The word ‘sardonic’ has its roots in the name Sardinia, because a plant commonly found on the island was used in potions which gave corpses a grimace after death.
Researchers have established that chemical compounds in the plant, tubular water-dropwort, cause muscles in the face to contract, producing a strange rictus grin.
“Our discovery supports what many cultural anthropologists have said about death rituals among the ancient Sardinians,” said Mauro Ballero, a botanist from Cagliari University in Sardinia.
The plant was used in pre-Roman times for the ritual killing of old people who had become a burden to society.
“According to ancient historians, elderly people unable to support themselves were intoxicated with the herb and then killed by being dropped from a high rock or by being beaten to death,” the research team wrote in the latest edition of the US Journal of Natural Products.
“The facial muscular contraction induced by the sardonic herb mimicked a smile, and the expression risus sardonicus (sardonic smile) to indicate a sinister smile is well documented in the Latin and Greek literature and in most modern European languages.”
The Greek poet Homer first used the word ‘sardonic’ after learning that the Punic people who settled Sardinia gave condemned men or elderly people the grimace-inducing potion.
“The Punics were convinced that death was the start of new life, to be greeted with a smile,” Dr Ballero told Italy’s Ansa news agency.
The plant, which is common on the Mediterranean island, is known in Latin as Oenanthe crocata but to Sardinians as water celery. It is distantly related to carrots and parsnips but is highly poisonous.
The discovery may have applications in medicine today, the research team believe. Its properties could be adapted so that instead of causing muscles to contract, they would cause them to relax – helping people with facial paralysis.
“The good news is that the molecule in this plant may be retooled by pharmaceutical companies to have the opposite effect,” said Dr Ballero.
Ancient Death-Smile Potion Decoded?
By the eighth century B.C., Homer had coined the term “sardonic grin”—”sardonic” having its roots in “Sardinia”—in writings referring to the island’s ritual killings via grimace-inducing potion.
Elderly people who could no longer care for themselves and criminals “were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death,” according to the new study.
For centuries the herb’s identity has been a mystery, but study leader Giovanni Appendino and colleagues say they have discovered a sardonic grin-inducing compound in a plant called hemlock water-dropwort.
The white-flowered plant grows on celery-like stalks along ponds and rivers on the island, now part of Italy.
Modern Suicide, Ancient Mystery
About a decade ago, a Sardinian shepherd committed suicide by eating a hemlock water-dropwort, leaving a corpse with a striking grin.
The death spurred study co-author Mauro Ballero, a botanist at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, to study every dropwort-related fatality on the island in recent decades.
For the new study, Ballero and colleagues detailed the molecular structure of the plant’s toxin and determined how it affects the human body.
Study leader Appendino, an organic chemist from the Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale in Italy, said, “The compound is highly toxic and causes symptoms similar to those described by the ancients for the sardonic smile, including facial paralysis.”
Hemlock water-dropwort “was already known to contain neurotoxins and was the most likely candidate for the sardonic herb,” Appendino said.
The hairy buttercup (aka the Sardinian buttercup) was also a candidate, but that plant doesn’t grow in the damp places mentioned in ancient texts, nor does it make sense in terms of its toxic properties, Appendino said.
“Besides, Sardinia is the only place all over the Mediterranean where [hemlock water-dropwort] grows,” he added.
A Better Botox?
A member of the deadly hemlock family, the herb is especially dangerous because of its fragrant smell and sweet-tasting roots.
“Generally poisonous plants are bitter or in some way repel people,” Appendino said.
Hemlock water-dropwort “is only the second case I know of a toxic plant that is actually attractive to our senses. People might easily eat it in a potion,” he added—or perhaps apply it in a lotion.
Appendino speculates that the plant may prove to have a cosmetic application.
“It relaxes the muscles,” he said, “so it removes wrinkles.”