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by Larry

July, 2007

Reflections on Hal

Besides intriguing images that the title may conjure of the Arthur C. Clarke book and movie, "2001 - A Space Odyssey," the word "hal" in the title shares a root and meanings that bind the ancient world with the 21st Century and beyond.

The derivations of words can reveal illuminating relationships, one that suggest layers of insight into our past and the realities of our present interdependencies or, as James Burke would have said, our "connections."

For instance, the Greeks had the word Keltoi, meaning a person living in hiding or undercover (as the historian Herodotus referred to beings who spent much of their time underground).

This was later shortened, in European parlance that we still use today, to Celt.

The ancient Roman (Latin) word for Celts was Galli or Gauls, from the same root as hal.

Hal is both an ancient Egyptian and Greek word for salt.

The Celts were great warriors, eventually, in their zenith, even conquering and controlling Rome, among other areas. But in our language their name comes from one of their principal livelihoods: They were people of the salt. To this day, areas where they had their salt mines and works retain names suggestive of their old salt related industry, places in present day Austria, Poland, Bavaria, or Hungary: Halle; Hallein; Galicia (from the same root); Hallstadt; and Swabisch Hall.

Our word "salt" itself appears to be a blend of "hal" and "Celt."

Etymology, archeology, and history indicate that the Celts were digging out, working, transporting, and trading salt with much of Europe and north Africa from at least 1400 BC through about 100 AD, using such major waterways as the Rhine, Ruhr, or Main Rivers, and the Mediterranean, to distribute their important commodities and bring back in trade supplies that were in demand among themselves. At the same time, and even much earlier, salt specialists in China were filling similar niches there.

Since the initial vertebrates crawled, jumped, or flopped out of the seas, or were left on land when salty pools periodically dried up, and some of these animals evolved ways to remain on land, they and their descendents have needed means to preserve key compounds of their former environment, water and salt. Lacking one or the other would have meant no extra-oceanic higher life forms.

After water (and perhaps for some of us coffee!), possibly nothing that we consume, then, not even food, is as vital as salt. Adults carry 3-4 salt shakers worth of it within their systems, but the sodium chloride within us is constantly in use, and we excrete it through our skin or the urinary tract. If what has been lost is not replenished, in fairly short order we can cease to function normally. Headaches may be the first symptom of such a problem. Then, our brains will no longer work right. Our digestive systems stop processing what we have eaten, nausea follows, and we throw up. Even if drinking water, when there is not sufficient salt we may become dehydrated to the point our mouths stop producing saliva (likely another salt related word). We have next an overwhelming fatigue and desire to sleep. This can turn, if no remedy is found, to coma. Victims often can no longer properly regulate body temperature. Heat exhaustion can become heat stroke. In extreme cases, for lack of a few pinches of salt, death may follow.

Happily, in modern times, at least the last 100 years or so, such outcomes have been rare. Prior to that, folks would normally be fine if they had predominantly meat diets, as meat, including crustaceans, fish, fowl, beef, pork, etc., contain salt naturally.

But as folks began to cultivate crops and depend on grains, fruits, or veggies more than on carnivorous fare, salt deficits would be common until their diets were supplemented with this compound. That discovery would change the course of human development and help lead to the modern world, one that includes trade, finances, food processing and preservation, engineering, mining, explosives, keeping our deceased loved ones for awhile in a state similar to how they looked in life, etc.

At first, people probably followed deer and other animals to see where they acquired their salt and utilize these salt licks or brine pools for themselves as well. But later they learned how to mine or process salty pools to create larger supplies of the essential commodity. Since the dawn of civilization and until the modern era, the majority of people were what we would regard as lower classes (peasants, serfs, slaves, untouchables, etc.). Their diets were meager and seldom included much meat, so they required supplementation with added salt. Also, as folks began to domesticate animals, mostly herbivores, it became necessary to acquire salt for them. A cow consumes 10 times the salt needed by a human. Thus, salt came to hold as high an importance for trade, economics, potential strife, and politics as petroleum does today.

Consistent with the preservative quality of salt and its association with the ancient Celts, it has come to have symbolic significance beyond its natural importance to physiological functioning. Thus, salt is seen to represent durability, potency, vigor, and reliability ("salt of the earth," "a covenant of salt which shall be forever," etc.)

