Wedding rings? Think again!
Some myths and truths revealed
What is the real meaning of a wedding ring? There are countless ideas of the origin and significance of the wedding ring, and this page introduces a few.
But please don't take anything on this page too seriously, except this paragraph of course. Whatever caused rings to evolve into such a central part of wedding ceremonies in most cultures, is not important. What is important, is your reason for wearing a wedding ring.
"A wedding ring is like a tourniquet worn on one's finger to stop circulation" Anon
Since ancient times, marriages have been symbolised by the wearing of a ring. Usually worn by the wife, they were given as a token of possession. Being ringed (rung?) into wedlock, she was no longer available to circulate amongst other men.
You've heard the term 'husbandry', a task performed by a farmer, in particular when raising livestock. Is this the origin of the term 'husband'? Ever wondered whether 'groom' and 'bride' come from the idea of a horseman (groom) taking control of his animal property by using a bridle? Does the ring symbolise a bondage manacle?
Nose-ring: Useful for controlling movement of livestock
'Wedlock' is from the ancient word wedlac; formed from wed, which meant a pledge or security, and lac was suffixed to enable use as a verb. So wedlac was the act of making a pledge or vow. By the 13th century, the suffix lac disappeared from English usage, the pronunciation of wedlac evolved into wedlock, and the handcuff jokes flourished.
'Husband' most likely stems from the medieval Scandinavian locution hus meaning 'house', and bondi meaning 'dweller'. In 14th century England, most house dwellers were peasant farmers, and married, so the term 'husband' was a general word used for both. (And now you know some Viking language.)
'Groom' comes from the Old English guma, which means 'man'. Guma changed to gome, then goom, and finally groom. Bridegroom therefore means 'man of the bride'.
'Bride' is from the Old English bryd and related to Old Norse bruthr and Old High German brut. It could be from the times when the main job of a young wife or daughter-in-law was to make the broth for the household.
'Bridal' (adj.) began as the noun phrase 'bride ale', which was drunk by the bucketful at wedding celebrations. Today we are more civilised, aren't we.
So. None of these words are anything to do with grooming horses or raising cattle. In any case, a removable ring wouldn't be as suitable as a more permanent mark, such a brand or a tattooed bar-code on the forehead.
"Of course I'll ring you. What's your phone number?"
So what about the ring?
It's true that a wedding ring is a token of possession, but rather than symbolising a man possessing a woman, it is the woman's possession of something valuable given by the man. Hence the current practice of using a precious metal, such as gold, platinum or titanium.
And it's quite often a ring rather than any other token because a ring is nicely round and smooth, and that has a profoundly natural appeal.
Typhoons, convection currents, the arc of a rainbow... circles appear over and over again in nature. Roundness is a very natural shape and appears much more frequently than straight lines.
Perhaps because of this, we find roundness has aesthetic appeal just for being round.
The unbroken circle is an age-old symbol of eternity. It's easy to see why such an ancient symbol should be incorporated into a wedding ceremony, when 'everlasting love' is the hope of the couple, their families and friends. Nice idea, but sadly, a ring is not an elixir of everlasting love; rather it's a vestige of ancient magic.
"The soul is a circle" (Plato)
A ring is a circle (as you've noticed) and a circle has very strong magical connotations. The circle is endless and timeless suggesting a repetitive unbroken wholeness in time and space. It even suggests reincarnation to some people.
"The soul is a circle", said Plato. (Ponder that if you wish, but bear in mind that any quotation sounds more profound if it's ascribed to a dead philosopher.) "Everything tries to be round" said Black Elk (1863-1950), an Oglala Sioux holy man.
A circle is the strongest and most 'natural' shape. Eggs and most fruit are round (especially when dissected in the middle). A bird builds its nest in a circle. Fairy rings. Crop circles. Sharks and vultures circle their dinner. The earth is round, rotates, and orbits. Small wonder that we get dizzy sometimes.
Our lives move in repeated and interwoven circles. We leave home, go to work, return home. Work until we are tired, sleep until we are refreshed, work, sleep, work. We are born of dust, live, and return to dust. Our blood circulates in our bodies.
