George Stimpson

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What was the potion drunk by Socrates?

The source of the poison that Socrates was condemned to drink has never been positively identified. It is commonly supposed to have been prepared from the European water hemlock, Cicuta virosa, which produces a virulent narcotic poison, or from the common European poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, which is a biennial plant belonging to the parsley family and contains a yellowish, oily, poisonous liquid, the active principle of which is alkaloid. The Greeks called the potion drunk by Socrates coneion, and the weight of evidence indicates that. it was derived from poison hemlock, which is also known as St.-Bennet's-herb and spotted parsley. Hemlock is of English and not of Greek origin and it was not applied to the potion [page 20] taken by the Greek philosopher until about the sixteenth century. Shakespeare refers to hemlock as a drug or poison. In Macbeth one of the witches speaks of the "root of hemlock, digg'd i' the dark," and in the same play Banquo probably refers to that plant when asks, "Have we eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?" The King James translation of the Bible makes Amos the prophet say that "ye have turned judgment into gall, and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock." However, the word hemlock is applied to several other plants of the same general family, and in the United States it is applied to certain evergreen trees because their leaf arrangement was supposed to resemble that of the common poison hemlock, which has been naturalized in America. So far as known no part of the American hemlock tree is poisonous and there is probably no basis for the occasional reports of persons becoming poisoned as the result of mistaking the hemlock tree for slippery elm and chewing or eating it. Some of the Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest and in the Southwest regularly made cakes of the soft and sweet inner bark of this tree, and hemlock bark used to be carried by seamen as a medicine for scurvy. The poison hemlock is an erect branching plant ranging in height from two to six feet, with a stout, hollow, bright-green stem spotted with purple, with finely divided leaves and with small white flowers in umbrellalike clusters. When bruised the plant emits a disagreeable, mouselike odor. All parts of the plant, but particularly the fruit and roots, contain confine, which was so called because it was believed to be the coneion of the Greeks. It has a stupefying odor, is used medicinally as a sedative and when taken into the human body in proper quantities acts as a powerful irritant poison, producing paralysis of the motor nerves. Persons are sometimes poisoned by mistaking the leaves of the poison hemlock for those of parsley or its roots for parsnips. Hemlock poison weakens and paralyzes the muscles, affecting the feet and lower limbs first, and then gradually extending upwards until it affects the heart and the respiratory organs. As a rule the victim does not become senseless or unconscious or have convulsions until the lungs are paralyzed and the breath cut off. Presumably it was such a death as this that Socrates, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, died in 399 B.C. He was charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and neglecting the gods. A pure and humble man, who honestly regarded himself as a public bene­factor, he treated the charges with contempt, with the result that he was condemned to death and compelled under the Athenian law to take coneion, which we now suppose to have been a potion of poison [page 21] hemlock. The phrase "to drink the hemlock" did not originate until about 2,000 years after the death of Socrates, although it is often used as if it were the literal translation of a Greek phrase.