Thursday 9 May 2019

The Scent of Hemlock

hemlock in spring (Wikimedia Commons)
by Caroline Lawrence

As I write this, in May 2019, I’m working on a book set in ancient Athens. As usual, I’m seeking out as much sensory detail as possible: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. I do that to spark synapses in the imaginative right brain, thereby bringing the book alive to young readers. But I’m also doing it for the same reason I write my books: to transport myself back in time. 

In my latest book, The Time Travel Diaries, a 12-year-old London schoolboy named Alex goes back to third century Roman London to find a blue-eyed girl with an ivory knife. She was a real girl whose grave was found not far from the site of Shakespeare’s Globe. In the sequel, which I’m working on now, Alex goes back even further to witness the death of Socrates. 

figurine of Socrates in the British Museum
Socrates was the famous fifth century BC Greek philosopher who was the first to bring philosophy down from the stars and into men’s lives. He buzzed around Athens like an annoying mosquito, challenging ancient Greeks to make sure their souls were noble. He’s the one who claimed that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’.  Finally the politicians and the people he’d pestered decided that enough was enough. They charged him with impiety and sentenced him to death. 

And so, in early summer of the year 399 BC, seventy-year-old Socrates had to drink poison hemlock. 

Apart from a possibly spurious verse, Socrates left not a single written word. But like Jesus, who also died a martyr’s death, he was immortalised by his disciples, the most famous of whom was Plato. Plato is, of course, a giant of western philosophy. All his so-called dialogues have survived and he has been studied avidly without ever going out of fashion for two and a half thousand years. Plato taught Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. 

But it was Socrates who started it all. Without him, our culture would look very different.
David's famous 'Death of Socrates' (1787) Wikimedia Commons

Over the past two and a half millennia scholars have debated the accuracy of Plato’s portrayal of Socrates. For example, at the end of the dialogue called Phaedo, Plato writes vividly of Socrates’ death. He describes how Socrates bravely downed a cup full of hemlock and asked the executioner what he should do next. ‘Walk around until your legs begin to go numb, then lie down.’ Socrates duly walked around, gently rebuking a dozen or so of his friends for wailing and weeping. He reminded them that it is right to die in dignified silence. 

As the paralysis worked its way up, he lay down on his prison cot. The executioner pinched his calves and then thighs, asking if he could feel anything. As the pinches went higher, Socrates calmly said he could not feel anything. ‘When it reaches your heart,’ said the man who had given him the hemlock, ‘it will be over.’ Socrates covered his face and lay quietly. Suddenly he uncovered his face and spoke his last words to his aged best friend: ‘Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius; pay it and don’t forget.’ Then he covered his face again. A little later Socrates twitched and when the executioner uncovered his face they saw that he was dead. Crito gently closed his friend’s mouth and eyes. 

The death of Socrates is so calm and dignified that many commentators argued that Plato was sugar-coating the description. They claim that real hemlock poisoning would have included violent convulsions and other unpleasant symptoms. This is because over the years several different plants have received the name hemlock, including ‘water hemlock’ and a kind of fir tree. Although Plato only refers to the poison as the pharmakon (the drug) in this particular dialogue, he mentions hemlock by name in a few other places (e.g. the dialogue called Lysis) using the Greek word konion

In an article published in 2001 by Enid Bloch: Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth? Bloch concludes that if konion refers to conium maculatum also known as ‘poison hemlock’, then ‘Plato not only told the truth, he did so with astounding medical accuracy.’ You can read the article online HEREA slightly longer version of this paper was published in 2002 in The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies. This version of Blochs article contains sixty-five footnotes, some of which describe the smell of hemlock and the bodily sensations it arouses. 

One feature of the plant that everyone from Pliny the Elder to Dioscorides has mentioned is the strong or ‘heavy’ smell. Some commentators have likened the smell of hemlock to that of mice or even cat urine. In footnote 64, Professor Bloch confesses that she has never lived with either cats or mice so she can neither confirm nor deny this observation. 

hemlock in winter (Chelsea Physic Garden)
In footnotes 12 & 63 Bloch tells how a gardener at Cornell University’s Poisonous Plants Garden showed her various types of hemlock and other toxic plants. Krissy Faust even gifted Bloch with some poison hemlock plants so she could study them in the privacy of her own home. When Bloch remarked on the gnarled appearance of the roots, Faust explained that in loose or sandy soil the roots would have grown straight down, like carrots, but ‘in the hard clay of Ithaca, New York’ the roots become bent and twisted in a way which perfectly illustrates one Greek description of the roots as koilay kai ou bathia (twisted and not deep). 

In footnote 65 Bloch relates how on several occasions she has brought hemlock into her Socrates classes. She offers students the opportunity to examine the stalks, always warning them of the possible toxic effect of merely sniffing the plant. ‘Virtually everyone’ who has a sniff reports an ‘immediate feeling of car-sickness and a mild but sharp headache’. Bloch herself describes the queasy sensation as something closer to morning-sickness than car-sickness but acknowledges that most of her students might not be familiar with that particular kind of nausea. 

Elsewhere in the article Bloch says the scent of hemlock is ‘like a very heavy, peculiar tea, clinging obnoxiously in the mouth and nose, as if it had entered the body and not let go.’ A 12-year-old Time Traveller like Alex might describe the smell as Cat Pee Tea. 

So, although Bloch believes that Socrates died peacefully and with dignity, her findings also persuade us that drinking hemlock was nonetheless very unpleasant.

Kids, don
t try this at home! 

The Time Travel Dialogues, Caroline’s sequel to The Time Travel Diaries, will be published in 2020.

No comments: