IV: Sulfur

Why so many cultures put sulfur in hell.

IV: Sulfur
The telltale yellow of sulfur. Photo by Dan Meyers / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is quartidi, the 4th of Nivôse, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate le soufre, a foul-smelling element belched from the Earth.

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Sulfur is smack dab in the middle of the "stuff life uses" section of the periodic table (my term, not science's), neighborly with oxygen and carbon and nitrogen and phosphorus, all of which we have in our bodies right now. We have sulfur-eating bacteria on Earth – you can find them in geothermal springs – and there's a theory that this could be a clue to life that may exist on other planets, where extreme heat and cold are too much for fragile oxygen, but just fine for sturdy sulfur.

The old English word for sulfur is "brimstone," a word now associated with angry preachers who emphasize the righteous punishments of their deity. If you were to build a chemical that evokes eternal damnation, you could hardly do better. The stone is a sickly yellow, but when burned, gives off an unearthly blue flame and melts into a blood red liquid, all while producing a deadly smog that smells of rotten eggs. Sulfur triggers every "that's death" instinct we have.

It's a little hard to figure out which chicken or egg came first here, the brimstone or the hell. Is hell a place where brimstone is likely to be, or did we build our story of hell around this noxious rock?

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