The Disturbing Truth Behind a Sardonic Grin
Creepy and more than a little uncomfortable to behold, one usually thinks of DC Comics' Joker when hearing the phrase "sardonic grin." A "smile" that pulls up the corners of the mouth in a way that paints the image of an invisible coat-hanger shoved between the teeth, the sardonic grin is essentially what stereotypical horror movie serial killers are made of. Yet the awkward and disturbing smile has a much more interesting tale behind it. While the phrase "sardonic grin" stems from the pre-Classical Odyssey of Homer, the influence on this term seems to have a long, bawdy history in the world of the ancient Mediterranean.
Many people think of this type of ‘smile’ when they hear “sardonic grin.” (Public Domain)
The Deadly Plant Behind a Sardonic Grin
The sardonic grin dates back to the ancient world—as most things with intriguing backgrounds appear to do. Hemlock, a naturally occurring herb usually associated with the forced suicide of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, plays a prominent role in the history of the creepy, serial killer grin. According to modern authors (such as Mauro Ballero) and ancient writers (such as Plato), a particular strand of the poisonous herb called "water-dropwort" grows throughout the Mediterranean, most commonly localized on the island of Sardinia. One might already see where this article is leading…
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As a form of the poison was used in the death of Socrates, it is highly evident that the deadly use of the plant was known about even before its role in his death. It is from the location of the hemlock herb—Sardinia—that the eventual idiom "sardonic grin" stems.
‘The Death of Socrates’ (1787) by Jacques-Louis David. (Public Domain)
So what was the first instance in which the deadly hemlock was used? And how does it relate to the creepy grin? While the first answer is unknown, it has been discovered through archaeological research that hemlock has a long use in the toolbox of assassins and hired killers.
One drop of the poisonous hemlock water-dropwort was enough to completely incapacitate the target—the victim's muscles would grow taut, making it impossible to move, and the unusually uncomfortable smile would spread across the victim's face. Because of the "frozen" musculature, the face would remain like that. Meanwhile, the assassin would complete his or her murderous job.
Water Dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). (CC BY SA 3.0)
An Illusion of Gratitude During “Mercy Killings”
The poisonous hemlock was also used for other, less sadistic purposes, though in many ways it was still highly immoral. Hemlock was employed by the Phoenicians of ancient Sardinia as a way to forcibly "euthanize" the elderly. Interpret that as you will.
Most often, the herb was dropped in the drink of an elderly individual, and then when the effects of the poison took over, the person would be killed through varying methods—the most commonly reported from ancient records are deadly beatings, boulders to the head, etc. All the while, the uncomfortable grin likely sent the illusion of gratitude to the euthanizers.
While the extent to which hemlock was employed for the purposes of "easing" the deaths of the elderly is recorded, the opinion of the elders is left for debate. The writers of the records were younger, so even the transcripts that remain, which might dictate the views of their elders, are likely tainted.
Did the elderly agree to this poisonous form of "mercy killing"? Could it even be called a "mercy killing" if these instances were, in fact, sneak attacks? Did it begin as a way by which younger family members could gain control of lands and money? And finally, if the tradition was widespread in Sardinia, was it a practice that was just accepted without argument by the populace as each individual aged?
Mask showing a possible sardonic grin. (Carole Raddato/CC BY SA 2.0)
One could not necessarily be "accidentally" poisoned. Although hemlock has a similar appearance to parsnip, an herb often used in cooking, hemlock is known for being very bitter—more so than a parsnip. Both the leaves and the root of hemlock have a terrible tang (though the latter is slightly less harsh) and, as both parts are also poisonous, it is unlikely that the elders were caught off guard by the correlation between drinking their beverage and their suddenly incapacitated limbs.
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A similar practice appears not only on Sardinia but throughout ancient Greece as well, this time the plant was 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 it is currently known—with Socrates’ death. Today, on the other hand, hemlock is sometimes incorporated into certain medicines in controlled dosages.
The Legacy of the Sardonic Grin
A risus sardonicus, grimacing smile, also appears in some cases of tetanus or strychnine poisoning, so hemlock poisoning is less likely to be associated with the term sardonic grin these days. However, it is interesting to consider that the term has lasted as a vernacular saying, with different situations linked to it, since the 8th century BC.
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 the sardonic grin is also uncomfortable to behold. The term also remains a commonly used metaphor in literary circles.
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. A possible example of a sardonic grin. Source: Carole Raddato/ CC BY SA 2.0
Updated on November 5, 2020.
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. https://sites.google.com/site/fregaphysics/science-in-the-media/strange-but-true/truthbehindthejokerssardonicsmile
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.