Cap O’Rushes or The Salt Significance

In which we discover that when you are forced to leave home you should always try and take your best frock, that salt can spark both joy and anger and that there is a little Cinderella everywhere if you look hard enough.

So, what did you think of the story. I love this. The heroine picked herself up after being thrown out of her own home, simply because her father did not appreciate the subtleties in language of her love for him. She found her own way in the world (assisted by excellent fashion) and then found love and a husband. I know its not exactly a feminist ending but you have to appreciate the context of the time. Marriage was really her only option, there wasn’t exactly an alternative route for young women with ideas sadly.

Cinderella is Back

Would it surprise you to know that this is a Cinderella story, no really, it is. There is a book called Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O’Rushes, Abstracted and Tabulated with a Discussion of Medieval Analogues, and Notes by Marian Roalfe Cox. There are twenty Cap O’Rushes tales in this book alone from all over Europe. Marian Cox is the one who suggested at this type of tale has a King Lear judgement as opposed to the Catskin stories which have a worrying amount of incest instead.

Cap O’Rushes was never at risk of harm from her Father, except for possibly neglect and distress over her abandonment due to a ridiculously small transgression. He at least didn’t want to marry her because she looked like her mother. It may be setting a low bar but no incest is always good in my opinion.

Silence on the Subject of Lear

We don’t have time here for all my views about King Lear, so I’ll summarise and say that I’m not his biggest fan. You may recognise some of these themes from an earlier episode where I explored an Italian variant of this story which involved a giant candlestick and food theft and a lot less washing up. Our tale today is a British variant which apparently is from Suffolk as recorded by Joseph Jacobs in Folklore. The story appeared later in the same form in his English folktales collection and later in other collections by other editors.

You will note that there is a lack of any magic in this tale, other variants often feature supernatural help from a godmother or equivalent and dresses appear from nuts or plants. Our heroine (whose name we never learn) just takes the dresses when she leaves home. I think you would need supernatural help to get those creases out of silk but perhaps the steam in the kitchen was of assistance there.

A Tale of Two Tale Types

This tale is actually a mixture of two tale types: ATU 510B Donkeyskin but without the incest as mentioned above and ATU 923 Love Like Salt which is also where it differs from the Italian tale I discussed which does not have the Donkeyskin element. I also love that our tale doesn’t require any animals to be killed to create the disguise, mostly because I love both donkeys and cats and would prefer them to remain unharmed, also because of the ick factor.
Rushes seem fairly practical as these disguises go, there is a variant where the heroine has a wooden dress as a disguise which seems tricky to manage but I suppose it would definitely protect your clothes . There is always the concern that rushes could catch fire fairly easily in a kitchen but presumably that would be worse if you were actually cooking rather than washing the pots.

It is truly amazing how much a wash and a gorgeous frock can distract your colleagues and a prince (or local equivalent) from noticing what your face looks like. You can forgive the young man in this case because he never sees her in the kitchen but the rest of the servants do seem to be unobservant. I think its because I’ve been listening to a lot of wonderful Norwegian tales and the same effect seems to happen with Ashlad but at least he also usually has an amazing horse so would at least be further from the ground which would make recognition harder.

Wedding Feast – All Meat, No Salt

Any way I digress, obviously the young man does eventually recognise his love when she has had another wash and popped her favourite frock back on and he has received his ring back which presumably most wealthy young men could manage even if they had to have a couple of gos first. So we move on to the grand wedding feast which is another area where this variant is a little different. In this one, all the food is unseasoned not just that of our heroine’s father which I personally don’t find as effective as when the father is the only one served the unusual food and becomes more and more confused as others don’t seem to be having the same experience as him.

I also was concerned about all the possible wasted food and the damaged reputation of the cook but I suspect I’m overthinking it. There is a Love Like Salt variant where the princess runs away to an inn and learns to be an amazing cook and is invited to cook at the royal palace at the wedding of her sister. It’s a personal favourite but it’s a little too short to share as part of the podcast. I may add it to a selection of short tales and record them for you all one day.

A Salt Thing

So with that I will draw my story analysis to a close and move on to our food ingredient which I feel doesn’t require any guessing. You are right, it is salt. I’ve been avoiding doing this as it is so huge a topic but because I have recently developed a talk on Food and Obligation where salt features heavily I think I might be ready to face it now.

You know me well so I think you also know that I will not be examining the whole history of salt as an ingredient and all the accompanying folklore. We definitely don’t have time and others (Mark Kurlansky) have done it better and before me so I’m just going to pick and choose the things I like and hope Gentle Listener that we share some similar tastes in such things.

