Next month we are celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary. Always a moment to have a look at our photo’s of that wonderful day. At one photo my brother presented the rings to my former boss and colleague of my husband, who was leading the ceremony. And I was thinking: ‘where does that custom of exchanging rings come from?’ Well… here is the story of the history of the wedding ring and the customs for wearing those rings.
The origin of the wedding ring
Although there are a lot of studies about the origin of the wedding ring, nobody can really say for sure, how old that tradition is. And as always researchers don’t agree. There is a theory that the wedding ring originates from Egypte. More than 4800 years ago there was a custom in Egypte to braid rings and decorative ornaments for women from papyrus, reeds or hemp. And there is a story that a farmer boy in love with a girl, braided a ring of reeds for his love and that’s how the tradition would have been started. It’s difficult to say whether this is true or not since those materials normally don’t last that long. Although the archeologists found some rings in graves and some papyrus rolls on which was written about a ceremony of exchanging rings.
Before the use of coins, the Egyptians used ‘ring money’ that was used also as a wedding ring. During the wedding ceremony, the groom slid a piece of ring money on the ring finger of the left hand of his bride. This symbolized that she could use his money too.
Old wedding rings!
Another version of explaining the origin of the wedding ring goes back to the prehistoric times. It stated that the groom would bind the ankles and the wrists of the bride together with reeds or grass. In this way, the bride could not escape from him or (the official version) her soul could not escape. After the ceremony, the groom removed the rope and tied a piece on her finger: the wedding ring. Since the rope did not last that long, the ring was made first from grass but later from rope, leather, bone and finally from metal. The value of the material of the ring demonstrated the love and wealth of the giver. In the Northern part of Europa hair was the symbol of loyalty and friendship. And one used to braid a ‘love button’ in the hair of the loved one. After that, you cut that ‘button’ and wore it as a ring.
But there are more stories about the origin of the wedding ring and it seems that every great culture has such a story: like Greece. They claim that the tradition of exchanging rings at a wedding started about three centuries BC. They discovered that there is a vein in the fourth finger of the hand, that leads straight to the heart. This vein was called the ‘vena amori’ or the ‘vein of love’. By wearing a ring around that finger the marriage could not fail.
That same explanation was used by the Romans, but the ring was not the symbol of love, but the symbol of ownership. The Roman groom claimed his woman by giving her the ring made of iron: the symbol of strength and permanence. The ring was engraved so that everybody knew to whom the woman belonged to.
The Christian wedding ring
Around 860 the Christians started to use the ring in wedding ceremonies. Not the plain band as we know now, but the ring was highly decorated with all kinds of heathenish symbols. The official Church was not happy with the custom. On the other hand in that time the official marriage did not exist; that is with the common people. When a man and woman loved each other (or not, but the woman was forced) they just started to live together, without any ceremony, but with an oral agreement.
From the 12th century on the wedding ceremony, with the exchanging of the rings was common practice and the Church encouraged this. But… The ring symbolized the transfer of the authority of the father of the bride to the groom: just as you transfer a valuable object. The way to do that is that the groom slid the ring first round the dumb, the index finger, and then the middle finger. And he promised to take care of the girl he married and slid the ring finally to the ring finger.
The tradition of exchanging rings or giving a ring to the bride is sometimes centuries old and this tradition is one of the oldest marriage traditions in the world.
The religious symbol of the wedding ring
The wedding ring is an important symbol at Christian marriages, but the ring has no religious meaning. It symbolizes only the love for each other and the commitment to each other. Maybe the ring has no official religious meaning, but it’s nevertheless a significant object in the Christian Church. The Pope wears the ‘Fisherman’s ring’ as the symbol of his commitment to the Church and to sign official documents. Bishops wear a big ring to symbolize their commitment to the Church and their diocese. Some nuns wear a ring to symbolize their spiritual marriage with God.
Why is a wedding ring round?
The round shape, in general, symbolizes in many cultures ‘eternity’ or ‘anything that cannot be stopped’ (the circle has no beginning, but also no end). The Egyptians regarded the circle as the sun and their most important god was the sun.
The hole in the ring has also a special meaning for the Egyptians: it is the symbol of the passage of all the events in the life of the person, who is wearing the ring. And all those events are passing through the hole in the ring to the ‘vena amoris’.
How to wear a wedding ring?
The Egyptians and later the Greek and the Romans were used to wear their wedding ring on the ring finger of their left hand. There is the vein that goes straight tot he heart (‘vena amoris’).
Before the 19th century, only the woman wore a wedding ring, not only to spread the romantic message, but also to let other men know that she was already been taken!.
