Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez compared George Bush to the Antichrist in a speech at the United Nations on Wednesday. “The devil came here yesterday, right here,” he said. “It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of.” When did Satan start smelling like sulfur?
About a century or two before the birth of Christ. Satan almost certainly gets his rotten scent from his underworld lair, described in the Book of Revelation as a “lake of burning sulfur.” Hell as such doesn’t appear in the Old Testament, but the book of Genesis does recount how God “rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah.” The idea of a sulfurous Hell ruled by an archvillain called Satan seems to have arisen at some point in the period between when the two sacred texts were written—probably in the first or second centuries B.C. The Apocryphal Books of Enoch, for example, talk about a place of punishment with “rivers of fire” and “a smell of sulfur.”
It didn’t take long for the devil to take on the stench of his kingdom. By the 400s, the Councils of Toledo would describe him as a horned beast with cloven hooves, a huge phallus, and a sulfurous smell.
Tradition placed hell as far as possible from God and heaven. The Bible uses the word “Gehenna,” which means the “Valley of Hinnom” and refers to a garbage dump on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem. Hinnom stood in for the underworld because of its topography—as the lowest point in the area, it served as the spiritual counterpoint for the high ground of the temple mount. The same sort of reasoning imagined hell at the very center of the Earth, in a fiery and sulfurous pit.
This isn’t an unreasonable description. Underground volcanic activity can release plumes of sulfurous gas, as rocks heat up in the absence of significant oxygen. Sulfur doesn’t always smell bad—given enough oxygen, it generally takes the form of an inoffensive sulfate. But when sulfur is given off from these hot underground sources, it comes in the stinky, rotten-eggs varieties of hydrogen sulfide or pure sulfur gas. (Think of a smelly, bubbling hot spring.) Gregory I, who became pope in 590 C.E., made the connection between volcanoes and hell more explicit. In his Dialogues, he describes a sinner “thrown into Vulcan’s gulph” on one of the volcanic islands north of Sicily.
The idea that Satan had a strong odor is consistent with ancient attitudes about smells. A connection between sweet, dry smells and the divine goes back to the Greek epics, and it shows up in precise terms in the Old Testament: The Lord tells Moses to prepare an anointing oil “blended as by the perfumer” consisting of liquid myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and olive oil. Rotten-smelling gases like hydrogen sulfide would have been associated with moral corruption.
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Explainer thanks Alan Bernstein of the University of Arizona, David Butterfield of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Susan Ashbrook Harvey of Brown University, and Gregory Mobley of Andover Newton Theological School.