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Headword: *sarda/nios ge/lws
Adler number: sigma,124
Translated headword: sardonic laugh, sardonic laughter
Vetting Status: high
A proverb in reference to those laughing at their own death. Demon [says] that it was handed down because the inhabitants of Sardinia used to sacrifice to Cronus the finest of their captives and those over 70 years of age, who laughed to show their courage (that is, bravery).[1] But Timaeus [says] that those who had lived long enough in Sardinia used to laugh when they were herded by their sons with wooden staves into the trench in which they were about to be buried.[2] Others [say] that it came from grinning with mischievous intent.[3] And Clitarchus[4] and others say that in Carthage, during great prayers, they place a boy in the hands of Cronus (a bronze statue is set up, with outstretched hands, and under it a baking oven) and then put fire under; the boy shrunk by the fire seems to laugh.[5] Simonides[6] [says] that when the Sardinians did not wish to hand over to Minos Talos, the crafted man, the latter leapt into a fire, being made of bronze, and, clasping them to his breast, killed them with their mouths open. Silenus [Author, Myth], in the fourth book of his History of Syracuse,[7] [says] that there is among the Sardinians an herb resembling celery and those who taste it bite off pieces of their own faces [i.e. lips] and flesh.[8] Some [say] that it is of those laughing at evil, as Homer says of Odysseus, 'But godlike Odysseus smiled a sardonic smile,'[9] and elsewhere, 'She laughed sweetly with her lips, but her face was not cheerful under her dark brows.'[10]
Greek Original:
*sarda/nios ge/lws: paroimi/a e)pi\ tw=n e)p' o)le/qrw| tw=| sfw=n au)tw=n gelw/ntwn: h(\n *dh/mwn me\n diadoqh=nai, o(/ti oi( *sardo/na katoikou=ntes ai)xmalw/twn te tou\s kalli/stous kai\ presbute/rous u(pe\r o# e)/th tw=| *kro/nw| e)/quon, gelw=ntas, e(/neka tou= to\ eu)/andron e)mfh=nai [toute/stin a)ndrei=on]. *ti/maios de/, tou\s i(kano\n bebiwko/tas xro/non e)n *sardoi= sunwqoume/nous sxi/zais u(po\ tw=n ui(w=n ei)s o(\n e)/mellon qa/ptesqai bo/qron gela=n. oi( de/, a)po\ tou= seshre/nai meta\ a)ni/as. kai/ fasin a)/lloi te kai\ *klei/tarxos, e)n *karxhdo/ni e)n tai=s mega/lais eu)xai=s pai=da tai=s xersi\ tou= *kro/nou e)pitiqe/ntas [i(/drutai de\ xalkou=s, probeblhme/nas e)/xwn ta\s xei=ras u(f' w(=| kri/banos], e)/peita u(pokai/ein: to\n de\ sunelko/menon u(po\ tou= puro\s dokei=n gela=n. *simwni/dhs de\ *ta/lwn to\n h(faisto/teukton *sardwni/ous ou) boulome/nous peraiw=sai pro\s *mi/nw|a, ei)s pu=r kaqallo/menon, w(s a)\n xalkou=n, prosternizo/menon a)nairei=n e)pixa/skontas. *silhno\s de\ e)n d# tw=n peri\ *surakou/sas la/xanon ei)=nai para\ *sardwni/ois h(du/, seli/nw| e)mfere/s: ou(= tou\s geusame/nous ta/s te siago/nas kai\ ta\s sa/rkas e(autw=n a)poda/knein. e)/nioi de\ tou\s e)pi\ kakw=| gelw=ntas: w(s kai\ *)odusse/a fhsi\n *(/omhros: mei/dhse de\ di=os *)odusseu\s *sardw/nion. kai\ e)n a)/llois: h(du\ ge/lasse xei/lessin, ou)de\ me/twpon e)p' o)fru/si kuane/h|sin i)a/nqh.
See also sigma 123, and other references cited at Photius sigma82 Theodoridis (taken to derive from Pausanias the Atticist); also Tosi [cited under alpha 378] no.1368.
These many fanciful explanations, many basing the definition on retracted lips rather than the sound of laughter, arise from attempts to explain Odysseus's sardonic smile when he avoids being killed by an ox's jaw thrown by one of the suitors (Homer, Odyssey 20.302). The scholiasts on that passage and on Plato, Republic 337A, think the adjective is related to the participle seshrw/s which refers to grinning or sneering. The connection with Sardinia perhaps arises from early antiquarians wishing to show their knowledge of the customs of the Sardinians or of the Phoenician colonists there. The adjective for Sardinian is usually not 'Sardanios' but 'Sardonios.' Sardinia was, however, an active source of Phoenician trade in metallurgy well before Homer's day (see OCD(4) s.v. Sardinia), and a connection is possible. The phrase occurs of laughter in Plato (Republic 337A, with a lengthy note by the scholiast, again differing slightly from the Suda, the Homeric scholia and the scholia to Lycophron, Alexandra 796), Cicero (ad Familiares 7.25.1) and elsewhere.
[1] FGrH 327 F18.
[2] FGrH 566 F64.
[3] So the scholia on Homer, Odyssey 20.302, seshro\s e)p' o)le/thrwi, 'sneering at death'.
[4] FGrH 137 F9.
[5] Indeed the Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed children by fire.
[6] The story of Talos, the living man crafted of bronze in Cretan mythology, is mentioned in Simonides fr. 202A Bergk. On the confusion between Simonides of Keos and his near-homonym Semonides of Amorgos see sigma 446, and elsewhere e.g. M.L. West in OCD(4) 1343.
[7] FGrH 175 F5.
[8] This herb is probably Sardinian crowsfoot (Ranunculus Sardous), whose taste screws up the face. It was also mentioned by Sophocles in Daedalus (fr.160). The entry has perhaps confused an explanation of 'sarcasm' from a verb for 'to bite the lips in rage' (Galen 19.136).
[9] An approximation of Homer, Odyssey 20.301-2.
[10] Homer, Iliad 15.101-3 (which begins h(= de\, not h(du\), of Hera at the council of the gods.
The FGrH commentary to Demon F18 (see n.1 above).
D. Lateiner, Sardonic Smile: Nonverbal behavior in Homeric Epic 1995. [Despite its title this work discusses our subject only at pp.193-5, without elucidating Odyssey 20.209-302 except to point out, "The multivalent sardonic smile responds to an unprovoked attack."]
Keywords: aetiology; art history; botany; children; daily life; definition; epic; geography; historiography; mythology; poetry; proverbs; religion
Translated by: Robert Dyer on 29 May 2000@04:19:10.
Vetted by:
Catharine Roth (Made slight alterations in wording and punctuation; raised status.) on 20 August 2000@01:21:40.
David Whitehead (augmented notes and bibliography; added keywords; cosmetics) on 22 May 2001@05:25:53.
David Whitehead on 22 May 2001@05:58:55.
David Whitehead (restorative and other cosmetics) on 12 September 2002@08:25:41.
William Hutton ((with assistance from Alex Gottesman) modified note) on 14 November 2002@14:27:56.
David Whitehead (more keywords; cosmetics) on 3 May 2011@10:27:48.
Catharine Roth (added italics) on 3 May 2011@15:11:53.
David Whitehead (added Tosi) on 16 August 2012@10:34:43.
David Whitehead (expanded primary note; cosmetics) on 22 December 2013@05:57:52.
David Whitehead (updated 2 refs; typo) on 2 August 2014@11:03:16.
Catharine Roth (cosmetics) on 7 October 2014@23:39:00.
Catharine Roth (coding) on 7 October 2014@23:41:25.


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