I will start with a quote though so you can see what we are dealing with:

“Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history”

Mark Kurlansky
A Survival Thing

Why was it so important? Essentially, we all need salt for our survival. In the days of hunter gatherers that wouldn’t have been such a problem as we can get pretty much all we need if we just eat red meat regularly. However when we settled down and started eating grain and vegetables and keeping animals it suddenly became a huge problem because we had less salt available to us and animals need it as much as we do for survival.

Salt became very much in demand especially as we didn’t realise how much of it there was everywhere until we discovered modern geologyy. You can see why it was associated with wealth, if you had something everybody needed you could set your own prices and people did. There also had to be ways to get all that valuable salt from place to place and so trade routes were developed some still known as Salt Roads.

Cash or Salt?

One of the other clues about how important salt was is how it still features in our language. If you are lucky enough to be employed, usually in a non manual position, you my well receive a salary, based on the latin word salarium, which comes from sal which means salt. The earliest use of salary in Middle English was in 1377. There is some controversy about the fact that Roman soldiers received their salary in salt or as an allowance to buy salt.

Some people believe that this didn’t happen and that we have records of soldiers being paid set amounts of currency at first 3 times a year and then 4 times a year. Ancient Rome covered a large period of time however and it may well be that they could have early in the civilisation been paid in salt and then that developed into cash amounts. It could also be that they were paid some of their income as salt which was a valuable commodity or it could have been simply a bonus. We may never know now but either way it demonstrates the link between money and salt which remains to this day.

Salacious as Salt

It isn’t just about the money though, theres a sex connection. Have you ever considered the etymology of the word salacious? It comes from the word for a lustful or libidinous man ‘salax’ which actually comes from the latin root word salire – to jump. There have however been suggestions made that there is a double meaning because salt was once considered to have an exciting effect on the nervous system to the extent that Egyptian priests had to deprive themselves of salt before certain rituals. So the ’sal’ in salacious could also be from salt as well as from leaping. I suspect its a big reach but you can see why it is appealing as a theory.

Eat Your Greens

There is one place where we see salt or its latin root word regularly and that is in a healthy balanced diet. I know, surprising isn’t it, increased salt consumption is something we are all supposed to be avoiding. I am being a little disingenuous here because where we see that root word is in salad, yes that poor innocent depository of several of our five a day.

The reason that salt is associated is because the Romans used to believe that greens should be salted to remove their bitterness. Salad literally comes from the latin for salted. They used to salt cabbages etc as well as dressing lettuces with salt in the form of garum. The simplest dressing was known as oxygarum, a mixture of vinegar and garum, sometimes enriched with spices and was used by even the poorest.

The ancient Romans preserved many vegetables in brine, sometimes with the addition of vinegar, including fennel, asparagus, and cabbage. They also prepared olives for consumption as they need a significant amount of help to become the delicious accompaniment to drinks as well as the flavour bomb in many delicious dishes. However it should be added that it was actually the Ancient Egyptians who discovered the process, partly because they had olives that were fairly rubbish for oil production so needed to find something to do with the inedible rejects.

Get your Celtic Ham Here

They didn’t leave us with any recipes though sadly, so you may need to use ancient Roman one if you fancy trying a historical project. The Ancient Egyptians were also credited with using salt to cure meat and fish as they discovered that as salt was so bulky to ship it was better to sell a value added product which would be easier to transport and have higher profit margins. However before you start thanking the Egyptians for your delicious ham I feel I should break it to you that they Egyptians refused to cook and eat pork. Your celebration ham is almost certainly the direct result of the Celts who prized the legs of boar and then domestic pigs and used salt to cure them and keep them fresh.

This is all very well but it isn’t just in our kitchens that salt was important. Salt was extremely important across the rest of our lives even if that influence was only symbolic. It even remains in lots of British place names. Early Medieval English language uses the suffix ‘wich’ to delineate the presence of a saltworks. So Northwich, Nantwich, Droitwich, Middlewich were all salt producing towns.

