An unusual case of risus sardonicus

Is Mr Barbecue Bunny’s sardonic grin pre- or post-mortem?

Drawing by <a href=''>Andrés (de) Laguna de Segovia</a> of a candidate for the Sardinian laughing plant in <a href=''>a 1651 Valencian edition of Dioscorides</a>.

Drawing by Andrés (de) Laguna de Segovia of a candidate for the Sardinian laughing plant in a 1651 Valencian edition of Dioscorides.

Brewer’s says of the Sardinian [aka sardonic] laugh:

Laughing on the wrong side of one’s mouth. The Edinburgh Review says: “The ancient Sardinians used to get rid of their old relations by throwing them into deep pits, and the sufferers were expected to feel delighted at this attention to their well-being.” (July, 1849.)

In Diálogos familiares de la agricultura cristiana (1589) Juan de Pineda cuts the cant and gives a thoroughly Mediterranean explanation:

we say “sardonic” because on Sardinia children used roar with laughter as they killed their aged parents.

se dice sardónica porque en Cerdeña los hijos con grandes risadas mataban a sus padres viejos.

The conventional explanation (here from Laurent Joubert‘s rip-off in Treatise on laughter/Tratado de la risa of Dioscorides) is less jolly:

Among external causes (which the Greeks call “pro-cathartic”) that cause the cynical spasm, or dog laugh [κυνικός, dog-like → cynic], is to have eaten some type of ranunculus (called in Greek batrache and Latin ranuncula), especially those with leaves like wild celery, as it is called by Dioscorides. It is also called sardonia [Spanish; Latin herba Sardonia, so usually something like “Sardinian plant” in English] because it is abundant on Sardinia. It is very hot, and–as Dioscorides writes, and after him Paul of Aegina–“deprives those who eat it of their reason”, and by tensing the nerves in a certain fashion, contracts and stretches the lips in such a way as to make a grimace resembling laughter. Because of this sickness (always fatal) the term “sardonic laugh” has unfortunately become common. Pliny writes the same of this herb in his Natural history, as does Solinus in his Polyhistor [aka De mirabilibus mundi]. Alexander of Alexander [whohe?] says the following: “On Sardinia there grows a plant resembling wild celery, which when eaten causes death with the mouth retracted, as if laughing.” Pausanias says in his Fociacas [ie part of his Guide to Greece, where I caught the bug on the bog early this morning] that the island of Sardinia lacks poisonous herbs except one which causes death, and is similar to wild celery, and causes those who eat it to laugh as they die. Thus Homer, and others after him, have used the expression “sardonic grin”, for those who laugh in an unwholesome fashion. To explain the nature of this plant together with its pernicious quality, the vulgar herbalists call it laughing celery [L Apium risum].

Entre las causas externas (que los griegos llaman procatárticas) que originan el espasmo cínico, o risa de perro, está el haber comido algún tipo de ranúnculo (que se llaman en griego batrache y en latín ranuncula), sobre todo los que tienen hojas parecidas al apio silvestre, como lo llama Dioscórides. También lo llaman sardonia, porque abunda en Cerdeña. Es muy picante y–como escribe Dioscórides, y después de él Pablo de Egina–“quita el sentido a los que lo comen”, y por cierta tensión de los nervios, contrae y estira los labios, de tal modo que hacen una mueca parecida a la risa; debido a este mal (ciertamente mortal) la expresión “risa sardónica” se ha hecho corriente, por desgracia. Plinio escribe lo mismo sobre dicha hierba en su Historia natural, y también Solino en su Polihistoria. Alejandro de Alejandro dice lo siguiente: “En Cerdeña crece una hierba parecida al apio silvestre, que cuando se come, produce la muerte con la boca retraída, como riéndose”. Dice Pausanias en las Fociacas que la isla de Cerdeña carece de toda hierba venenosa excepto una que provoca la muerte, parecida al apio silvestre, y que quienes la comen se ríen al morir. Por eso Homero, y otros después de él, han usado la expresión “reír con risa sardónica”, para aquéllos que se ríen con risa malsana. Para explicar la forma de esta hierba junto con su perniciosa cualidad, los herbarios vulgares la han llamado apio de la risa.

Michael Gilleland discusses in more detail, and quotes some rather better stuff than I have here from the Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopaedia to which I will return for some chicken business, but that’s not where we’re going today.

The Joubert/Dioscorides comparison with the snarl of a nervous dog strikes me as a happy one–the same (involuntary) baring of teeth is seen in human tetanus victims–but Alonso López Pinciano finds an even finer likeness in his Filosofía antigua poética (1596):

[I]f you would consider well a dramatic poem, examine it outside the theatre, because a good actor will turn a bad work into good, and conversely a bad actor will turn good into bad. An actor should therefore observe the person he would imitate and transform himself into the other in such a way that it is seen not as imitation but property, because if he is imitating a tragic and grave person and he laughs, great ill he will do to what the poet intends, which is to move, and instead of moving to move instead of sorrow and tears, he will move to its opposite, laughter.

Well, said Pinciano, that’s not a bad trick if, instead of grief, it gives us pleasure.

And Hugo: That’s the sardonic laugh, or what we say of a rabbit being roasted which bares its teeth as if to laugh.

[S]i queréys examinar bien vn poema dramático, escudriñadle fuera de la representación, porque el actor bueno, de mala obra, hará buena, y al contrario, el malo, de buena, mala; conuiene, pues, que el actor mire la persona que va a imitar y de tal manera se transforme en ella, que a todos parezca no imitación, sino propiedad, porque, si va imitando a vna persona trágica y graue, y él se rye, muy mal hará lo que pretende el poeta, que es el mouer, y, en lugar de mouer a lloro y lágrimas, mouerá su contrario, la risa.

Pues, dixo el Pinciano, no es malo el trueco si, en vez de llanto, nos da placer.

Y Vgo : Essa es la risa sardónica o la que dezimos del conejo que le están assando y muestra los dientes como si se riesse.

Whether the beast here is still alive (in which case its cook probably throws donkeys off church steeples for a hobby), or whether it is undergoing post-mortem facial contractions, the image of Mr Bunny, his grin frozen in the flames, adds a deliciously morbid tint to the saying, “He who laughs last, laughs longest”. What will the vegetarians make of that?

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