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The Devil’s Stone

Joint project of St.-Petersburg Mining museum and Forpost Nord-West.
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Фото © Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Many religions suggest that hell is made of this stone. To be fair, its natural deposits often look as if they were the gates to hell. No wonder then the mineral was mentioned even in the Bible. And the notoriously bad reputation this mineral has it owes to particularly unpleasant smell, which has firmly tied its name with the Devil.

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Фото © Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

From the first century A.D., the ancient Romans started burning sulphur to protect homes from witchcraft. They thought the smudge, which was very similar to the smell of rotten eggs, could help them in the fight against evil spirits. Alchemists of the time were sure there was no metal, precious metals included, that could not be recovered from the compound of sulphur and mercury. As the Inquisition persecuted whatever activity the ‘medieval scientists’ were involved in, the mineral soon got an unofficial name of the ‘Satanic stone’.

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Фото © Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

The deliberate use of sulphur caused, however, a lot more problems than consequences of its accidental use. A particular area worthy of mention is the military where the mineral found application as a critical component of the gun powder. For 500 years, the latter had remained the only explosive available to humankind.

Chinese were the first to make the weapon out of sulphur. Locals used to mix it with coal first, and then they filled bamboo tubes with that powder. When ignited, the pipes started releasing the clouds of smoke and thereby warned local residents of the imminent danger. There was also another formula - Chinese people were adding saltpetre to the mixture and thus making sky-rockets and fireworks.

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Фото © Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Byzantines, in turn, transformed the mineral into the ‘liquid fire’, also known as ‘Greek fire’. Nobody knows the exact components the hot mixture was made of. The recipe did not survive, but it is believed that in addition to sulphur, it included petroleum and oil. Such mixture fuel was particularly popular during the Medieval warfare. The substance was placed in launching devices, which were explicitly designed for that purpose. The launchers produced jet flames; the cocktail was spreading through seawater while burning, making the enemy troops running away in fear.

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Фото © Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

For peaceful purposes, sulphur is applied in medicine, for instance. Ancient Egyptians were applying sulphur ointment to disinfect wounds and take care of the skin around their eyes. Sulphur-based agents are still in use, even nowadays - doctors prescribe them for treatment of scabies and fungal diseases.

Sulphur, in its pure form, is rarely found in nature in large quantities. One of the few places where sulphur is mined is the Ijen crater, which is a part of the volcano complex located in East Java, Indonesia. The work is very demanding, and miners get to work in abusive conditions. Sulphur deposits are found in the mouth of the volcano, near the crater lake filled with sulphuric acid. Although the lake emits toxic gas, locals workers have neither protective suits nor respirators. Still, in its pure state, the stone is totally harmless.

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Фото © pixabay.com

Spontaneous combustion is the main problem linked to the storage of this mineral. As for the nasty scent, sulphur, in reality, does not smell at all. The obnoxious odour only appears if one would set the bright yellow mineral to fire.