Cum Grano Salis

The English language expression “with a grain of salt”, which means to be skeptical or not taking something literally, appears for the first time in Pliny the Elder‘s Naturalis Historia. When Gnaeus Pompeius defeated Mithridates in 65BC, he found a recipe for an antidote for poison in his private cabinet. The recipe was: two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pounded all together and taken with a grain of salt. If a person took this mixture fasting, he thought, he would be protected from all poisons that day.

If anyone knew about poisons, it was Mithridates. After his defeat he fled to Crimea and attempted to organize a new army against the Romans but failed, his eldest son, Machares, was unwilling to help (and so, was killed) and another of his sons, Pharnaces II, led a rebellion against him. Seeing his loss of authority, he attempted suicide, but failed; because throughout his life -obsessed with assassination by poison- he had gained immunity to many of them taking tiny doses of all available poisons. He had to order his bodyguard and friend Bituitus to kill him.

That last part of Pliny’s translation of Mithridates’ handwritten recipe was adopted in the English language, no doubt, when classical scholars studied the Ancient Greek texts. It has been in use in English at least since the 17th century, when John Trapp, the English Anglican Bible commentator, said that the Old and New Testaments had “to be taken with a grain of salt”. But it has always meant to have common sense and a certain skepticism in Italy, where “to have salt in your pumpkin” (avere sale in zucca) means to have personal judgement and not believe things literally.

This cathedral, in Zipaquirá, a town in Cundinamarca, Colombia, was not built but carved within the tunnels of an underground salt mine. The “Salt Cathedral” is a popular tourist destination. Although mass is celebrated in it, the church has no bishop assigned, so it has no official status as a cathedral in Catholicism. The church visited today is not the original one inaugurated in 1954, dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners, however. Due to structural problems a new one had to be excavated, 200 feet below the old sanctuary. Still, some of the galleries used today were originally excavated by the Muisca people, who already exploited salt, at least since the 5th century. Alexander von Humboldt described this mining during his visit to Zipaquirá in 1801.

An surprising and original endeavour, this cathedral. But, like most things surrounding the holy Catholic church, and like religion itself…it must be taken with a grain of salt.

(To read the article on my magazine, in PDF format, published today: Cum Grano Salis)


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