13 February 2017


Joshua Cutchin. The Brimstone Deceit: An In-Depth Examination of Supernatural Scents, Otherworldly Odors and Monstrous Miasmas. Anomalist Books, 2016.

This book might have been titled or subtitled “By your nose ye shall know them” and, while there have been numerous books on supernatural sights and sounds this is almost certainly the first on supernatural smells. Cutchin notes that strange odours are associated with a variety of anomalous experiences., and here he concentrates on tales of UFOs, ghosts and Bigfoot.
While he documents a vast variety of pongs, they can fall into two categories, pleasant scenes such as perfume or flowers or perhaps even the smell of fish and chips, and fundamentally nasty smells, which often feature sulphur and its products, hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide.

Ghosts may smell of death and decay, UFOs can be associated with smells of sulphur, ozone and various chemicals and Bigfoot has a tendency to just stink the place out.

Cutchin devotes much space to the chemistry behind such smells and what inorganic and organic processes might produce them. I don’t feel confident to discuss much of that. I am more interested in what these smells symbolise, they seem to be a sort of shorthand which tells you something about the nature of what you are supposed to be dealing with. Saints or their bodies may exude sweet smells as symbols of their sanctity, UFOs may exude chemical smells as symbols of their technology and Bigfoot's stinks are symbols of its animality.

Perhaps the unifying theme is that of sulphur, which Cutchin points out is both a poison, especially in its compound form, and essential for life and can be used in healing. He does not bring out something that I think is crucial here, sulphur is a product of vulcanism, even to today there are sulphur miners who risk their lives getting the stuff from fuming volcanic craters.

Volcanoes are examples of nature at its wildest and most untameable. They are massively destructive and yet, post eruption, they leave extremely fertile terrain, which is why humans have settled around them despite the danger. Humans must have noticed this from very early times and volcanoes may well have been the earliest objects of worship as raw forces of creation and destruction. Volcanic mountains tower up to the heavens and descend to the depths and therefore are places where the underworld, the middle earth and the upper world of the gods meet and are passages between them.

In Christian mythology volcanoes acquired a more demonic character, it is their boiling lakes of lava that give rise to the idea that hell is some place of intense and ceaseless heat. Sulphur, being associated with volcanoes, becomes the symbol of chthonic depths and of ceaseless transformation.

Ozone is associated with lightning, another example of nature at its wildest, a bringer of wild fires which again are agents of death and fertility and thus of transformation.

Bigfoot’s foul stench marks its animality and its antithesis to polite human society. It is a creature of the wilderness and wild nature. The smell of decay associated with some ghosts harks back to times when ghosts were envisaged not as the ethereal wraiths of today but as raw boned, very physical rotting corpses. Corruption and decay are means by which a human body leaves the world of habitat and culture and enters the wilderness of raw nature. It is another example of transformation.

The supernatural smells documented here might therefore be assigned to two categories, ghostly scents of perfume, cooking (another example of transformation) etc. are symbols of lingering memories of a previous 'homely' habitat. The bad smells are symbolic of something coming in from outside the human habitat.

These intruders may superficially look like something from the habitat, bigfoot walks like and vaguely looks like a human being, but its hirsuteness and animal smells say it is nothing of the sort, UFOs may look like the products of technology and culture (whether human or alien) but the strange smells like their elusive behaviour suggests that they are something quite else. I suspect that this might be what Cutchin is suggesting with his alchemical allusions in the final chapter, but that is not a topic I have enough expertise to discuss.

If course you might not want to be inspired to these kind of philosophical musings by this book and it can be equally read as a source of either extraordinary human experiences or of modern folklore. It certainly represents a huge effort in collating material and will no doubt be referred to by people with very different viewpoints. – Peter Rogerson.

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