Salting the earth

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This article is about the symbolic practice. For salt in the soil, see soil salinity.

Salting the earth, or sowing with salt, is the ritual of spreading salt on conquered cities to symbolize a curse on their re-inhabitation.[1][2] It originated as a symbolic practice in the ancient Near East and became a well-established folkloric motif in the Middle Ages.[3] There is no evidence that sufficient amounts of salt were used to render large tracts of land unusable.

Destroying cities

The custom of purifying or consecrating a destroyed city with salt and cursing anyone who dared to rebuild it was widespread in the ancient Near East, but historical accounts are unclear as to what the sowing of salt meant in that process.

Various Hittite and Assyrian texts speak of ceremonially strewing salt, minerals, or plants (weeds, "cress", or kudimmu, which are associated with salt and desolation[4]) over destroyed cities, including Hattusa, Taidu, Arinna, Hunusa,[2] Irridu,[5] and Susa.[6] The Book of Judges (9:45) says that Abimelech, the judge of the Israelites, sowed his own capital, Shechem, with salt, c. 1050 BC, after quelling a revolt against him. This may have been part of a ḥērem ritual[2] (see Salt in the Bible).

Starting in the 19th century,[7] various texts claim that the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus Africanus plowed over and sowed the city of Carthage with salt after defeating it in the Third Punic War (146 BC), sacking it, and forcing the survivors into slavery. However, no ancient sources exist documenting the salting itself. The Carthage story is a later invention, probably modeled on the story of Shechem.[8] The ritual of symbolically drawing a plow over the site of a city is, however, mentioned in ancient sources, though not in reference to Carthage specifically.[9]

When Pope Boniface VIII destroyed Palestrina in 1299, he ordered that it be plowed "following the old example of Carthage in Africa", and also salted.[10] "I have run the plough over it, like the ancient Carthage of Africa, and I have had salt sown upon it...."[11] The text is not clear as to whether he thought Carthage was salted. Later accounts of other saltings in the destructions of medieval Italian cities are now rejected as unhistorical: Padua by Attila (452)--perhaps in a parallel between Attila and the ancient Assyrians; Milan by Frederick Barbarossa (1162); and Semifonte by the Florentines (1202).[12]

The English epic poem Siege of Jerusalem (c. 1370) recounts that Titus commanded the sowing of salt on the Temple,[13] but this episode is not found in Josephus.

Punishing traitors

In Spain and the Spanish Empire, salt was poured onto the land owned by a convicted traitor (often one who was executed and his head placed on a picota, or pike, afterwards) after his house was demolished.

Likewise, in Portugal, salt was poured onto the land owned by a convicted traitor. The last known event of this sort was the destruction of the Duke of Aveiro's palace in Lisbon in 1759, due to his participation in the Távora affair (a conspiracy against King Joseph I of Portugal). His palace was demolished and his land was salted.[14] A stone memorial now perpetuates the memory of the shame of the Duke, where it is written:

In this place were put to the ground and salted the houses of José Mascarenhas, stripped of the honours of Duque de Aveiro and others.... Put to Justice as one of the leaders of the most barbarous and execrable upheaval that... was committed against the most royal and sacred person of the Lord Joseph I. In this infamous land nothing may be built for all time.

In the Portuguese colony of Brazil, the leader of the Inconfidência Mineira, Tiradentes, was sentenced to death and his house was "razed and salted, so that never again be built up on the floor, ... and even the floor will rise up a standard by which the memory is preserved (preserving) the infamy of this heinous offender..."[15] He suffered further indignities, being hanged and quartered, his body parts carried to various parts of the country where his fellow revolutionaries had met, and his children deprived of their property and honor.[15][16][17][18]


An ancient legend says that Odysseus feigned madness by yoking a horse and an ox to his plow and sowing salt.[19]

Footnotes and references

  1. Ridley, 1986, p. 144.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Gevirtz, 1963.
  3. Stevens, 1988.
  4. Weinfeld, Moshe. Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, 1992, ISBN 0-931464-40-4, p. 110
  5. Chavalas, Mark. The ancient Near East: historical sources in translation p. 144-5.
  6. Persians: Masters of Empire, by the editors of Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1995. ISBN 0-8094-9104-4 p. 7-8.
  7. Ripley, George; Charles Anderson Dana (1863). The New American Cyclopædia: a Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge. 4. p. 39.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Ridley, 1986
  9. Stevens, 1988, p. 39-40.
  10. Warmington, 1988
  11. Sedgwick, Henry Dwight (2005). Italy In The Thirteenth Century, Part Two. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. p. 324. ISBN 978-1-4179-6638-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Oerter, H. L. (1968). "Campaldino, 1289". Speculum. 43 (3): 429–450. doi:10.2307/2855837. JSTOR 2855837.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Hanna, Ralph and David Lawton, eds., The Siege of Jerusalem, 2003, line 1295
  14. Joseph Hughes, An authentick letter from Mr. Hughes, a Gentleman residing at Lisbon..., London 1759, p. 25
  15. 15.0 15.1 (in Portuguese) Wikisource link to Sentença proferida contra os réus do levante e conjuração de Minas Gerais. Brazil: Wikisource. 1789. 
  16. Southey, Robert (1819). History of Brazil. 3. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown. p. 684.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Worcester, Donald E. (1973). Brazil, From Colony to World Power. New York: Scribner. p. 52. ISBN 0-684-13386-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Bishop, Elizabeth (1962). Brazil. New York: Time. p. 31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. The story does not appear in Homer, but was apparently mentioned in Sophocles' lost tragedy The Mad Ulysses: James George Frazer, ed., Apollodorus: The Library, II:176 footnote 2; Hyginus, Fabulae 95 mentions the mismatched animals but not the salt.


  • Gevirtz, Stanley Gevirtz (1963). "Jericho and Shechem: A Religio-Literary Aspect of City Destruction". Vetus Testamentum. 13 (Fasc. 1): 52–62. JSTOR 1516752.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Ridley, R.T. (1986). "To Be Taken with a Pinch of Salt: The Destruction of Carthage". Classical Philology. 81 (2): 140–146. doi:10.1086/366973. JSTOR 269786.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Stevens, Susan T. (1988). "A Legend of the Destruction of Carthage". Classical Philology. 83 (1): 39–41. doi:10.1086/367078. JSTOR 269635.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Visona, Paolo (1988). "On the Destruction of Carthage Again". Classical Philology. 83 (1): 41–42. doi:10.1086/367079. JSTOR 269636.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Warmington, B.H. (1988). "The Destruction of Carthage: A Retractatio". Classical Philology. 83 (4): 308–310. doi:10.1086/367123. JSTOR 269510.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>