Wedding rings? Think again!
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 13 th 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 14 th 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.
“Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.” br>(William Shakespeare)
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)
talk of circles, triangles,
The figure I prize
is a girl with bright eyes,
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 (1 st century) recommended the following stones: