Let's all line up and see if the ancient grumpy pagan face will bite our hands off!
Yes, I admit it, it was my idea.
One afternoon in Rome, I dragged my friends to see the Bocca della Verita, the Mouth of Truth, which hangs in the portico of a small church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
The legend, dating back to medieval times at least, tells us that the Bocca della Verita will bite the hands off of anyone who dares to tell a lie while putting their hand in the gaping stone mouth.
Imagine having something like that in a courtroom! Depending on how superstitious you are, it seems this might work at least as well as swearing on a stack of bibles.
Alas, the old tales also tell how the Mouth of Truth was discovered to be somewhat unreliable--some bonafide fib-tellers managed to keep all their limbs intact after all...as long as they worded things carefully:
It is said that the rich wife of a Roman noble was accused of adultery.
The woman denied the accusations, but her husband wanted to put her to the test by making her hand inside the stone mouth. Knowing perfectly well that she was lying, the woman used a very clever strategy.
In front of a group of curious bystanders who had gathered around the Mouth of Truth, the man who was actually her lover embraced her and kissed her. She pretended that she didn't know him and accused him of being a madman and the crowd chased him away.
When she put her hand into the mouth, the woman declared that she had never kissed any other man apart from her husband and the poor madman who had just kissed her. In this way she was certain that she hadn't lied and her hand was saved...
The Bocca is very old, dating back to 100 BC or so, and nobody seems to know its true origins. Some say it is merely a sinister-looking drain cover, or perhaps part of an old Roman fountain, but other archealogical evidence suggests that it is more likely that it came from a pagan temple, perhaps representing Oceanus, the god of the sea. One wonders what it is doing on the grounds of a Christian church... (hmmm..although it does funnel in people to see the remains of St. Valentine rather effectively as you have to pass through the church to exit...)
If you've ever seen the movie Roman Holiday , you will probably remember the scene when Gregory Peck's character pretends his hand has just been bitten off by the Mouth of Truth. Audrey Hepburn's startled scream was apparently not acting. His little prank was not part of the script. :)
Well, the Mouth of Truth didn't seem particularly hungry the day we visited (not a nibble on me), but despite its good mood my friend Tai wasn't taking any chances.
"I'm not putting my hand in there !" she announced, shaking her head and grinning .
And she didn't. Put her hand in the Mouth, that is.
But she did put her hand up its Nose.