|Photo by Andrea Abbot Photography|
[Late Old English brynstan, probably from bryne (= Old Norse bruni) burning (formed as BURN verb) + STONE noun.]
1(a) Sulphur; especially (otherwise archaic) burning sulphur, (the fuel of) hell-fire. LOE
1(b) figurative. Fire, passion. E17
2 obsolete. A virago, a spitfire; a promiscuous woman. L17-E19
3 In full brimstone butterfly. A pierid butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni, with sulphur-yellow wings. L17
Brimstone occurs naturally around volcanic vents and likely means "burning stone" (I have read several postulations that it is because it occurs at the brim of volcanoes, but the OED doesn't support this theory). For anyone that's never had the displeasure to smell burning sulphur, it is a singularly rank, suffocating experience, and it's sulphur that gives rise to the unpleasant smell of rotting eggs, skunks and the lovely whiff you can savour face-on whenever you accidentally singe your hair. Rather than just being unpleasant, however, sulphuric fumes can be lethal: both hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide are highly toxic. Being a historically important element known from ancient times, sulphur was mined by hand from around volcanic vents and, while sulphur is now largely obtained through other processes, this was particularly hellish work. Despite the drastically reduced life expectancies, poisoned lungs and bodies criss-crossed with burns, "sulphur slaves" still perform this brutal work in limited locations today for paltry pay and with virtually no protective equipment or safeguards. Author Booker T. Washington wrote:
"A sulphur mine [...] is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life."
|The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin (1852)|
"That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of, there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up."
Fortunately, the mining of sulphur by the inhuman methods previously described is receding, as is the anachronistic use of brimstone and the hell myth to terrify people into submission. Therefore, when we light a match and taste that acrid, sulphuric smoke, we need not think of such awful, hellish associations, but rather be thankful for what a vital element brimstone truly is.
|Lassen Volcanic National Park with the yellow sulphur deposits|
(photo by Marcus Spiering)
Do you know of interesting brimstone trivia?
Do please leave your most acrid comments below.