I was struggling to find the best way to describe why salt is so important but although I have some significant doubts about some of the content of his essay about “The Symbolic Significance of Salt in Folklore and Superstition” I think the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones may have summarised the importance of salt beautifully:

“Salt is a pure, white, immaculate and incorruptible substance, apparently irreducible into any further constituent elements, and indispensable to living beings. It has correspondingly been regarded as the essence of things in general, the quintessence of life, and the very soul of the body. It has been invested with the highest general significance far more than that of any other article of diet was the equivalent of money and other forms of wealth, and its presence was indispensable for the undertaking of any enterprise, particularly any new one. In religion it was one of the most sacred objects, and to it were ascribed all manner of magical powers. The pungent, stimulating flavour of salt, which has found much metaphorical application in reference to pointed, telling wit or discourse, doubtless contributed to the conception of it as an essential element; to be without salt is to be insipid, to have something essential lacking. The durability of salt, and its immunity against decay, made it an emblem of immortality. It was believed to have an important influence in favouring fertility and fecundity, and in preventing barrenness; this idea is connected with other attributes than the one just mentioned, probably indeed with them all. The permanence of salt helped to create the idea that for one person to partake of the salt of another formed a bond of lasting friendship and loyalty between the two, and the substance played an important part in the rites of hospitality. A similar application of it was for confirming oaths, ratifying compacts, and sealing solemn covenants. This conception of a bond was also related to the capacity salt has for combining intimately with a second substance and imparting to this its peculiar properties, including the power to preserve against decay; for one important substance namely, water it had in fact a natural and curious affinity. “

Salt was so important to us that in alchemy it was considered to be one of the three ultimate elements out of which the seven noble metals were generated. Mercury symbolised the spirit, sulphur the soul, and salt the body; mercury represented the act of illumination, sulphur that of union, and salt that of purification. The amount of salt in the blood was even used as an argument of male supremacy over women and this was even promoted as late as the early twentieth century as demonstrated by an extract from the article “Man as “Salt of the Earth”, Science versus Suffragists’:

“Whilst the suffragists are loudly claiming equality with man if not superiority it has been left to scientists to establish that man is literally the ‘salt of the earth’. Two famous French savants have just announced the result of a long series of investigations, which convinces them beyond all question of doubt that woman is unalterably man’s inferior, because of the smaller percentage of chloride of sodium in her blood. In other words, the blood of the male is more salt than that of the female, and observations of animal life show that the more salt there is in the blood the higher the intelligence and general development. The indictment does not end there, for these savants declare that their combined physiological and psychological investigations have proved that woman is inferior to man in everything intelligence, reason, and physical force.”

I have some thoughts and some very rude words to say about this but to save having to put an adult content warning on the podcast, I’m going to keep them to myself and let you imagine them instead. We fought wars over salt and the Chinese, the Romans, the French, the Venetians, the Hapsburgs, even taxed it to raise money for other wars.

Folklore & Hospitality

I bet you thought I had forgotten about salt in hospitality and folklore hadn’t you? I haven’t, I’m ignoring it in hospitality as I have covered that to an extent in a recent talk I did for the Edgeways collective and if I start again here about it we’ll never be finished. I do however wish to explore it in folklore as there are some fascinating examples.

It was said to be particularly important people on the Isle of Man: “No person will go out on any material affair without taking some salt in their pockets, much less remove from one house to another, marry, put out a child, or take one to nurse, without salt being mutually exchanged; nay, though a poor person be almost famished in the streets, he will not accept any food you will give him, unless you join salt to the rest of your benevolence”

Get Your Own Salt

In both England and France it was considered unlucky to be helped to salt at the table, salt was passed and placed in front of the person who then added salt themselves. It is apparently the reason for the phrase “help me to salt, help me to sorrow”. Spilling salt at the table was also considered incredibly unlucky to the extent of throwing spilled salt into the fire over the left shoulder to try and hit the Devil the eye as he appeared or even for the spiller to resort to crawling under the table and coming out on the opposite side to avoid the bad luck coming their way.

In the North of England it was considered dangerous to give salt to someone as it puts the giver into the power of the recipient. The power could be in the format of control over actions or acquiring their knowledge. The idea of salt controlling a person’s will is also the focus of this spell from the South of England which was used to effect the return of a neglectful lover by throwing salt into the fire on three successive Friday nights. The newly enamoured lover was expected to return on the third Friday.

A Salt Averse Devil

The Devil and by association witches in the medieval period were considered salt averse and they apparently didn’t use in their food. It was used as a way of identifying a witch or person of evil intent. Salt was also used to protect fields and livestock from the influence of witchcraft and was noticeable in the dairy to protect milk and butter from turning. It was used to prevent the souls of the dead from returning to each and ensure their presence in Purgatory.

