There is much about this word that I don’t need to say, for it has already been said. This in spite of the fact that you’re not going to find it in your dictionary.
My attention was directed to this word by Jim Taylor, who saw it discussed in “Cormac McCarthy’s 17th Century Vocabulary” on Galleycat. It in turn directs the reader to Barry Weber’s post on it on his blog The First Morning. And Weber’s post is a lovely, lyrical thing that covers it wonderfully. So you should certainly read it. But no one has ever said that if one person has tasted a wine, no else need do so; the same goes for words. So I will ramify it in my own way.
Weber found the word in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road:
The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? … The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind.
McCarthy does not say where he got salitter or what it means. The context does not go far enough, really, in clarifying it. Is this some bit of precious pretentiousness by a writer just showing off that he knows something you don’t? Where on earth did he get this word, anyway?
He got it from Jakob Böhme, as it turns out. Böhme was a religious thinker of the 1500s and 1600s. He had some ideas that were rather uncommon for his time. Actually, some of them would earn him a lot of abuse from several quarters even today. I’m not going to try to give you a full run-down of his thought. You’re on the web; look him up if you want.
But this term salitter, well, what did he mean by it when he used it, this word that slides and taps on the tip of your tongue? It has tastes of salt and glitter and litter and perhaps slit and sally; it seems to patter on the tongue perhaps as rain on a roof or sun sparkling on littoral waves. It makes me think of sale, French for “dirty”, and iter, Latin for “road”. It’s something that dries up from the earth, though – perhaps petrichor?
Oh, but McCarthy’s book is post-apocalyptic. What he’s saying, as it turns out, is that even the essence of life, the divine essence, the divine spark, is drying up, decamping, absquatulating, sublimating to the sublime. Salitter is that: the divine essence that is found in all things. To quote “Jacob Boehme’s Divine Substance Salitter: its Nature, Origin, and Relationship to Seventeenth Century Scientific Theories,” by Lawrence M. Principe and Andrew Weeks (The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Mar., 1989)):
For Boehme, the Salitter designated the embodiment of the total force of the divinity, the compendium of all forces operating in nature and in the human psyche. The substance Salitter is a matrix of forces that are identified with sensible ‘qualities’. The latter interact by means of fundamental oppositions and affinities. Accordingly, the spirit forces operating within Salitter are discernible in many objects of speculation: in the deity, in sensory experience, in vegetable growth, and in the objects of geology, astronomy, and meteorology. Salitter animates the supersensible and the sensible; it is the common denominator of what is conscious and alive and of what appears inanimate and inert. Salitter is the embodiment of a world conceived in organic terms.
OK, very good. Now you have a word for that something. It may not sound like the word you thought it should be (were you expecting something more like om?). But where did Böhme get it, anyway?
Böhme was interested in alchemy, and in alchemy certain earthly substances gave their names to divine principles that are the basic ingredients of all things: Mercury, Sulphur, Salt. To these Böhme added one more, a version of the word we now know in English as saltpetre.
Saltpetre! This is something that I, as a youth, heard was put in some men’s foods to assault their peters and make them peter out (so they would keep their peters in). Cause of impotence! But in fact there is no real support for this young boy’s tale. Rather, saltpetre – potassium nitrate is the chemical name for it – is useful for a number of things, and two in particular: fertilizing things (it is a key ingredient in many fertilizers) and blowing things up (it is a key ingredient in gunpowder). Yes, that’s why fertilizer can be used to make bombs. A third thing saltpetre can do is preserve food – it used to be commonly used in corned beef (giving it its pink colour), but now sodium nitrate is more commonly used.
But think of it! Saltpetre can accelerate entropy rapidly, and it can also accelerate the opposite of entropy – organic growth. It can even delay entropy in food preservation. No wonder Böhme found it such a good basis for his universal divine principle. It is a kind of Shiva, a principle of change both good and bad. The earthly salitter, saltpetre, is but an “earthly, stinking,” dark, limited analogue of the pure, clear divine salitter. Here we see as through a glass, darkly. And yet this “here” is animated by the divine principle, aglitter with an immanent alterity.
Funny. Saltpetre comes from Latin sal petrae, “rock salt” or “salt of rock”, with the petrae coming from the Greek for “rock” (whence we get the name Peter too). I am put in mind of the Roman practice of salting the earth in places they wished to destroy, so crops would not grow there. But I am also put in mind of Jesus telling his disciples they were the salt of the earth. Such duality seems so suitable… And if duality disappears from the earth, what is left but undifferentiated unity? And how can there be change then – growth and destruction, the two sides of everything interesting?
Does this make salitter seem fickle, hypocritical, treacherous? Is the tt a double-cross? Do not be so passive about it. Look to yourself: it must be within you too. Sometimes it just takes a bit of prodding, a drop of salitter from outside to awaken your own creative and discovering spark. Here is a word: look it up if you want. Today that drop of salitter is salitter. McCarthy dropped it in his book, and it was picked up by one blog, then another website, then sent to me by email, and now I am bringing it to you. Just a grain, a seed… a seed that grows and propagates and ramifies.