The wedding ring in the Netherlands
Exchanging rings is already for ages a part of the wedding ceremony in the Netherlands (and in more countries in the world). The ring was slid on the ring finger of the left hand. But in the time of the Reformation, the Calvinists disapproved of wearing a ring: that was inappropriate vanity. And the Protestants abolished the use of the wedding ring. In the 19th century, the Protestants changed their minds and they agreed with the symbolic meaning of the wedding ring. But they did not want to copy the Catholic tradition exactly and wore their wedding ring on the ring finger of the right-hand side. In the Netherlands, you can see who is Catholic and who is Protestant by looking at which hand they wear their wedding ring. When the groom of wife dies the surviving partner wears the wedding ring of the deceased next to her of his own wedding ring.
And in the rest of the world
In Great Britain, the married women had to wear their wedding ring on their right hand. In the 16th century, the Church decided that this should be changed. Wearing the wedding ring on the right was the symbol of power and only men could have power. So the women had to wear the ring on the left hand from that time on.
In very many parts of the world, the wedding ring is on the ring finger of the left hand. There are nations that wear the wedding ring on the right hand. The reason to wear the ring on the right hand originated from the Roman tradition. The Latin word for left is ‘sinister’ and in the English (and the Dutch) language that word has a negative connotation. So left is bad and right is good: that means in those countries that the wedding ring should be on the right-hand side.
The wedding ring in time of war
Until WW II only women wore a wedding ring in Europe and America. When the husbands had to leave their home and wife to fight for freedom, they started to wear their wedding ring as a symbol of love. It was not sure that they would return home and with the ring, they carried something from their wife with them. Now it is custom that both partners wear a wedding ring.
A lot of people think that it is more practical to wear the wedding ring on the left: you shake hands with your right hand and most of the people are right-handed, so the left hand is less used. That saves the ring from damage and your hand without a ring survives a firm handshake.
The material of the wedding ring
In the Roman Times, the wedding ring was made of iron, to symbolize a strong and permanent marriage, that could not be broken. Since iron can rust, nowadays the wedding ring is made of gold. But some lovers want to have a gemstone set in their wedding ring. You can take the diamond as a symbol for everlasting love, or the sapphire as the symbol of the reflection of heaven, maybe you like the ruby as the symbol of the heart or the aquamarine as the symbol for a happy love life. The moonstone is the symbol of content and the turquoise of willpower.
The wedding rings of the Romans were decorated with a key. That meant that the woman opened her heart for her husband, but also opened the door to his possessions. The wife was entitled to 50% of the possession of her husband. Marriage and the wedding ring in Roman Times was mostly not only a symbol of love but also the symbol of sharing the possessions, which meant that the wife was ‘owned’ by her husband. But marriage was also a kind of insurance for the woman; that she financially was taken cared for and that it was very expensive for the husband to leave her for another woman. Later the wedding ring had a snake or a cross as decoration.
A wedding ring is not always made of gold!
In earlier times there was a diamond in a wedding ring. In the Greek language ‘adamas’ means invincible and that is exactly what a marriage should be. The bride got a diamond ring from her groom as a sign that she was taken. That diamond ring was a symbol of possession and property. Only the woman was wearing a wedding ring. That changed. Nowadays both man and wife wear a wedding ring and is the symbol of commitment to each other and loyalty.
In the Middle Ages when gold became a way to pay, goldsmiths started to make golden wedding rings. That is only the nobility was supposed to wear golden wedding rings. The other people had silver or metal wedding rings.
The wedding ring is most of the time expensive and to make sure that you look after this precious jewel, there were warnings or legends to make you take care of your ring. In the old days, they said that when the wedding ring broke the couple will die early. When a woman lost her ring she will lose her husband fast. And.. you should always wear your wedding ring otherwise it will disturb your marriage. These stories will make sure that you will be careful with your wedding ring.
All shapes and sizes
In Asia, they used a ‘puzzle wedding ring’. This ring fell apart when you took it off. That was the insurance for the men that their wife did not take the ring off when the men traveled and were not at home. And that she did not meet other men. The men were not wearing a puzzle wedding ring!
Writing this blog about the origin and the meaning of the wedding ring I became a real enthusiastic feminist again. Normally I promote woman for good jobs and to be the producer of your own life. I promote equality for men and women. But when I read all these symbolic reasons for wearing a wedding ring in the past; I get really fanatic. I am so happy that I live in this time, where a wedding ring is the symbol of love, of commitment and of equality. And I am happy to express that with a wedding ring, just as my husband is doing.
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