Detail of a Phoenician grinning mask, 4th century BC, found in a grave at San Sperate, Cagliari, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

An Ancient Method of Forced Euthanasia: The Disturbing Truth Behind a Sardonic Grin

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Executing Law-breakers

A similar practice appears not only on Sardinia but throughout the rest of modern day Greece as well, this time used as a way to execute convicted law-breakers. Socrates, though his "wrongness" is still highly debated, is among those prime examples. In these particular cases, the distribution of hemlock is considered a form of forced suicide, in which the lawbreaker knowingly drank poison with full awareness as to what would result. As seen with Socrates, hemlock is not only a way in which the body can be incapacitated so the victim can be killed; records of its use have also indicated the herb itself can be a highly lethal poison depending on the amount distributed. Such was the case—as far as is currently known—with Socrates.

In the present, a "sardonic grin" has become a term most often used to describe a grimace—a smile that never reaches the eyes, and which gives the appearance of a "clothes-hanger smile". It looks forced, and painful, and uncomfortable to behold. While hemlock is no longer associated with the term, it is interesting to consider that the term has lasted as a vernacular saying since the 8th century BC. Today, hemlock can be incorporated into certain medicines in controlled dosages; however, the sardonic grin remains one of the more commonly used metaphors in literary circles.

A scary-looking grin.

A scary-looking grin. ( CC0)

Top Image: Detail of a Phoenician grinning mask, 4th century BC, found in a grave at San Sperate, Cagliari, Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Source: Carole Raddato/ CC BY SA 2.0

By Riley Winters


Appendino, Giovanni, Mauro Ballero, et al. 2009. "Polyacetylenes from Sardinian Oenanthe fistulosa: A Molecular Clue to risus sardonicus ." The American Chemical Society and American Society of Pharmacognosy. 72.5. pp. 962-965.

Frega. 2009. "Truth behind the Joker's Sardonic Smile?" Frega Physics . Accessed Ocotber 9, 2017.

Christiani, Kerry and Duncan Garwood. 2014. Lonely Planet Sardinia . Lonely Planet.

Owen, James. 2009. "Ancient Death-Smile Potion Decoded?" National Geographic News. Accessed October 5, 2017.


Seem the more <em>urban</em> and <em>civilised</em> we are, the less we appreciate our elders. I think we must be at the epitome of our current society.

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