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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 1
WHAT WAS "BRIMSTONE"?
JOHN V. MYERS
Copyright 1983 by Lewis M. Greenberg & Warner B. Sizemore
Omitting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which may well have involved an explosion-produced rain of burning sulfur,(1) the Bible contains fourteen statements or implications that the fiery substance which fell in past catastrophes, or is to fall in the last days, was brimstone - i.e., presumably, sulfur. The Bible also contains nineteen references to the unquenchability of this fiery substance - that is, to its ability to burn while floating on water. With a specific gravity of 2.07, sulfur is simply not credible as a substance which will burn on water. But if not sulfur, what could the Biblical "brimstone" have stood for?
We begin our search for the solution to this mystery with an examination of one of the visions of John of Patmos wherein is revealed where the fiery substance came from:
Before analysing this passage, let us make an enquiry concerning the Hebraic institution of offering "incense" upon the "golden altar":
Stacte is a fragrant resin obtained from some species of cistus, or "rockrose". Onycha is the horny plate that covers a species of mussel found in the lakes of India which, when burned, emits a musky odor. Galbanum is a pleasantly aromatic gum resin derived from certain umbelliferous plants. Frankincense (from the Old French for "pure incense"), as used by the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, was a gum resin now called olibanum which was derived from certain trees of the genus boswellia found growing on the limestone of South Arabia and Somaiiland. Thus, three of the four ingredients in the incense burned on the golden altar were gum resins. Gum resins are mixtures of gum and resin obtained from plants or trees by incision. Resins burn readily because they contain volatile oils.
When the angel of John's vision, therefore, "took the
censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth", he was showering the Earth and its inhabitants with sticky, burning resin.
Incense was not only burned but was also given as a gift to show esteem as in the well-known case of the three Magi and the child Jesus:
Incense was also burned as an offering to Venus as the Morning Star. Thus we find it written in the Popul Vuh, the Bible of the Mayans of Central America:
As we did with the Hebrews, let us enquire about the "precious incense" which the priests of the Maya burned to the Morning Star. As Adrian Recinos stated:
Copalli, or copal, we should add, is a hard lustrous resin obtained from various tropical trees and used today in the manufacture of varnishes.
Guatemala is separated from the land of the Bible by eight thousand miles, including an ocean. The burning of resins among the Quiche could not have been a practice borrowed from the Egyptians, or Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, or Israelites. It is not, therefore, improper to assume that the practice owed its origin to some experience which was shared by the inhabitants of both the Old and the New World. This belief is fortified by the fact that the Popul Vuh describes an incident which, while rendered in completely different garb, seems to duplicate God's punishment as described by John of Patmos:
That this occurred during a time of cataclysm is confirmed by the next following description:
In a newer and more literal translation, M. S. Edmonson renders the operative Quiche word q'ol as "glue", but explains in a note that it can also mean "incense" and "resin".(9) According to Racinos, q'ol, or col, is pure resin.(10)
The Quiche, however, do not, like John of Patmos, describe this rain of resinous substance as having fallen in flaming form. Is it possible that in some parts of the world the substance did not ignite or do we have here a confirmation of the contention that details of cosmic catastrophe are more accurately preserved in the collective unconscious - as in the eschatological vision of John of Patmos than they are through cultural transmission?
At this point one might ask: What has any of this to do with brimstone? The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has this to say about "brimstone":
The Hebrew dictionary in Strong's Concordance has it similarly:
It appears then that when the Old Testament speaks of a rain of "fire and brimstone" from heaven, it is not really specifying burning sulfur but burning resin. Thus, not only is the accuracy of John's vision established, it is also obvious that the only difference between the Hebraic and Quiche perception was an environmentally determined one: The Hebrews described the substance as cypress resin, the Quiche as pine gum.
This confusion between brimstone and resin was still evident by the time of the New Testament. In Greek, "brimstone" was called "theion". In his Greek-English lexicon, J. H. Thayer defined the word in this manner:
It is our opinion that Thayer reversed the direction of semantic transfer. We believe that it was the apotropaic virtue of the burning of incense which, in time, became attached to the burning of sulfur. "Theios" means "divinity" or "deity", and is so used by Paul.(14)
A form of resin is also known as pitch which is obtained through the distillation of wood tar, notably that of the pine. Non-resinous pitch is also obtained from coal tar. The name, however, is also applied to the natural mineral substances normally called bitumen or asphalt which is the same as naphtha. Might not this resinous substance, which fell burning from the sky, therefore, have been a rain of fiery naphtha, or petroleum, as adduced by Immanuel Velikovsky?(15) Might not the pitch of trees, or resin, have been used as a substitute by ancient man in memory of such events? And might not the practice of offering and burning incense have derived from a desire to placate the angry god(s) in heaven?
REFERENCES1. "Cities of the Plain," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, 1946), Vol. 1, pp. 660-661.
2. Revelation 8:1-5.
3. "Incense' (see note No. 1), Vol.III, p. 1466.
4. Matthew 2:9-11.
5. Popul Vuh, 3:9.
6. A.Recinos, Popul Vuh: Las Antiguas Historias del Quiche (Mexico), 1961), p. 176
7. Popul Vuh, 1:3(emphasis added).
8. Ibid., 1:4.
9. M. S. Edmonson, The Book of Counsel: The Popul Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala (New Orleans, 1 - 1), p. 26.
10. A.Recinos, loc. cit., n. 17.
11. "Brimstone" (see note No. 1), Vol . l, p. 522.
12. J. Strong, "Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary," Abingdon's Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville,1894-1981), p. 28 of dictionary section (entry No.1614).
13. J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (N. Y., 1889), pp. 284-285.
14. Acts 17:29.
15. I. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (N. Y., 1950), pp. 53-58.