Exchanging wedding rings is a time-honoured tradition that dates back centuries. The symbolism and custom of wearing wedding rings have become engrained in many cultures around the world.
Exchanging rings became part of the religious wedding ceremony in Europe around the 11th century. Some believe their significance goes back to the days of ancient cultures, which used cords, woven from rushes and grass, to bind themselves and their mates as a symbol of unity. Others believed rings evolved from the chains used by Barbarians to capture their brides.
Why is the ring finger so-called?
Traditionally the wedding ring has been worn on the finger of the third finger of the left hand. There are two strong beliefs why!
- The first dates back to the 17th Century when, during the Christian wedding, the priest arrived at the fourth finger, counting from the thumb after touching the three fingers of the left hand 'in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost'. This was known as the Trinitarian formula. The other belief refers to an Egyptian belief that the third finger followed the vena amoris- the 'vein of love'- that runs directly to the heart.
- Through carelessness in cataloguing human anatomy, the ring finger was thought to be the connecting vein to the heart. It evolved from the Greeks and continued to Western Culture. Romans plagiarising Greek Anatomy charts adopted the ring practice without question.
In India, they favour the thumb for the rings and in the Greek Orthodox Church girls wear the rings on the left hand before marriage and the right hand after marriage. Whichever finger is chosen, the important thing is not to drop the ring during the marriage ceremony. It is considered an omen of disaster.
Diamonds are popular stones in an engagement ring because they symbolise everlasting love. The first diamond engagement ring was reportedly given by Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.
Wedding Ring History: The First Exchange
Rings were introduced by the Egyptians in around 2800BC. For him or her ring signified eternity- a circle with no beginning or end. The writings depict couples presenting each other with braided rings fashioned from hemp or reeds. As these materials did not last long, couples eventually replaced the fragile band with one made from leather, bone or ivory. The more expensive the material, the more love was being shown. The value of the ring also demonstrated the net worth of the giver. The translation of hieroglyphics shows that Egyptians believe that the rings symbolized undying commitment and eternal love between the couple because the circle has no beginning or end. The centre opening is a door to the future. This symbolism still applies today.
In Ancient Rome, the groom would present his bride with an iron ring, which is the origin of today’s metal wedding bands. The durable material symbolized strength and permanence. It is believed that the Romans were the first to have their rings engraved. The Romans, as well as the Greeks, placed the ring on the fourth finger of the left hand because they believed that the finger contained the vena amoris or the vein of love. Another theory behind the tradition is based on the Christian marriage ceremony. As the minister recited the binding prayer, he touched the thumb, forefinger and middle finger while saying “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” When the word “amen” was spoken, the minister placed the wedding band on the ring finger to seal the union. Rings still symbolize the union of two people and identify them as a couple. Although couples in many European countries wear their rings on the right hand, there is a theory that the left ring finger was selected as the preferred choice because the ring would receive less damage since most people are right-handed.
Wedding Ring History: The Renaissance
During the 16th and 17th centuries, gimmel rings were popular. The ring is comprised of two interlocking parts. After their engagement, the future bride and groom each wore one part. During the wedding, the groom would place his ring on the bride’s finger, reuniting the matched set. The Renaissance saw the introduction of the highly ornate sterling silver poesy ring. In Puritan Colonial America, the husband would give his wife a thimble because the jewellery was seen as frivolous. Women would often remove the top of the thimble creating a ring. In addition to a traditional wedding band, some religions and cultures encourage the exchange of additional rings, including the Hindu bichiya toe ring and the iron bangle of West Bengal.
Rings are loaded with significance. Since ancient Egypt rings have been known to be the most intimate pieces that we wear. Throughout history, rings were used as personal talismans, in business transactions, as symbols of status, and of course to pledge your love to another. The story of the wedding ring does not have one clear path; it changes with each religion and the country's view of marriage. Some rings strictly marked the legal contract of marriage, while others were clearly crafted in the name of true love. But this shift isn’t chronological like we might expect, instead, it ebbs and flows in different times and different places. This is a topic I have been reading about for years and I wanted to share the story as I know it.
ANCIENT EGYPT, GREECE, & ROME