindlessly enacting a superstition. And now that I’ve started wondering why, I can’t stop, since I don’t believe myself to be superstitious.

I have NO IDEA where or when I picked up the notion that throwing spilled salt over one’s left shoulder is imperative. None. I have sat and scrolled through the browser history of my experiences so far back that it morphs into a Rolodex, and I got nothin’. But somehow, this action became a natural and frequent thing for me to do.

And then there’s the why of the salt thing. At some point I guess I picked up the notion that spilled salt releases (an) evil spirit(s) who will lurk over your left shoulder when summoned, and that the pinch of salt to their eye(s) will banish them again in an instant. Seems legit. So let’s say I did snatch up this little nightmare nugget long ago. How and why did I ever believe it? What forces of gullibility and folklore conspired to make me believe that there is even a grain (pun intended) of truth to this mess? And why can’t I stop?!

It happened again today. I spilled a tiny bit of salt, this time from overzealous shaking onto a small dish. I brushed the grains into my hand and tried to simply shake them into the sink in an act of basic adult cleaning up after oneself and not a bizarre ritual to ward off potential demons in my kitchen. I actually stood there, hands clasped with a barely noticeable amount of salt in between them, and went back and forth in my head:

Me: I should just toss the salt in the sink and go eat my lunch.

Also Me: Nooooo! You have to toss it over your shoulder!

Me: I have to stop this. That’s a superstition and I don’t believe in it.

Also Me: It doesn’t matter if you believe or not, it’s just what you do!

Me: I am a logical person and I have to draw a line somewhere.

Also Me: Say what you want, but logical people aren’t superstitious.

Yet Another Me: You should write about this.

Me & Also Me: Shut up, you say that about everything!

Me: I know there is not a devil over my shoulder.

Also Me: But what if there is?

Me: There isn’t.

Also Me: But what if there is and you don’t know until it’s too late because every other time you’ve thrown the salt!

I didn’t have a full Tyler Durden split, but I definitely pondered for way too long whether I could just casually discard the salt in the sink. And I’m not proud of the fact that I couldn’t. My selves chatted a bit more in the kitchen until this idea shut it down: I have no proof that there is any reason at all to do this and I’m certain that nothing bad will happen to me if I don’t. But I do it all the time; and… what’s the harm? I tossed the salt.

If you’re thinking that I’m overthinking this, one of my many streams of consciousness already beat you to it and told me so. But I really am bothered because, as I’ve said many times, I don’t think “Why not?” is an acceptable justification for doing something. At least that’s not how I’d like to exist. I would like to do things on purpose and live life with purpose. I may sometimes fall short of that, but to routinely do something either mindlessly or, worse, mindfully to blind a demon on my shoulder? What the hell?

I then did the worst thing I could do, which is to Google it. I think I was looking for some book or fable or movie or snatch of phrase that might help me get why this had become automatic for me, but instead I fell into a web rabbit hole of superstitions and folklore, some I had never even heard of but read all about and which will certainly fuel my nightmares tonight.

Apparently many things with birds and bells have to do with the devil and death and I’ll just leave it at that. Oh, also it seems that lots of folks are of the belief that at midnight on Christmas Eve all animals can talk for one minute. Yikes.

Aaaaaaand I’ve just glanced over at my document word count, which hit 666 right when I looked. Great. I don’t feel icky about that at all.

The other day at the gym, there was construction being done and I did a cartoonishly large pivot step to avoid walking under a ladder. I hadn’t seen it at first and the area was wide open with nothing falling or any physical danger that I could see; it was purely an act of superstition. But I’m not superstitious! Except for the thing with the salt and the ladder thing. Oh, and the broken mirror thingie too.

I recently opened a box to find that one of my mirrors had broken. I had very carefully packed it to move, and it survived shipping intact, but someone else dropped something on the box after I had opened it and removed the protective padding. I took out the small, round tabletop mirror, saw that it was cracked straight across the middle, and gasped.

I tried to remember the “rules.” Seven years of bad luck if I break a mirror, sure. But just looking into a badly broken mirror felt a bit doomed as well. And what if someone else had broken it? Do they get the bad luck or do I? Is proprietary ownership a thing in the demon realm? Do the evil spirits check receipts from Bed Bath & Beyond? I was in a tizzy. I took the question to Twitter, where I received a bevy of responses.

I reminded myself that I’m not a superstitious person as I actually contemplated burying the mirror in the ground, which one of the replies suggested. This seemed a bit much, but then again so did my horror at seeing the broken mirror, so here we are. Ultimately, I decided to tape the bits together in the interest of safety, as opposed to the interest of avoiding a seven year dread sentence, and just throw it away.

So perhaps I’m reluctantly superstitious. And very selectively so. I step on cracks and put hats on beds, and I’ve probably picked up a penny that had fallen face down from time to time. When a superstition takes root in me though, it really digs its claws in.

I also feel a conflict between this superstitiousness business and my faith. I’m a practicing Episcopalian, and I don’t think of it in terms of an elderly white gentleman with a beard chilling up in the clouds vs. a demon peering over my left shoulder while I make soup. The idea that “something bad will happen if I don’t…” is thoroughly at odds with my personal manifestations of faith, which makes this stuff even more frustrating.

Many would also dismiss religion with similar disdain as what I’ve applied to superstition, which is their right. To me, my faith is about believing in something and going toward something as opposed to warding off something or undoing damage.

I also want to mention that there are distinctions between superstition, compulsion, and obsessive ritual. There can be overlap and there can be heaps of religion intertwined as well, but many people struggle with compulsive ritual behaviors and I don’t want to make light of that at all.

Some people are superstitious and proud of it, or have superstitious beliefs that totally make sense to them and make them feel better about things in a productive way. Some people may call my faith a form of superstition and make no distinction between me kneeling to pray and doing a do-si-do to avoid walking under a ladder. I’d like to challenge myself to not throw spilled salt over my shoulder at least one time, but I also want to freak out about it a little less. Or perhaps just reduce my sodium intake.