Each of us operates on a circadian rhythm of about 24 hours; our 'biological clock' which some people call biorhythms. With the orbiting of the earth and moon, our day moves in a circle, as do our months. Because of this, astrology had a huge influence on the way our ancestors perceived the world and the meaning of life. (See also Rokuyo and Days, Months and Seasons)
a piece of Pi
talk of circles, triangles,
The figure I prize
is a girl with bright eyes,
and the circle
that's formed by her arms."
Stonehenge is a 5,000-year-old circle of huge stones in southern England, which may have been a pagan temple, built on top of a cemetery. An equally old stone circle in Scotland was, until recently, used in nuptials. (See World's Biggest Wedding Ring.)
Circle studies have been around for years.
- In Greek mythology, Hesiod (c. 700 BC) wrote about Prometheus, son of a Titan, and brother to Atlas and Epimetheus. Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans to play with.
Zeus was flaming mad about this and chained Prometheus to a rock as punishment. Not much of a punishment, you might think, but there's an added twist: An eagle, or some other great bird, descended on Prometheus and ate his liver. The liver regenerated itself overnight, only to be eaten again by the eagle the following day. The eagle must have become quite plump because this went on for thirty thousand years.
And if that wasn't enough punishment, Zeus also sent Pandora to Prometheus' brother, Epimetheus. She brought him a jar, which Epimetheus assumed was a wedding gift, but on opening it, saw it contained "evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which give men death". She snapped the lid shut but not quickly enough. All the evils had escaped and were free to inflict themselves on mankind. She only managed to retain one element, the one real gift, the gift of hope.
Eventually Hercules released Prometheus from the rock but as a reminder of his crime, he was forced to wear a link of the chain on his finger with a bit of the rock attached.
Legends, as we know, often evolve into superstitious customs. For example, the Romans forced worn-out slaves to wear an iron finger-ring as a reminder that although they were released from work, they were never completely free from bondage. Even today, some parolees and house-arrestees are forced to wear electronic ankle bracelets. They might not like it but accept the ankle monitor is better than having their livers eaten by an eagle.
The Romans were also the first to use the ring to mark a betrothal, which was considered more significant than the actual commencement of the marriage. The practice was yet another legacy of an earlier pagan superstition, where a man tied cords around the waist, wrists and ankles of the girl he wanted to marry, to make sure that her love did not drift to any other suitor.
Precious stones in rings are not only connected with the legend of Prometheus. As we see in days, months and seasons, the Romans named days of the week after planet deities. Those who could afford it wore a different ring each day, mounted with a stone favoured by the day's deity.
Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius (1st century) recommended the following stones:
|Day (Astral deity)||Precious stone|
to please the
as a talisman
Another ancient Greek writer (with a name that sounds like an uncomfortable skin condition between the toes), Empedocles (490-430 BC), was more philosophical. He said "The nature of God is a circle of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere", but in Greek of course.
Circles are important symbols in many religions. Fundamental concepts of Sikhism are reflected in the Khanda. This includes a Chakra (name for a weapon of Vishnu) which is circular and symbolizes the perfection of God. Hindus and Buddhists have a similar disc in the Wheel of Dharma.
For Muslims, the Qur'an talks of Solomon's magic ring that could exorcise demons. In Judaism and Christianity, we read in Ezek. 1 about mysterious rings appearing in the sky. Yes, flying saucers are also circular.
The aural halo that we sometimes see around the sun and moon is usually depicted on icons in various religious to depict the bearer's brilliance.
Magical properties of the ring
The above shows that circles have for a long times enjoyed a universal perception of having strong magical properties. And with such magical power, a ring around the heart would surely protect a person from evil spirits. And this leads on to the reason of wearing a ring on the third finger.
Why do we use the third finger of the left hand?
Even in these days of cardiothoracic science, it's not easy to put a ring around the heart. So in the old days they had a simple answer: they put the ring on the third finger which they believed had a vein, artery or nerve (a sort of a USB cable) running directly to the heart. And as the left hand is a bit closer to the heart than the right, they placed marriage rings on the third finger of the left hand.
Hmmm... The word 'they' appears quite a few times in the previous paragraph, with no indication of who 'they' were. Or when or where or why.
