It’s quite well-known that, amongst the varied substances to which fairies object, everyday, ordinary salt is one of the most repellent for them. I wish here to examine the details of this and to try to understand what the objection may be.
An immediate observation must be that not all faery beings have the same difficulty. It probably need not be pointed out that merfolk, living in the ocean, have no such aversion- and the same applies to the Scottish water horse (the each uisge) and the Manx tarroo-ushtey or water bull, both of which tolerate both fresh and salt water. For land dwelling fairies, however, salinity can be abhorrent, meaning that they cannot enter or cross the sea (just as a flowing stream can be a barrier). Perhaps for the same reason, in the Scottish islands the area below high tide line, which is washed regularly by the sea, is seen as being safe from fairy intrusion.
The fairies’ loathing of salt can work in two related ways. It can be used as a deliberate defence against them, or it can unwittingly prevent them handling human goods.
Amongst the means used by midwives and neighbours to protect mothers in labour was sprinkling salt around the house and, after the baby was safely delivered, it could be guarded against abduction by putting salt in the newborn’s mouth. Related to this, there were several ways of expelling a changeling. In Wales, one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire.
Quite a lot of the best evidence on the protection of property comes from the Isle of Man. There, for example, it used to be said that salt thrown into- or at least placed underneath- a milk churn would avoid any interference by the fairies with the butter making process (salt was also placed beneath querns on the island). Compare to this the Cumberland belief that you should sprinkle salt on the fire whilst churning milk to prevent the fairies interfering.
Likewise, the Manx belief is that, if you’re carrying milk in a pail, you should add a small pinch of salt to it, which will ensure that the fairies don’t steal or spoil the contents during the journey. A very curious example of this situation was reported around 1882-85. A Manx woman had killed and butchered one of her calves and decided to send her son with a cut of the meat as a gift to a poor neighbour. In her hurry, however, the mother forgot to protect the joint by sprinkling salt on it. As the boy walked over to the friend’s house, the local fairies realised that the meat was vulnerable and they followed the youth- licking him until he was sore over his entire body. When he got home, his mother had to wash him all over in salt in order to dispel the fairies’ magic. It’s a little hard to explain exactly what happened here: perhaps in licking the ‘goodness’ out of the meat the fairies also touched the boy’s bare arms, legs and face, thereby subjecting him to their power with their spit…
An account from Cornwall tells of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk. When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice from a local cunning woman who advised the maid to rub the cow’s udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving, as the pobel vean (the little folk) couldn’t abide the smell or taste of fish or salt.
These protections may prove a double edged sword, however, as frustrating the fairies’ will can rebound against you. A Cumbrian farmer had left a churn of milk outside his cottage overnight to keep it cool. Next morning a little of the milk was missing and he guessed the fairies had filched some. Annoyed, he fetched some of the salt he kept in his cottage to ward off evil spirits and threw it into the churn. When the fairies sampled the milk the next night they were outraged by his response and retaliated by spitting it out all over his smallholding. Wherever they sprayed the salty milk, the grass died and would not regrow.
As I have mentioned previously, fairies love human loaves, but they are wary of our seasoning. A Manx woman was walking on the road when she heard music and followed the sound. She came upon the source, a group of fairies (whom she could hear but not see), who asked her what she was carrying in her pannier. She had bread with her and offered to share it with them, placing part of the oat cake on a nearby hedge. As the bread was made without salt, they accepted it and, in return for her generosity, promised her that she would never be without bread thereafter.
There are, however, a few accounts which contradict this fairly consistent evidence. The residents of a farm at Gorsey Bank, in Shropshire, suffered constant disturbance from two boggarts that lived there. Worn down by this, the farmer decided to move to escape them. This was done, but the family were dismayed to find that the boggarts followed them, bringing a salt box that had been left behind. On the Scottish Borders, people would offer salt to the water sprite of the River Tweed to ensure a good catch of fish each year. Finally, in Gerald of Wales’ account of the fairy abductee Elidyr, amongst the faery vocabulary that the youth was able to recall years after his experience was the phrase Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt.’ Contact is not always anathema therefore.
Finally, a report from Airlie, near Dundee in Scotland, tells of a shepherd’s family that moved into a new cottage. One day, despite there being no other houses anywhere nearby, a small woman appeared at the door asking to borrow a little salt. She returned an equivalent amount of salt the following day and, as she left, the shepherd’s wife watched her. The mysterious woman disappeared behind a tree and the family assumed she was a fairy. After a pattern of regular borrowing and returning items had developed, the supposition was confirmed when, one day, the old woman asked the wife to stop pouring away her waste water near the tree, as it ran down into the old woman’s house. The story is interesting for the details of the subterranean home, but the fairy woman’s willingness to handle salt is the notable aspect for our purposes here.
Katharine Briggs, in her Dictionary of Fairies, argues that salt is disliked by our Good Neighbours because it is a “universal symbol of preservation, eternity and of goodwill.” In alchemy, it can represent the earthly human body, thus perhaps opposing it to the fairies’ ‘astral’ forms, but I suspect the real derivation of our ideas about salt is from Graeco-Roman culture, in which salt was placed on the lips of neonates to ward off evil spirits. This seems to have been inherited by the Christian church in giving salt to a child before baptism and this ancient power of protection thereby passed into British folk traditions.