Circle of Love and Power

The ring, a circle with neither beginning nor end, symbolises eternity, unity, and perfection. In modern times, a ritual most crucial for all couples committed to matrimony is the purchase of the engagement ring. Generally, the engagement ring is somewhat more ornate than the plain wedding ring and is traditionally worn only by the bride, depending on cultural background. In some countries, especially in the East, both the woman and the man wear an ornate engagement ring. 

It is widely accepted that a ring first signifying engagement can be roughly linked to the Fourth Lateran Council held by the Church in 1215, when it was declared that a longer waiting period between betrothal and marriage was appropriate. Plain rings of gold, silver, and iron were at first used to indicate betrothal. But a betrothal was also considered official if the couple simply drank a toast together, linking their little fingers while drinking, if this was done in front of witnesses. 

The origin of the ornate engagement ring set with precious stones, particularly diamonds, is obscure. But the choice of precious stones for an engagement ring was once considered of utmost importance, as every month was believed to be under the influence of a specific stone, and each stone came attached with its distinctive wisdom and lore. Historically, the first recorded diamond engagement ring was presented to Mary of Burgundy as a betrothal gift by Archduke Maximillian of Austria in 1477.

In the past, florid gems were an important status symbol for the aristocracy, and laws were in place to ensure that only the privileged class wore gemstones, thereby preserving a visible division of social rank. Once, a popular concept was to represent and celebrate the joining of two families by mounting the engagement ring with the birthstones of the bride and her parents on the left side of the ring and the birthstones of the groom and his parents on the right side. 

During the sixteenth century, joint rings, made with two or more hoops, were common between lovers. Each ring was engraved with a portion of a specific design, so that the complete figure was only formed when all the rings were in position. The hoops of the so-called gimmal ring turned on a hinge, and on betrothal the groom’s fingers were placed in two of the hoops while the third hoop was on the bride’s finger, to indicate to everyone that the bond or union was a mutual one. During the marriage ceremony, the separate rings were then fastened together to form the wedding ring for the bride. This custom died out, however, and for several centuries now, it has been customary, especially in English-speaking countries, for the man to present an engagement ring to his fiancée on their betrothal. 

The luckiest stones set in an engagement ring are emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and of course, diamonds. The diamond symbolises conjugal love and is therefore every girl’s dream and ‘every girl’s friend’. However, pearls are seldom found in engagement rings, as they resemble tears and are said to bring tears to the marriage. Opals, regarded as ill-omened, should also be avoided unless they represent the wearer’s birthstone. In some European countries, such as Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, plain gold bands are still worn to signify engagement, whereas in other countries such as France, coloured gems instead of diamonds are preferred. 

Exactly when the wedding ring became an established social custom is difficult to ascertain, and many theories abound about its origin, but rings have certainly been an outward sign of marriage since antiquity. As a symbol of marriage, the wedding ring might even be a memento of the days when a man customarily stole his bride. If the lady objected to being dragged away, she would be fettered at the wrists and ankles. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Amongst the Venda of Southern Africa, for instance, it is still customary for married women living in rural areas to wear many heavy metal rings on their legs. The rings stretch from the ankles to just below the knees and are traditionally regarded as a sign of beauty. They are never removed, greatly impede walking, and leave out any possibility of washing the skin underneath. Originally, their purpose was to prevent the woman from running away, but over time, they have become a symbol of matrimony within the tribe. 

The Bible does not mention wedding rings, but ring ceremonies, symbolising the eternal bond between two people, existed during Talmudic times. Wedding bands were found in Egyptian tombs, were worn by Greek and Roman ladies, and seem to have been a part of nuptial customs among the earliest civilisations. The early church leader and prolific writer, Tertullian, tells us that it was customary for the groom to send a gold ring to his intended bride; hence, the custom seems to have been well-established in the second century CE. It was also customary among the Anglo-Saxon tribes of northern Europe to give rings as pledges before a wedding. The word ‘wed’, from which is derived ‘wedding’, is of Anglo-Saxon origin and means ‘pledge’. 

During Roman times, throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance period, only the wealthy wore rings, as it was a sign of nobility and rank to possess such an ornament. It was not tolerated for single or unmarried persons to wear rings unless they were judges, doctors, or other honourable persons. The one single exception allowed the lower classes was the wedding band, an indication in itself of the esteem in which it was held. So it was with great pride and vanity that those intent upon marriage, and thus permitted to wear this honourable adornment, hastened to do so. 

