The wedding ring has a surprisingly deeper history than I had originally expected. As my anniversary is today, I feel that it is only fitting to cover the history of the wedding ring. I don’t generally do “This Day in History” post, but this is a personal one. This day in history, in 2008, my wife and I got our own tiny pair of handcuffs that would bind us together for life. I mean…..–and now, the history of wedding rings!
The history of the wedding ring is an extensive one going back 4000 years to the times of Ancient Egypt. While the first use of these symbolic rings is not documented, there is proof that rings, made of reed and hemp, were worn by Egyptians to signify the wearers’ supernatural belief that they were to be united in a marriage of endless love. Just as a ring doesn’t have an end, neither does their eternal love. (In case you did not pick up on that imagery…) The largest contribution that Egyptians gave to the custom of wedding rings is the placement of the ring. The Egyptians believed that there was a vein that ran directly from the third finger—this excludes the thumb—of the left hand, straight to the heart. As the heart symbolized love and passion, what better place to wear such a symbolic ring?
It would be several thousand years before the custom of the wedding ring would spread further than Egypt. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great would take not only Egypt, but also their ideology of wedding rings and the anatomical explanation that the index finger in-cased a vein that led directly to the heart. This practice and knowledge would be taken back to Greece and was eventually picked up by the Romans.
While wedding rings were started by Ancient Egyptians, it would be the Romans that started the actual custom that every wife would be bestowed a ring to signify “marriage”. I put marriage in quotation marks because some (mainly the wealth and upper-class) Romans had a less endearing outlook on marriage and the symbolism of the wedding ring. While it did continue to signify eternal and never-ending, it wasn’t love they spoke of, per se. In some circles, a wedding ring in Roman culture signified ownership. Not all women of this era had rights when it came to marriage. Some daughters had no voice in who they married and proposals were not in existence. An interested party merely showed a good gesture to the father (basically buying her hand in marriage) and the two would be wed. At this point, a wedding ring was placed on the woman’s hand to signify a binding, legal agreement; ownership. The ring, usually constructed of iron, ironically was still placed on the third finger of the left hand on the vena amoris (Latin for the previously mentioned vein that was thought to have led to the heart).
As times changed, so did the customs and rings themselves. Rings previously made of iron, that would easily rust, were replaced with rings made of silver and gold. During the 1500’s, Henry the VIII made a major contribution to keeping the ring on the index finger. (This is important since the science behind vena amoris would turn out to be incorrect.) Because of Henry the VIII, in traditional English weddings, the wedding ring would be placed on the bride’s thumb during the ceremony and the holy Trinity would be recited. Starting with the thumb “In the name of the Father”, then moved to the pointer finger “in the name of the Son”, then the middle “and in the name of the Holy Ghost”, finally to its final resting place (index finger) “Amen”. During this era, gimmal rings also became popularized. The gimmal ring was a betrothal ring. When a couple became engaged, both parties would wear a ring and upon their wedding day the two rings would become one interlocking metal band, which the bride would wear. This customary gesture signified unity in the marriage.
What history would be complete without America trying to complete disturb the normal process and cultural normality of tradition, am I right? Religious beliefs, of early Puritan, American settlers condemned wedding rings. They believed that rings were frivolous and that excess adornment of the body was a sin. As Puritan culture saw adultery as a punishable by death offence, there was no need to wear rings for marital identification purposes. However, the lucky ladies of those times did receive “wedding thimbles”. I mean, how useful and practical, am I right? If only men were more thoughtful these days… It should not go without saying, however, that it wasn’t long before these clever and daring women learned that clipping the top off of a thimble resulted in a ring.
While men started wearing wedding bands in the 1300’s, in the Greek Orthodox religion, it did not pick up immediately elsewhere, especially in the United States. It wasn’t until World War II that men in America started to wear wedding bands. As men faced lengthy amounts of time away from their wives, they began to adorn their own hands with a ring to remind them of what they had waiting for them back home. It stole away from their sense of loneliness and gave them much-needed hope and a reason to live.
As time passes, I fully expect the customs of weddings and its symbolic rings to change. I myself have a two-tone (yellow and white gold) ring, with an inscription inside that reads “My Best Friend 7-26-08”. No matter what the ring is made of, whether hemp, iron, gold, or just a thimble, the rings of past all symbolically stood and will continue to stand for eternal and endless love.