Look, how my ring encompasseth thy finger, Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart; Wear both of them, for both of them are thine. Richard III (William Shakespeare 1593)
The ring could be the oldest and most universal symbol of marriage. There are many accounts of the meanings behind the use of wedding rings but the actual origins are unclear. The ring's circular shape represents perfection and never-ending love, and in the seventeenth century social pressure led to the preference of gold as the material because it does not tarnish (Ingoldsby and Smith 1995).
The ring gains even greater symbolism with the inclusion of a precious stone. The clarity and durability of the diamond make it the most popular stone, as does the idea that it represents innocence in the bride. It was a common saying that the diamond was forged in the flames of love. However, other stones have been assigned special meaning as well (Tobler 1984). The emerald guarantees domestic bliss and success in love. The ruby is a sign of love and a favorite for engagement rings. Its red color was widely believed to be a protection from evil spirits and nightmares. The amethyst was believed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to ensure a husband's love and was worn as a symbol of faithfulness. The sapphire represents truth and faithfulness and is said to bring good health and fortune. The garnet stands for true friendship. If you want someone to love you, then you should give them a garnet. Finally, the aqua-marine was believed to make the ring wearer more intelligent and courageous, but more importantly it also gave the person the ability to read another's thoughts (something that might not be beneficial to a marriage)!
Some ancient people used to break a coin, with each partner taking one half. Modern jewelry still represents this idea of matching. We know that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used wedding rings. Since most people are right handed the left hand was considered inferior. Therefore brides would wear their ring on the left hand as a symbol of her submissiveness to her husband. Men would wear their ring on the right hand to represent their dominance in the relationship. Today the ring is typically worn on the fourth finger of the left hand (the ring finger). No doubt this is because it is less likely to get in the way of other activities there. However, it was believed by some ancient peoples such as the Egyptians that there was an artery that went directly from that finger to the heart. This love vein, or venis amoris, made the fourth finger the proper place to wear the pledge of love (Chesser 1980).
Duncan Emrich (1970) has collected many of the folk beliefs concerning the wedding ring. One is that once the ring has been placed on your finger it should never be taken off until death, or at least until you have been married for one (or seven) year(s). The circle of the ring stands for the endless love of the couple, and the following couplet indicates how marriage is good for one's mental health: "As the wedding ring wears, So wear away life's cares."
The early Christian church gave religious meaning to the ring by making it part of the wedding ceremony. "With this ring I thee wed, and this gold and silver I thee give, and with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly chatels I thee endow." The thumb and first two fingers of the hand were to represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the fourth finger stood for the earthly love of man to woman.
In ancient times rings or other tokens were used as a pledge in any important agreement, and so it was with marriage as well. In Ireland a man would give his beloved a bracelet of woven human hair. Her acceptance indicated that she was linking herself to him for life. Marriage rings have been made with a great variety of materials, depending on what the people could afford, including leather, wood, and iron. But gold has generally been preferred because of its purity (Fielding 1942).
See also: MARRIAGE CEREMONIES
Chesser, B. (1980). "Analysis of Wedding Rituals: An Attempt to Make Weddings More Meaningful." Family Relations (April):204–209.
Emrich, D. (1970). The Folklore of Weddings and Marriage. New York: American Heritage Press.
Fielding, W. (1942). Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage. New York: New Home Library.
Ingoldsby, B., and Smith, S. (1995). Families in Multicultural Perspective. New York: Guilford Publishing.
Tobler, B. (1984). The Bride. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Effective Promotions Inc. "The Wedding Book." Available from http://www.wedding-book.com.
BRON B. INGOLDSBY
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