See What's left? for a little more on this.
Christian significance of the ring
If the ring has pagan, magical properties, then why does it form such an important part of a Christian wedding ceremony? Does the wedding ring have any religious significance?
Like many other pagan symbols, the ring has been adopted into Christian ceremonies and rites. There is no biblical reference decreeing the wedding ring as a requirement.
See also our related article for a bit more on wedding rings in Christianity, and what the Bible and the Church say about them. The page also shows standard vows exchanged with wedding rings.
Wedding ring fashion
(Origin of the word 'hag'?)
In the Japanese Edo era (late-1800s), married women displayed their marital status by painting their teeth black (ohaguro). Fortunately times change, and today Japanese married couples wear wedding rings.
And they are worn, not for any religious or magical reason, but because the person wants to publicly announce that they have found an intimate friend that they plan share the rest of their lives with. The appearance, attractiveness, and its material value, are the important factors for choosing a wedding ring. The magical or religious connotations have little or no relevance.
This leads us finally to that all too familiar god... The God of Money
Commercial aspect of wedding rings
Whilst religious and magical connections are ignored by most who marry today, the survival of the wedding ring tradition is so strong that just about every couple continues to use them as a symbol of marriage. One reason the tradition has continued is thanks to the marketing efforts of jewellery companies.
Jewellers did not, of course, invent marriage so they could sell wedding rings, but they are capitalising quite well on the ring custom. Even more so within the last century, by inventing the notion that diamonds are the best way to show someone that you love them.
Couples today tend to spend less on the wedding ring than they do on the engagement ring. There are probably two main reasons for this:
- The engagement ring is bought perhaps a year or so before the wedding. The couple are excited and want to splash out on something grand. Conversely, the wedding ring is bought when they must face other large wedding bills.
Engagement rings tend to have stones, whilst wedding rings tend to be plain. Why a ring with stones should be more expensive than a plain ring defies logic, since a thick, solid gold wedding ring costs jewellery companies more than a thinner metal used for engagement rings. But companies know the spending patterns of couples and price the stones accordingly.
Sneaky? Not really. Most commercial enterprises operate according to market demand.
An ordinary lump of refractive crystalline form of carbon (i.e. a diamond) is a brilliant (!) example of an overpriced commodity. They have a pathetic resale value, are extremely common, and are only so exorbitantly expensive because of the stock-piling diamond cartel.
So why wear a ring at all?
Rings are awkward and expensive. Sometimes difficult to put on during the wedding ceremony if your hands get hot and swell slightly, (Vaseline or hand cream often helps) and fumbly fingers often drop them (too much Vaseline!) And if the bride has a ring with a big stone, it can be sometimes difficult to wear the costume gloves.
But despite this page's attempt to expose the lack of any real romantic or spiritual power-force of rings, please go ahead and buy your wedding rings.
And wear them with pride.
Show the world that you have found a loving partner, a friend with whom you can share the rest of your life.
- An interesting idea for your wedding ceremony: Ring Relay
- Something for you to bookmark: ring removal ideas
- Diamonds are forever
- The place of wedding rings in religion
- Lucky talismans
- Other pagan symbols
Betrothed Okinawan women used to have a blue 2 cm square block tattooed on their hands and/or arms.
When writing the number "0", is it coincidence that we use the circle (the only numeral with a zero number of sharp bits or angles) to represent zero; that strange value which is neither positive nor negative?
James Remington McCarthy, Rings Through the Ages, page 5, (New York, 1945)
Empedocles (born 490 BC) was a Greek philosopher, statesman, poet and physiologist. It is said he died by throwing himself into the volcano (Mt. Etna) which spit him out so forcefully that he landed on the moon, where he lives to this day, surviving on dew.
An unlikely story. Please do NOT try it for yourself.
In some cultures the ring is worn on the right hand, since the right hand is considered more righteous.
There are plenty of internet resources you should read before spending a large amount of money on a diamond, including horrible stories about child kidnapping for slave labour, terrorist links, etc.
There's a brief overview on our ancillary page: diamonds.
Rotate the ring so the stone is on the palm-side of the hand before you pull the glove on.