A Whiff of Something Rotten

Daily Draw March 31st, 2013

Chemical Pollution
TMA – XV – The Devil
Metaphysical World


The author of this deck associates the element of Sulphur with The Devil in the Tarot Major Arcana (TMA), which is not surprising since the devil is supposed to smell of sulphur in folk tales, and mention of sulphur occurs 15 times in the Bible, particularly in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Plus The Devil archetype is about being chained to something, in this case our fondness for the industry of pollution.

This element has been known for centuries and a word for it is found in almost every language, even indigenous languages. All living things need sulphur, and it’s part of the amino acid methionine which is a crucial dietary requirement for humans. It’s also part of the amino acid cysteine and important for forming peptide chains and proteins. Vitamin B1 has a sulphur atom in it. There are sulphuric natural chemicals in garlic and onions which give them the flavour and smell we like.

Elemental sulphur isn’t toxic but some of its derivatives are like sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. Yet, sulphur dioxide in small amounts is a good preservative, as are the sulphites that are derivatives of sulphur dioxide. Sodium, calcium, and potassium sulphite salts in solution are excellent preservatives, and sprayed on vegetables in grocery stores for instance. Sulphur dioxide is in wine and has been used since Roman times. Back then they would burn sulphur, thus forming sulphur dioxide, which would then be absorbed by the grape juice. The Romans also made sulphur matches.

In ancient times sulphur was burned as a fumigant, and around 950 AD the Chinese started using it for gunpowder. In World War I, the painful and toxic mustard gas used was a sulphur compound. A sulphur compound was developed as an antidote to it, and is still in use today to treat people for heavy metal poisoning.

Sulphur occurs naturally near volcanoes, and Sicily supplied much of the sulphur in ancient times. They mine it, and even in the nineteenth century there were still 50,000 men mining sulphur in Sicily. More modern extraction methods involve melting it with steam and then pumping it out.

There are sulphide minerals like pyrite, and cinnabar the beauteous is mercury sulphide, and sulphur is found abundantly as sulphates like gypsum which is a calcium sulphate, but there are many others. This is where my high school chemistry breaks down and I start getting mixed up! We use it in many forms for everything it seems. Sulphur is used to vulcanize rubber for tires and in making corrosion resistant concrete that holds up better and is resistant to frost, for two examples of rather unexpected uses.

The main source of sulphur in industry is the hydrogen sulphide of natural gas. This has to be removed from natural gas before use. They spray it with a solvent, the hydrogen sulphide melts into the solvent solution and then the solution is treated with a certain amount of oxygen which reacts to form water and leaves the sulphur behind. It can be burned for fuel or used as feed for making other chemicals.

Most pure sulphur is burned or roasted to create sulphur dioxide, and that in turn is heated with oxygen and a catalyst to turn it in sulphuric acid, the gold of current human civilization and the world’s number one industrial chemical. Really? Consider these uses of sulphuric acid: phosphate fertilizers, removal of rust from iron and steel prior to painting, explosives, fuels, rayon, cellophane, paints, enamels, paper, dyestuffs, antifreeze, detergents.

On top of creating sulphur dioxide for chemical and industrial purposes, we burn coal and heating oil and also release it that way. On and on it goes. The trouble is that we overdo it, we drench everything with this chemical, we spew it into the air. Yes, it occurs naturally, and our bodies need it, but you can see that the HUGE amounts of sulphur and its derivatives and compounds produced by humans have simply overwhelmed the Earth. We are absolutely chained to it, since millions of products and our food production is chained to it.

What struck me is that with the incredible intelligence of homo sapiens, the staggering ability we have to figure things out, the hours of research that went into discovering these processes, why can we not do something in an alternate way, a way that doesn’t kill and poison? We can of course, but we take the easy way, the way that makes the most money right now. There is no future in it. We do not care.

The Devil indeed.

I think of Dylan Thomas’s lines from Fern Hill:

Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.



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