Before the advent of a church ceremony, it sufficed for the betrothed couple to exchange rings, sealing their contract in front of a gathering with a kiss. Usually, these rings took the form of a plain band, generally made of iron, as only the wealthy could afford gold. The ring, however, is unnecessary to constitute a legal marriage. For those who could not afford any ring, a ring could be borrowed for the ceremony, and often, the priest lent the couple a golden wedding band during the ceremony at a small fee, or else, the bride could slip her finger into the loop of the church key as a substitute. Alternatively, for those who could not afford wedding rings, it was enough to bend a coin with promises of love. Such bent coins, with oaths sworn and prayers breathed over them, could be used as a bond of union. These crooked pieces of metal were believed to be endowed with mystic properties and curative virtues and were, therefore, carefully kept by the couple. 

In England during the thirteenth century, rings made of rushes were sometimes used among the poorer classes. Shakespeare mentions rings of rushes in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Edmund Spenser refers to them in Faerie Queene. In William D’Avenant’s work, The Rivals, the following lines appear: ‘I’ll crown thee with a garland of straw, and I’ll marry thee with a rush ring’.139 Rush rings, however, were predominantly used for fake or pretend marriages, and ecclesiastical authorities warned that no young girl should let a man put a ring of rushes on her hand, as this was only done expressly to seduce her.

Many superstitious speculations, of course, are centred on the ring as a pledge of matrimony. The ring should never be dropped during the wedding ceremony, because whoever dropped it would be first to die; to take the ring off at any time could jeopardise the marriage; to lose it meant losing the husband’s affection; to break the ring or to part with it at any time was considered ominous; and to remove the ring permanently meant seriously tempting fate. A variation on this superstition, however, allowed the removal of the wedding ring once the couple had been blessed with their first child. If, however, the wedding ring had worn so thin as to break, either the wife or the husband would soon die. Wedding rings were also often used for divination. By suspending the wedding ring on a string over a pregnant woman’s belly, it was believed that the unborn child’s sex could be determined by interpreting the ring’s swing.

The swearing of oaths on rings is a practice dating from ancient times and is reflected in the exchange of rings during the marriage ceremony. In the past, rings were regarded as symbols of power. Amongst Romans, it was customary to wear an iron ring on the left hand as a symbol of bravery. The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, relates how a law concerning the right to wear rings was passed by the Senate in 22 CE: ‘A rule was [...] imposed, that no one should have the right to wear a ring, unless he himself as well as his father and grandfather, were free born, had capital assets amounting to 400,000 sesterces, and under the Julian law relating to the theatre, possessed a seat in the first fourteen rows’.140

As emblems of power, rings were traditionally used as seals by which orders were signed and objects of value secured, as the following passages from the Old Testament attest: ‘And he said: What pledge shall I give thee? And she said: Thy signet and thy bracelets....’.141 From ancient times, throughout the Middle Ages, and beyond, the delivery of a seal ring represented the assurance that the person to whom it was given could be admitted the highest friendship and trust. A woman, having her husband’s seal ring in her possession, could issue commands on his behalf and was considered his representative in every respect.

Depending on their design and composition, rings were once widely credited with supernatural powers, including healing properties. It was also thought that through their shine and gloss, rings conveyed their owner’s well-being. Strengthened through mystical inscriptions and magical stones, rings were believed to have the power to make humans invisible, fireproof, and invulnerable. Popular legend partly ascribed the military prowess of Joan of Arc and the meteoric careers of Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey to the powers of magic rings in their possession. Biblical leaders such as Moses and Solomon were believed to be skilled in the art of fashioning magic rings. Solomon is reputed to have used a magic ring in making the stones for building the Temple in Jerusalem, as the use of iron tools was forbidden.

Rings were also thought to possess medicinal properties and were used to cure rheumatism, paralysis, and other cramping disorders. In European countries, so-called cramp-rings were often made from the metal attachments, such as the handles, hinges, nails, or screws, obtained from coffins. Alternatively, rheumatism sufferers could quietly stand at a church entrance and wait to receive many pennies from parish bachelors. After receiving the pennies, three circuits of the communion table had to be completed. If the priest was obliging, he then exchanged the pennies for a silver coin, which, when made into a ring, was believed to be a definite cure for the ailment – woe to those unable to find a bachelor! 

Inscriptions on rings, ranging from magic formulas to the names of loved ones, were once considered effective in warding off evil, hence, worn solely for protection. So-called charm rings, engraved with words of power and made from suitable protective material such as silver, could be used to ward off the evil eye. Belief in the protective power of rings even extended to warding off the dreaded plague by using rings on which the names of the Holy Family and the three Magi were inscribed. 


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