It was used to protect babies from evil influences both before and after baptism. Babies were either washed in salt water or even in France were surrounded by salt to protect them from the Evil Eye or the fair folk who were known for stealing children. In other European countries babies were given a tiny amount of salt or a small bag of protective salt was placed in their cradle. In Scotland it was even customary to put salt into a child’s mouth on entering a stranger’s house for the first time. The salt for a new born rule also applied to baby calves. Salt was carried to new homes to protect the new threshold.

A Fertility Boost

It wasn’t just for protection though, it was used to boost fertility, starting with the wedding itself. In the Pyrenees the wedding couple put salt into their left pocket before setting out for church to guard against impotence. In other areas of France this was also done but sometimes by the groom alone and sometimes the bride. Sometimes, it was placed in the shoe of the bride instead of the pocket or just generally in the clothes of the happy couple which must have been uncomfortable. In Scotland it was strewn around the new home of the couple to avoid the evil eye during their wedding night as well as promote a fertile marriage.

If measures taken during the wedding to ensure fertility, there is an Indian ceremony which involves salt which is entered into by a woman who is yet to be child: she first fasts on the fourth lunar day of every dark fortnight and breaks her fast only after seeing the moon. A dish of twenty-one balls of rice, one of which contains salt, is then placed before her, and if she first lays her hand on the ball containing the salt she will be blessed with a son. In this case no more is eaten; otherwise she goes on until she takes the salted ball. The ceremony may be observed only a limited number of times; if in these she fails altogether to pick out the salted ball first she is doomed to barrenness.

Good Butter Vibes

It wasn’t just humans though that were made more fecund and fertile by the application of salt. Pregnant mares and cows in Belgium used to have salt mixed with their food to improve the chance of an easy birth. In Normandy it was given to cows to increase their butter output. In Scotland they used to add salt to the first milk after calving to increase milk production. In parts of the country now known as Czech Republic, a special cake made with salt was given to pregnant cows to ensure a prime calf and excellent future milk production.

Salt is also used in some modern magic rituals and spells in various traditions. I am not a practitioner but I believe, amongst other myriad uses, white salt is sometimes used to create a pure space to practice. Salt can also be used in rituals to discourage unwelcome visitors from returning and to encourage bad neighbours to move away.

I think that is I have time for and I haven’t even begun to explore all the folklore around salt however I’d like to leave you with my favourite salt creation myth: From the mythical lore of Finland we learn that Ilmarinen, the great Finnish hero, built a mill in his magical forge which could grind out wheat, gold and salt. The mill was stolen by a very powerful witch. When Ilmarinen was trying to rescue the mill known as the Sampo it was unfortunately dropped into the sea. It broke but the largest pieces became the great wealth and riches of the oceans. The portion which ground salt sits on the sea-floor until this very day, grinding out salt, and that is why the sea is salty. And the smallest pieces, formed of the brightly-colored lid, were cast ashore all throughout the lands of Finland, and where they fell the land was fertile and rich ever after.

A Different Type of Recipe

The following recipes are taken from James Haskins, (1978) Voodoo & Hoodoo. Scarborough House: Lanham, reprinted 1990.

To cause confusion: Take graveyard dirt, salt, and devil powder and mix them together. Sprinkle that mixture around the interior of the person’s home.To make someone go away:As the person leaves your house, sprinkle a teaspoon of table salt in his trail. Take your broom and sweep the salt out of your home, calling his name (quietly) and wishing that he not return.

Uncrossing: Mix salt with wine and make him drink it. Pray as he is drinking that all foreign substances will be expelled from the body. The person will shortly vomit.Salt sprinkled thoroughly about the house and especially in the fireplace. 

Luck in business: Before going to the interview, place 3 grains of salt in a handkerchief and put it in your pocket. When you get to the place of employment wait until you are alone or the interviewer is somehow distracted. Then throw the salt onto the north corner of the room. Within 3 days you will have the job.

Further Reading
Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O’Rushes, Abstracted and Tabulated with a Discussion of Medieval Analogues, and Notes – Marian Roalfe Cox
Salt – Mark Kurlansky
Voodoo & Hoodoo – James Haskins, (1978)
The Vanishing People – Katharine Briggs
The Oxford Companion to Food – Davidson, Alan
THE Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairytales Edited by Donald Haase
Food and Drink in Britain, From the Stone Age to Recent Time – C Anne Wilson
Cambridgeshire customs and folklore – Enid Porter 1969

Featured Image: Arthur Rackham