"A wedding ring is sort of 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. Once ringed, 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?
The term 'wedlock' is from the ancient word 'wedlac'; formed from wed, which meant a pledge or security, and lac was just a suffix to make the noun into 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.
The word '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.)
The word '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'.
The word '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.
The adjective 'bridal' actually began as a noun stemming from 'bride ale', which was drunk by the bucket full 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.
So what about the ring?
"If we get married, will you give me a ring?"
"Of course I'll ring you. What's your phone number?"
It is 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.
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, just giving a ring does not ensure everlasting love. The ring does not represent enslavement either; a more permanent mark could be made with a branding iron or a tattooed bar-code on the forehead1.
No, the ring represents neither everlasting love nor bondage; rather it's a token stemming from ancient magic.
A ring is a circle (you've probably noticed that) 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.
"Everything tries to be round" says Black Elk (1863-1950) an Oglala Sioux holy man. It's 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 orbits2. 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' (see also so-called 'biorhythms'). With the orbiting of the earth and moon, our day moves in a circle, as do our months (see days-months-seasons). Because of this, astrology had a huge influence on the way our ancestors perceived the world and the meaning of life (see Rokuyo).
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 going round (!) 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.
In addition, Zeus 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.
Was this the origin of the custom for attaching a precious stone to a finger ring? Was this the inspiration for the Romans, who 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? And today, some parolees are forced to wear electronic ankle bracelets. (The liver-eating eagle idea has not been retained.)
Another ancient Greek writer, Empedocles (490-430 BC)4, was more philosophical, when 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 God5. 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 circular 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
Circles have always 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.
Why do we use the third finger of the left hand?
But 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 hand6.
Patient: "It hurts when I press here on my shoulder, here on my elbow, and here on my knee."
Doctor: "That's because your finger's broken!"
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 Other pagan symbols used in the Church.
See also our related article for a bit more on wedding rings, and what the Bible and the Church say about them. We show some standard vows exchanged with wedding rings, and some background on rings worn by clergy, bishops and the pope. See Rings in Christianity.
Wedding ring fashion
Certainly in Japan at least, the custom of wearing a ring is now prefered to the fashion of the Edo era (late-1800s) when 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
We are not suggesting that jewellers invented the two sexes just so they could sell wedding rings, but jewellers today are making an awful lot of money from the ring tradition.
Whilst the religious and magical connections are ignored by most who marry today, the traditional wedding ring survival 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 jewelry companies.
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, and 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 jewelry 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. 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.7
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 gloves8. 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.