To Tell the Truth
Long before the modern lie detector, the untruthful faced a much more severe fate between the jaws of La Bocca della Verità, or Mouth of Truth, an ancient carving which is said to `bite the hands off of liars.’
The massive Roman marble mask weighs over a ton and depicts the face of a man, most likely a representation of the sea god Oceanus. The eyes, nostrils and mouth are open. Historians are not certain what the original purpose of the disc was. It was possibly used as a drain cover in the nearby Temple of Hercules Invictus, which had an oculus (a round open space in the middle of the roof) similar to that of the Pantheon. It is also thought that cattle merchants used it to drain the blood of cattle sacrificed to the god Hercules.
In the thirteenth century, the disc was removed from the temple and placed against the wall of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. In the seventeenth century, it was eventually moved to its current location inside the portico of the church.
The marble disc is now famous for the medieval legend that is associated with it. People believed that the mouth of the marble face would close if anyone put his hand in it and told a lie – the ancient equivalent of today’s lie detector.
Those who were accused of committing perjury or adultery were brought here. They had to swear under oath and then put their hand into the mouth. Legend has it that it was even used during the Middle Ages as a trial by ordeal. An executioner would hide behind the disc with a sharp sword ready to strike.
The legend became a popular part of culture and even today parents threaten fibbing children with a visit to the Mouth of Truth. In the nineteenth century, Italian writer Gioacchino Belli wrote a poem about the legend and the Mouth of Truth even entered American culture when it featured in the 1953 movie “Roman Holiday.”
The Mouth of Truth stands against the left wall of the portico of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church in the Piazza della Bocca della Verità, the site of the ancient Forum Boarium, an ancient cattle market. It attracts plenty of tourists who audaciously stick their hand in its mouth.