The History Of The Wedding Ring
It's the most famous symbol of love. The outward sign that a man and woman have been joined together in “holy wedlock” often in the sight of God as well as man! And even today, with the divorce rate at a staggering 1 in 4, the wedding ring is the starry-eyed, must-have trophy of every little girl who dreamed of a Prince Charming and a fairytale white wedding. These days wedding rings are usually a “band of gold”, but what did people use before gold? Where did the custom of giving rings originate? And why the third finger on the left hand?
THE ORIGINS OF THE WEDDING RING
The origins of the wedding ring date back some 4,800 years, to the deserts of North Africa and the ancient Egyptians who lived along the fertile flood plains of the river Nile. It soon became a common practice for Pharoah’s people to collect sedges, rushes and reeds from the river banks and twist and braid them into rings and bracelets.
Being a circle, with no beginning and no end, the ring symbolised eternity to the Egyptians. They worshipped its shape in the form of the Sun and Moon and believed that the hole in the centre of the ring symbolised the gateway to everything known and unknown.
Given this background, it was not long before the exchanging of rings became associated with love, in the hope that love would take on the characteristics of the circle and last forever.
The early Egyptian rings usually lasted about a year before wear and tear took their inevitable toll, so as time passed hemp, leather, bone or ivory were used to craft these all-important tokens of love.
THE EGYPTIANS MOVE TO METALS
As the art of metallurgy developed, rings began to be fashioned out of metal. However, the early metal rings were both clumsy and uneven, so wedding designs often had precious and semi-precious stones set into them, which also signified wealth. These can be seen in the hieroglyphs on Egyptian tombs.
THE ROMANS CHOOSE IRON
In early Rome, iron was adopted as the metal of choice. Iron symbolized the strength of love a man felt for his chosen woman - though it has to be said that rust was a major problem.
By now, the act of giving and accepting a ring was also considered to be legally binding and enforceable. On the one hand, this made the woman the property of the man, but on the other hand, it protected her rights and prevented her from losing her primary position to rivals.
THE RICH CHOOSE PRECIOUS METALS
In the 3rd Century, gold or silver rings began to be given to show that the bridegroom trusted his betrothed with his valuable property. In addition, the ring was sometimes key-shaped rather than circular. Unlike today, the ring was not presented at the wedding ceremony, but when the groom carried his bride across the threshold of their new home.
By medieval times, with coins firmly established as currency, gold became the number one choice for wedding rings and frequently gemstones were added. Rubies were popular because they were red, like a heart, Sapphires, because they were blue like the sky, but by far the most valued and sought-after gemstone was the indestructible diamond.
THE FIRST ENGAGEMENT RINGS
The first engagement or betrothal rings became popular in Renaissance Italy. They were made in silver and were often highly ornate and inlaid with enamel.
Silver became even more fashionable in 17th Century England and France when it was widely used for Poesy (love poem) wedding rings. These were sentimentally inscribed with verses including the words “hope” and “faith” and were extremely popular, as cited in the works of Shakespeare.
Gold took over again in later years, relegating silver once again to the Italian idea of an engagement rings, with a golden duplicate replacing it on the wedding day.
IF IT’S NOT GOLD – IT’S BAD LUCK!
In Irish folklore, it was said to be bad luck, or even illegal, to be married with a ring made of anything but gold. This was mere superstition, nevertheless throughout Europe, a gold ring was often provided at weddings for those who could not afford one. Needless to say, this was swiftly reclaimed after the ceremony!
IF IT DOESN’T FIT IT’S BAD LUCK!
Superstition also surrounds the fit of a wedding ring. It had to be perfect, or the future of the marriage might be in jeopardy! A too-tight ring could signify painful jealousy, or the stifling of one party by the other. Too loose, could signify a parting of the ways through careless acts or forgetfulness.
WHY THE THIRD FINGER OF THE LEFT HAND?
The ancient Egyptians wore their wedding rings like we do today, on the third finger of the left hand. The reason for this was a belief that the vein of that finger directly traveled from the heart. This legend was later taken up by the Greeks, when they conquered Egypt under the general-ship of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. and passed onto the Romans, who called this the ‘vena amoris’, which is Latin for ‘the vein of love’.
As for English people, in the Middle Ages, it was common practice for a bridegroom to slip the ring part way up and then down his bride’s thumb, then first and middle finger, reciting: ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost’ as he touched each one before fixing it firmly in place on the next finger in line, the third finger of the left hand. This practice was finally formalized in the 1500′s when Henry VIII’s son wrote The Book of Common Prayer, which sets out English Modern Protestant wedding vows and decrees on which finger our wedding rings should go.
In some parts of continental Europe, however, it is and always has been the third finger on the right hand that bears the wedding ring.
WHEN DID MEN START WEARING RINGS?
Until the middle of the twentieth century, it was only women who wore wedding rings, however, when World War Two broke out and many young men faced lengthy separations from their wives, men began wearing wedding bands as a symbol of their marriages and a reminder of their wives. This was pure romance, a gesture of love and affection that has survived into modern times. These days the vast majority of men wear wedding bands.