Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Brimstone - One Hell of a Word

Brimstone, Sulphur, Sulfur
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

The phrase fire and brimstone, which for hundreds of years has struck fear into the hearts of the faithful, unsurprisingly has its origins in the Bible, in which brimstone is used in various descriptions of destruction and annihilation (Genesis 19:24, for example, with regards the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). Modern translations are more likely to use the word sulphur (or sulfur), but it's not difficult to see how this abundant, yellow element came to be associated with destruction, hell and all things horrible.

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."

Brimstone, Sulphur, Sulfur,
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin (1852)
With such punishing associations already in the human consciousness, conditions were always ripe for "fire and brimstone" preachers like Jonathan Edwards to terrify their flocks with images of brimstone and hell, such as in his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:

"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.

Brimstone, Sulphur, Sulfur
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.


  1. You don't believe in all that stuff do you Ed? I'm so glad we live in this enlightened age, based on science and evidence, not myth and superstition. Now we know for a fact there was no such thing as volcanoes.

    1. I don't care what science says - I was born a volcanologist and I'll die a volcanologist.

  2. I don't associate brimstone with the Bible, which is surprising I suppose, as I do associate Frankenstein with monster, French people with snail's legs, and you with chilled watermelon.

    I associate brimstone with the likes of Jonathan Edwards, but more especially with Amos Starkadder, the hell-threatening preacher to the 'Church of the Quivering Brethren' in Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm.

    May I quote him? (Please delete if not)

    " Ye miserable, crawlin' worms. Are ye here again then? Have ye come like Nimshi, son of Rehoboam, secretly out of your doomed houses, to hear what's comin' to ye? Have ye come, old and young, sick and well, matrons and virgins, if there be any virgins amongst you, which is not likely, the world being in the wicked state that it is. Have ye come to hear me tell you of the great, crimson, licking flames of hell fire? Aye! You've come, dozens of ye. Like rats to the granary, like field mice when it's harvest home. And what good will it do ye? You're all damned! Damned! Do you ever stop to think what that word means? No, you don't. It means endless, horrifying torment! It means your poor, sinful bodies stretched out on red-hot gridirons, in the nethermost, fiery pit of hell and those demons mocking ye while they waves cooling jellies in front of ye. You know what it's like when you burn your hand, taking a cake out of the oven, or lighting one of them godless cigarettes? And it stings with a fearful pain, aye? And you run to clap a bit of butter on it to take the pain away, aye? Well, I'll tell ye, there'll be no butter in hell!"


    1. Thanks C, and thank you for quoting from one my of favourite (and one of the funniest) books of all time.

      When researching this, I was very careful with brimstone and the Bible, so as not to either quote the Bible out of context or make an assumption from my faulty memory as to what it says about it. However, the phrase in English "fire and brimstone" undoubtedly comes from the Bible, and although I quoted Genesis as evidence (mainly because of the fame of Sodom and Gomorrah), I could have selected several other references as well. What it might mean in any given Scripture, of course, might be open to debate, and was another reason I chose the Genesis account, as it refers unambiguously to the destruction and annihilation of those two cities. However, when it comes to preaching, the term has been associated with that particular "you'll all burn in hell" style of preaching (a style which thankfully is receding), and most modern translations of the Bible have (I believe) now replaced 'brimstone' with 'sulphur'.

      As for Starkadder - pay him no heed; one should definitely *not* apply butter to freshly burned skin. Tsk.

  3. One of my favorites too, and there quite definitely was something nasty in the woodshed.
    I think I don't associate brimstone with the Bible because I was brought up with a much more modern and reliable translation than the King James Version, which was translated under a strict set of mandates from King James to conform with acceptable belief, as he and the church saw it, in the 17th century. I associate brimstone with religion, distinct from the Bible itself.
    Desperate fear of horrific post-death pain certainly helped keep everyone in order back then, as it would me I suppose (maybe I wouldn't have chosen a career as a professional mugger and taken up Corporate Banking instead, had I been indoctrinated with sensationalised descriptions of wanton destruction and hellish pain)
    Removal of words like 'brimstone' in modern translations (and this is just in my clueless and frequently lopsided opinion) doesn't dumb down the original text so much as remove unhelpful and unintended connotations.
    I think had Amos Starkadder been one of the 47 on the translation team he would have insisted on more 'brimstones' and 'gridirons' and maybe a few more 'licking flames' for good measure, possibly removing vast passages of the Psalms on the grounds that they lacked indiscriminate gore. (It is similarly fortuitous that King James didn't commission someone like Mr. 'Mybug' ("Miss Poste! Miss Poste! I'm engorgingly in love with you!") to translate the Song of Solomon.)
    Oddly enough, I also associate Sulphur with Religion and wanton destruction far more than I would with Genesis or Revelation, mainly due to a remarkably inept Chemistry teacher at my school, Rev. Jones (Rev. for Reverend) who managed to blow up a staff bathroom (but not himself) whilst flushing old jars of assorted chemicals down the toilet in the pre-term cleanup, without first finding out if the chemicals themselves might violently object to such close proximity with each other. The acrid smell of eggy sulphur remained in the Chemistry department long after the lavatory, and Rev. Jones, had been replaced.