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The Mouth of Truth

July 24, 2013

First posted 2/10/12


Among Rome’s many churches is Santa Maria in Cosmedin, where Saint Valentine’s bones are said to be kept. However, the most famous attraction in this church is not the saint; it is the legendary Boca della Veritas—The Mouth of Truth.


We aren’t exactly sure what the Boca della Veritas is, maybe part of a fountain or a massive manhole cover from Ancient Rome. We do know that since the Middle Ages this object has served a curious purpose—as a lie detector. Here’s how it works: place your hand in the oracle’s mouth and he’ll bite it off if you’re telling a lie. If you have a penchant for romantic movies you might remember this from the film Roman Holiday, where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn test the oracle with a few fibs.


I can tell you from firsthand experience that the oracle does not work. Perhaps it once did, and this is where the legend comes into play. Five hundred years ago the Boca della Veritas told the truth so accurately that no one dared to lie and place a hand in its mouth. As the story goes, a young couple was brought before the oracle. The young man was vicious and cruel. He’d been ordered by his father to marry this girl. The girl had been likewise ordered by her father to marry this vain and disagreeable young man.


Honoring ancient tradition, friends and family brought the couple before the oracle to place their hands in the god’s mouth and proclaim that they had not so much as kissed anyone else. Her heart was broken because she’d been forced to give up her secret lover, a kind and generous man to whom she’d given her heart as well as her lips.


She was terrified to put her hand in the large stone mouth, terrified that it would be bitten off if she lied and terrified that she’d be ostracized and thrown out of her parents’ home if her secret became known. She didn’t know what to do. Just as her fingers reached the ancient orifice, a beggar in rags burst through the crowd, grabbed her and planted a passionate kiss on her mouth. It was her lover in disguise. The crowd, having no idea who he was, seized the crazy fellow and threw him out of the church.


The young woman smiled, placed her hand inside the Boca della Veritas’ mouth and told the truth. “I have been kissed passionately by a man who is not my husband.”


Her fiancé was humiliated to have his future wife—his property—devalued in such a public fashion. He refused to marry her and stormed out of the church. Her friends and family took pity on her for being tarnished by a madman. Months later she convinced her father to permit her to marry the man she loved, the same man who’d kissed her in the church. The two lived a long and happy life.


Realizing it had been scammed, the Boca della Veritas got angry and decided to call it quits. This hasn’t prevented thousands of tourists over the centuries from flocking to the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin to place their trembling hands inside the stone mouth.


Should you decide to join them be careful not to lie while doing so. At any moment the oracle might decide to get back into the lie detector business. People with nicknames like Lefty and Stumpy will have a lot of explaining to do. 




This reminds me of that scene from The Mummy (or was it the Mummy Returns?)...
By: The Bug on July 24, 2013
Hi Stephen, I'm running out the door. Will return to read and respond to this post. In the meantime, I've linked to you today. Cheers, xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on July 24, 2013
fascinating! We need a working model in WDC.
By: Kathe W. on July 24, 2013
Could we use that instead of the Bible when we swear in our public officials?
By: Cranky on July 24, 2013
An interesting post, Stephen. Thank you for sharing the story. All's well that ends well. I loved it!
By: Sharon Bradshaw on July 24, 2013
loved the good, romantic lore with a happy ending! :)
By: TexWisGirl on July 24, 2013
Very interesting indeed. I'm glad she got to marry the one she loved. Yes I am. Have a fabulous day. :)
By: Comedy Plus on July 24, 2013
I love Roman Holiday, but didn't know the whole story. Thanks for sharing. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on July 24, 2013
Ha! People back then didn't stick a foot in the mouth back then, but a hand will do~
By: Shelly on July 24, 2013
When we were in Rome, I put my hand in there. I don't believe in the legend (& I didn't know he had supposedly retired) but I was STILL nervous!!
By: fishducky on July 24, 2013
I wonder if any man has ever been brave enough to try a different part of the anatomy? It would be an apt test for alleged adulterers!
By: Bryan Jones on July 24, 2013
A great post and a terrific story.
By: Tom Cochrun on July 24, 2013
Facinating story and folklore. If only it were true and politicians had to confess before the oracle. I dare say no country would recognize their respective leaders. lol
By: Daniel LaFrance on July 24, 2013
I remember that movie scene clearly. I was young and it was so fascinating!
By: Tabor on July 24, 2013
Thanks for the fun story!
By: mimi on July 24, 2013
Great story! and I do remember the scene well from the movie.
By: Sam Edge on July 24, 2013
Now I want to go back to Italy just to shove my hand in there.
By: Joe on July 24, 2013
What a clever young man to save her by planting a kiss. Of course, if it has any truth at all, the man could of got his ass kicked. Oh but the happy ending is so much better.
By: Cheryl P. on July 24, 2013
There is something about his gaze that frightens me. Or maybe I just feel guilty.
By: Val on July 24, 2013
There is, actually, something a bit scary about its face. I wouldnt want to put my hand in its mouth, whatever.
By: Jenny Woolf on July 24, 2013
Well, I guess Anthony Weiner won't be visiting.
By: Al Penwasser on July 24, 2013
I've kissed the Blarney Stone, but never had the chance to test the bocca della veritas. Maybe it's just as well! Anyway, I'm going to see if I can find Roman Holiday on Netflix.
By: tom sightings on July 24, 2013
Loved the movie Roman Holiday, and I remember the scene. Thanks for telling the story behind the mouth of truth.
By: Pixel Peeper on July 24, 2013
Who knows what lies The Mouth told in its time.
By: Catalyst/Bruce on July 24, 2013
Stories like this enrich our culture.
By: Red on July 24, 2013
Fascinating story.
By: John on July 25, 2013
An amazing story. Wouldn't it be cool if there really was some truth to it? Put that puppy in Washington for a few days....Oooo....I'm getting tingly just thinking about it. ;) S
By: Scott Park on July 25, 2013

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