The Truth About Lie Detection in Ancient and Modern Times
Humans have told truths and lies throughout all of history. We stretch the truth for various reasons. We sometimes spin little white lies of convenience, and big, catastrophic lies that shake civilizations. We lie in order to avoid consequences, humiliation, and to please others. As a matter of survival it’s been important to tell lies from truth, and since the dawn of time we’ve sought ways to know the difference. So without our modern neurological sensory equipment and advanced interrogation techniques, how did the ancients determine if someone was fibbing?
Approaches employed in determining truth or lies depended much on religious and cultural background. A common sense understanding of the world, and practical experience, were the early tools of lie detection. Evidence was almost always based on sworn oaths and testimony. This was so until the introduction of more objective techniques, such as measurement, forensics, and the scientific method were employed by Archimedes, and during the Scientific Revolution centuries later.
Observing and judging a person’s behaviour, facial expression, and speech was, and remains today, one of the ways of discerning guilt from innocence, and deciding whether someone is lying. Lacking objective techniques, trial by ordeal was often applied in antiquity, testing unfortunate suspects in confounding and sometimes violent ways.
Rice and Donkeys
In ancient China, a suspect would be made to chew dry rice while being questioned. When the suspect spat out the rice, they were assumed to be guilty if the grains remained stuck to their tongue. The reasoning was that the stress created by lying would slow saliva flow and cause a dry mouth. It was believed an innocent person would have no reason to stress under such conditions.
In 500 BC, priests of ancient India would suss out thieves by sooting the tails of donkeys and putting them in dark tents. The suspected thieves were advised to enter the tent and pull the tail of the donkey. If the donkey brayed, the accused’s guilt would be confirmed. If the accused left the tent with clean hands free of soot, the priests would know he had not pulled the donkey tail out of fear of being revealed a thief.
The Mouth of Truth
In Rome a 2,200 year old, giant marble head waits to reveal liars and trickery.
The Bocca della Verità (the Mouth of Truth) is a heavy marble disc carved into the shape of a head and face. It is said to originally represent the Titan god Oceanus, of the great earth-encircling river which feeds all the world’s rivers, wells, and springs. Beginning in the middle ages the disc was supposed to tell truth from lies. Where the Bocca della Verità sits, at the Church of Santa Maria in Rome, has become a place where one can take the ‘test of truth’. RetroBlogRome writes of the old Roman legend, “obliging the one who takes an oath to put his hand in the Bocca della Verità. If they were not telling the truth the hand could not withdraw and was removed with a violent bite of the mouth.”
To this day the giant marble face still judges those who wish to take the test of truth by daring to place their hands in its mouth.
Trial by Ordeal
Trials by ordeal were a common means of detecting guilt from innocence, although they’re widely considered now to be barbaric and violent tests revealing nothing of truth or lies. These were ancient judicial practices where the accused was subjected to dangerous perils. Death would indicate guilt, and survival suggested innocence. These pre-modern trials were eventually forbidden by ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, and were replaced by the Inquisition (trials and torture to combat heresy). By the Late Middle Ages the practice of trial by ordeal was dying out, but was only finally discontinued in the 16 th century.
Various trials fall under ordeals, such as trial by fire, poison, or snake. The fire ordeal required suspects to walk across coals or red-hot iron, or pull stones from boiling water. In ancient Iran, trial by fire was the ultimate test of an accused, and survivors were said to be protected by the judicial divinity Mithra.
Fire ordeal. The trial of Sita in the Ramayana ( Nirmukta)
Trials by water are often associated with witch-hunts of the 16 th and 17 th centuries in America, but they had been practiced for thousands of years. The unfortunate accused would be submerged in water, and the outcome was almost always fatal. It was assumed a crime would weigh upon the accused, drowning them, and if they were innocent they would survive. However, in later witch hunts those who sank were considered innocent, while floating indicated guilt, lies, and witchcraft. The accused was dead either way.