Context: B is a 22 year old University student who grew up in California. B moved to Italy roughly four years ago where he is actively pursuing a degree in archeology. His classwork often has him interacting with artifacts and ancient sites. This account was collected over a phone call.
B: “In terms of folklore I’ve encountered in Rome, I really love the Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth) and it’s said that in the olden days if you put your hand in the mouth and said a lie then it would bite your hand off. Outside of that you have your typical ‘Julius Caesar haunts this area and emperor Nero haunts that area’ but those are less accredited, and are all across Italy.”
Analysis: The legacy of Caesar and Nero can still be seen across Italy, throughout the folk claiming their spirits reside in iconic locations, like the Colosseum or the Vatican circus. Also the legend of the Bocca Della Verità lets us know that truth was considered a very important aspect of at least ancient roman culture, as a lie is worth losing a hand over.
“Ok, wait, so you’re in a prison, there’s two knights guarding two doors. One always tells the truth and one always lies. One of the doors leads to your freedom, and one leads to instant death. What is the one question you ask to get to freedom? You can only ask one question to one of the knights.”
“So the answer is “Which door would the other knight say leads to freedom?” Because if you ask the knight who tells the truth, they would point to the door that leads to death because that’s the door the liar would point at, and if you ask the knight who lies, they’ll lie and say the knight who tells the truth will point at the door that leads to death. Either way, you’ll be able to figure out which one leads to freedom.”
The informant is my friend. He is a sophomore at UC Berkeley and is Jewish. He has been sharing riddles with me since high school. This information was collected during a FaceTime call.
This is a very classic riddle that embodies the concept of “multiplicity and variation.” I have heard versions of this riddle that take place at a fork in the road, in a basement, and even in space! This riddle is even featured as a part of the plot in the movie Labyrinth. Even though the setting of the riddle changes, the core stays the same. There is always one person who lies and one person who tells the truth. Additionally, no one knows where this riddle originated, which further cements this riddles place as a part of folklore.
Keartes, Sarah. “How to Beat the LABYRINTH Two-Door Riddle.” Nerdist, Geek Sundry, 14 Jan. 2016, 4:30 pm, nerdist.com/article/how-to-beat-the-labyrinth-two-door-riddle/.
“Av barn og fulle folk får ein høyre sanninga.”
“From children and drunk people we hear the truth.”
Context: The informant’s grandmother was a Norwegian immigrant with many peculiar sayings. This was his favorite, as it gave him a rare sense of power as a child.
Interpretation: Because sober adults often act in their own self-interest and mask their intentions with flattery and deceit, it has been said in more than one language that honesty is reserved for children who have not yet learned to lie and manipulate and drunk people who do not have the mental capacity to mask their feelings and intentions. This can be used, as is the case with my informant, to empower children and encourage them to maintain their honesty and forthrightness. It can also make adults more likely to share their true feelings because it indirectly shames their general dishonesty. Lastly, it makes people more receptive to the thoughts and feelings of children and drunk people, who are both often overlooked because they are seen as foolish and incapable of sharing knowledge.
Main Piece: “When Italians want to point out cleverness, they use a gesture rather than words. They take their finger and they pull down on the bottom of their eye, which opens the eye more, and that indicates that this person is clever in the sense that they are sly. There’s another way…I’m not positive…to pull the cheek down to open the eye.”
Background: The informant would often see this gesture when people would try to speak about another person without using words. According to the informant, instead of verbally communicating, a physical gesture is used because it is universal and non-confrontational. This gesture isn’t always used as a compliment, it can be a mark of dissaproval. This gesture is done to another person, communicating this thought of cleverness about the other.
Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.
My Thoughts: Using a physical gesture as a medium of foklore is a noteworthy method of communication. Its physical nature, rather than verbal, can be comprehended universally, as the informant noted. The opening of the eye seems to be a watchful, all-knowing way of letting the receiver know his/her slyness is recognized. Although this gesture may not mean the same things in a variation of contexts, the eye is the watcher, the giver of sight and truth. It is also interesting that this mark of cleverness is not always a compliment. Being sly versus being clever is a mark of acceptable versus unacceptable.
For further reference see: http://en.blog.hotelnights.com/italian-gesture-language/ for alternative explanation of the gesture.
Main Piece: “So once my mom told me a story about a group of boys playing near a bridge. So they see a blind kid… um… and they ask why God would make this boy blind? And they feel very sorry for him. So in this story they ask God, ‘why did you make this boy blind?’ and then they tell God, ‘you should give him sight.’ So God does. God gives the boy sight. And then the boys are very pleased with themselves… uh… so they go to the top of the bridge because they have a game of jumping off of it…it’s a low bridge. But the blind boy who now can see has set up sharpened sticks underneath the bridge. So that when the boys jump, they all die.”
Background: The informant’s mother recently told her this story after her grandfather died a few months ago. Her mother had been told this story by her father as a cautionary tale about coming to the U.S. The informant says her mother understood this parable as an implication to not always trust what you think you know. The informant understands it’s meaning to be: “don’t question God ever because purpose is not in our hands.”
Performance Context: The informant and I had lunch together and sat at a table across from each other.
My Thoughts: A generational parable has survived through the family’s telling. The story’s dark nature evokes fear in the receiver of the story. I understand the telling of it as partly religious, partly cautionary, and partly moralistic. I find it interesting that the informant’s mother was reminded of the parable after her father’s death. The symbolism of blindness in terms of truth is a consistent metaphor in moralistic tales. Also important to note is the hesitance to trust American culture as an immigrant. I understand this story as told outside the context of religion, implying more about belief and trust than religion and morals.