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Salting the earth

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Salting the earth, or sowing with salt, is the ritual of spreading salt on the sites of cities razed by conquerors.[1][2] It originated as a curse on re-inhabitation in the ancient Near East and became a well-established folkloric motif in the Middle Ages.[3] The best-known example is the salting of Shechem as narrated in the Biblical Book of Judges, 9:45. The supposed salting of Carthage is not supported by historical evidence.


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.[2] In the case of Shechem, various commentaries explain it as:

...a covenantal curse, a means of ensuring desolation, a ritual to avert the vengeance of the shades of the slaughtered, a purification of the site preparatory to rebuilding, or a preparation for final destruction under the herem ritual.[2]

Ancient Near East[edit]

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).


At least as early as 1863,[7] various texts claimed that the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus plowed over and sowed the city of Carthage with salt after defeating it in the Third Punic War (146 BC), sacking it, and enslaving the survivors. The salting was probably modeled on the story of Shechem. Though ancient sources do mention symbolically drawing a plow over various cities and salting them, none mention Carthage in particular.[3] The salting story entered the academic literature in Bertrand Hallward's article in the first edition of the Cambridge Ancient History (1930), and was widely accepted as factual.[8] However, there are no ancient sources for it and it is now considered legendary.[1][9][8]


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.[8] "I have run the plough over it, like the ancient Carthage of Africa, and I have had salt sown upon it ..."[10] 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).[11]


The English epic poem Siege of Jerusalem (c. 1370) recounts that Titus commanded the sowing of salt on the Temple,[12] but this episode is not found in Josephus's account.

Spanish Empire[edit]

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.[13][14]


This was done in Portugal as well. 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.[15] 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.[16]


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 ..."[17] 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.[17][18][19][20]


An ancient legend recounts that Odysseus feigned madness by yoking a horse and an ox to his plow and sowing salt.[21]

See also[edit]

Footnotes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b 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. S2CID 161696751.
  2. ^ a b c d e Gevirtz, Stanley (1963). "Jericho and Shechem: A Religio-Literary Aspect of City Destruction". Vetus Testamentum. 13 (Fasc. 1): 52–62. doi:10.2307/1516752. JSTOR 1516752.
  3. ^ a b Stevens, Susan T. (1988). "A Legend of the Destruction of Carthage". Classical Philology. 83 (1): 39–41. doi:10.1086/367078. JSTOR 269635. S2CID 161764925.
  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 pp. 144–145.
  6. ^ Persians: Masters of Empire, by the editors of Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1995. ISBN 0-8094-9104-4 pp. 7–8.
  7. ^ Ripley, George; Dana, Charles A. (1858–1863). "Carthage". The New American Cyclopædia: a Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge. Vol. 4. New York: D. Appleton. p. 497. OCLC 1173144180. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
  8. ^ a b c Warmington, B. H. (1988). "The Destruction of Carthage: A Retractatio". Classical Philology. 83 (4): 308–310. doi:10.1086/367123. JSTOR 269510. S2CID 162850949.
  9. ^ Visona, Paolo (1988). "On the Destruction of Carthage Again". Classical Philology. 83 (1): 41–42. doi:10.1086/367079. JSTOR 269636. S2CID 162289604.
  10. ^ Sedgwick, Henry Dwight (2005). Italy In The Thirteenth Century, Part Two. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. p. 324. ISBN 978-1-4179-6638-7. Archived from the original on 2017-01-24. Retrieved 2016-10-16.
  11. ^ Oerter, H. L. (1968). "Campaldino, 1289". Speculum. 43 (3): 429–450. doi:10.2307/2855837. JSTOR 2855837. S2CID 225088949.
  12. ^ Hanna, Ralph and David Lawton, eds., The Siege of Jerusalem, 2003, line 1295 Archived 2020-03-07 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Hong, Angie (2019-11-26). "Salting the Earth". East Metro Water. Retrieved 2024-06-13.
  14. ^ Halili, Maria Christine (2004). Philippine History. Manila: Rex Book Store. p. 111. ISBN 9789712339349.
  15. ^ Joseph Hughes, An authentick letter from Mr. Hughes, a Gentleman residing at Lisbon ..., London 1759, p. 25 Archived 2020-03-07 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ González, Modesto Fernández y (1874). Portugal contemporáneo: De Madrid à Oporto, pasando por Lisboa; diario de un caminante (in Spanish). Impr. y fundicion de M. Tello. p. 177.
  17. ^ a b Sentença proferida contra os réus do levante e conjuração de Minas Gerais  (in Portuguese). Brazil. 1789 – via Wikisource.
  18. ^ Southey, Robert (1819). History of Brazil. Vol. 3. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown. p. 684.
  19. ^ Worcester, Donald E. (1973). Brazil, From Colony to World Power. New York: Scribner. p. 52. ISBN 0-684-13386-5.
  20. ^ Bishop, Elizabeth (1962). "Brazil". Time. New York. p. 31.
  21. ^ The story does not appear in Homer, but was apparently mentioned in Sophocles's lost tragedy The Mad Ulysses: James George Frazer, ed., Apollodorus: The Library, II:176 footnote 2 Archived 2017-02-12 at the Wayback Machine; Hyginus, Fabulae 95 Archived 2017-02-12 at the Wayback Machine mentions the mismatched animals but not the salt.