While both water and salt might at least occasionally be in short supply in the ancient world, it was impractical to transport the quantities of the former that would usually be required, except for short trips. People needed then to go near where the water was instead. With salt, however, smaller amounts were needed for the same number of consumers, and the product could be hauled in various convenient forms by either people or beasts of burden, i.e. as blocks of rock salt, as mammal or bird meat or fish cured in brine, or as quantities of salt crystal molded into specified shapes and sizes, 200-pound pillars of salt being a typical standard.

By coincidence, the reduction of salt from being one of the most important commodities to being taken for granted as merely common table salt occurred about the time the wealth, industry, and transportation incentives for finding new oil fields led to geologists focusing on the problem and learning that often, adjacent to oil underground, there were huge reserves of salt, more than enough for even prolific humans to ever hope to need to use.

But in ancient times, the essential needs, for various salts as dietary supplements for them or their animals, as preservatives for food or the dead, for their health benefits, etc., led, as with the Chinese and Celts, to salt or its products becoming as trusted currencies as gold or US dollars would later be.

A budding animal husbandry industry likely got its start as humans used salt sources that animals were attracted to, or which were even put out on occasion for the interest of animals, and so the latter were more easily domesticated.

Once a need for supplementary salt had been established among the population, the leaders were quick to enhance their prestige by filling that need. They would at times considerably add to this effect by taxing the salt (much as today authorities tax gasoline or tobacco, increasing central government revenues and power), putting the money to use building up their armies and defenses. In this way, for instance, the Chinese were able eventually to consolidate their control over more and more peoples and territories until a nation state had been achieved. Large countries could thus pay for standing forces of soldiers (literally, persons loyal to and in the service of the one who pays their saltaries [regular ration of salt], shortened since to salaries).

Egypt, China, and Rome were successful among ancient cultures in establishing powerful states in much this fashion.

The Celts would probably have been among this select few except that they never excelled at securing national unity as well as in their skills at salt and ironworks, at trade, or in warfare. And, after they had for a period controlled Rome, they were in about 100 AD so severely crushed by the Romans militarily that thereafter they played only a marginal role on the geopolitical world of that day. They were subsequently even literally on the fringes, as in distant Scotland.

But their salt works remained in the areas from which the Celts had been banished, and these plus the Celts' old trade routes were now taken over by the Romans. In fact, a part of the Roman approach to conquest was to consolidate conquered peoples' salt works and take them over as their own, then make sure to provide plenty of salt for everyone from their growing supplies, gaining the loyalty of the recipients.

The Chinese were even more and earlier successful in fulfilling salt's potentials for people's health, for the building of the power of the state, as a preservative, etc. In addition, they discovered from their salt researches how to make gunpowder, to use natural gas, to make and use soy sauce, and much more.

Salts of various kinds were used by Egyptians to help preserve the bodies of the dead. Once successful mummification processes were developed (for the common folks it involved little more than using sodium chloride, but for royalty and other prominent persons, much more elaborate procedures were employed), the above ground needs of the deceased still had to be looked after. Ultimately, as we know, this could involve huge pyramids, with many worldly goods, treasures, and salts for a final trip being provided. If nothing else, this activity stimulated the economy of the day and provided an opportunity for new mathematical and engineering discoveries.

American Indians had quite an extensive knowledge of and sophisticated appreciation for a variety of salts, which were useful for medicinal purposes.

Today (7/17/07), here in Oregon, when I delight in walking barefoot in the cold saline surf, contemplate again the awesome sea that is the Pacific, enjoy a piece of lightly salted watermelon, or consider how our dog, Peri, loves to try to lick my legs after I step out of a hot bath, it occurs to me that we are all Celts, creatures of the salt.

As salt became easier to produce with modern knowledge and techniques, supplies increased. Global trade and the rise of hugely successful salt companies such as Morton made salt available to many more people throughout the world. At the same time, better refrigeration and other preservative and food processing techniques came into use. Thus, as with most commodities, salt's value in the marketplace declined significantly once the supply/demand circumstances went against it. With luck, never again will there be a need for huge caravans, involving tens of thousands of camels loaded with salt pillars or rock salt, to ply the traditional routes across desert regions.

A certain amount of salt is still needed in the average person's diet, of course, but usually more than enough is already provided in the processed foods we eat. Thus, Hal's era seems to have all but come to an end. Some of us even need to worry about too much sodium chloride in our systems, as it can aggravate medical conditions such as high blood pressure.

But I think it unlikely folks will dispense with the habit of shaking a pinch or two of salt or sprinkling on a bit of soy sauce onto their foods. It just tastes too good!

Source: Salt - A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. Penguin Books, New York, NY; 2002 edition.

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