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Nightwings and the Mouth of Truth

I recently read the book Nightwings by Robert Silverberg. The book is a collection of three stories originally published in Galaxy magazine in 1968-1969. This edition is part of IDW Publishing’s “New Classics of the Fantastic” imprint.

The stories are set in the future on Earth, in the “Third Cycle”. The First Cycle is our own time. The Second Cycle represented the height of technology and learning and the fellowship with the worlds of the galaxy, culminating in a great fall due to arrogance. In the Third Cycle, mankind specializes to such a degree that each human either chooses or is bred for a single life’s work and relegated to a Guild. The stories describe how humankind finally has to face punishment for its past sins and must reach for redemption through belief in something larger than themselves.

It is a very odd book. The worldbuilding is wonderful, but the story is more philosophical than action-packed. I especially enjoyed puzzling out Third Cycle names for First Cycle places (Roum = Rome, Usa-amrik = USA America, Atin = Athens, Jorslem = Jerusalem, Stralya = Australia, Ais = Asia, and so on).

While the main character, the Watcher, is in Roum, he is taken to see the Mouth of Truth.

“It is impossible to lie in this place,” Gormon told her. “Can you imagine any relic more worthy of protection?”….

We found ourselves before the ferocious head of a monster in high relief, affixed to an ancient wall pockmarked by time. The monster’s jaws gaped, the open mouth was a dark and sinister hole. (pp. 55-56)

The Watcher is then instructed to place his right hand into the Mouth of Truth and a question is posed to him. He is told that if he speaks a falsehood, he will lose his hand.

This episode reminded me of my own trip to Rome (in 1990 during the First Cycle) where I saw “La Bocca Della Verita” (the Mouth of Truth), this same sculpted Roman disk currently displayed in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church.

Our tour guide told us the following story, which I’ve never read anywhere else:

It is said that the Roman gods punish those who lie about their adultery while their hand was held within the mouth of the statue. A liar would feel the bite of the god’s head, while the blameless would be spared.

Now, as it happened (narrated the tour guide), a man who suspected that his wife was having an affair decided to test her faithfulness. He told her that they would be visiting the god’s head. Somehow, the crafty woman was able to get a message to her lover (who her husband had never met). The lover conceived of a plan to circumvent this threat. As she strode through the Roman plaza, the woman pretended to swoon. As she began to fall, a man in the street (her disguised lover) conveniently caught her and brought her back to her feet. She and her husband both thanked the man.

As they reached the stone, the husband placed his wife’s hand within the stone and asked her to assert her innocence. She confidently declared, “I have been in no one else’s arms but yours… oh! except for that man’s who helped me to my feet in the plaza.” As she told no lie, the god did not bite.

Whether the tour guide was telling an actual Roman story or if it was from his own imagination, I’ll never know. In fact, since the story was told to me (an American) in French in an Italian city, it could be that I misinterpreted everything!

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