Do you know where the tradition of wedding rings comes from? In August we are celebrating our 16th wedding anniversary. Always a moment to have a look at our photos of that wonderful day. In 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 wedding rings and the customs for wearing those rings.
And at the end, I will show you the most interesting and for me the most beautiful wedding rings of the world: the Jewish betrothal rings. Officially it is an engagement ring, but opinions vary!
The origin of the wedding rings
Although there are a lot of studies about the origin of wedding rings, nobody can really say for sure, how old that tradition is. And as always researchers don’t agree. There is a theory that wedding rings originate from Egypt. More than 4800 years ago there was a custom in Egypt to braid rings and decorative ornaments for women from papyrus, reeds, or hemp.
And there is a story that a farmer boy in love, braids 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 find some rings in graves and some papyrus rolls that mention 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 wedding rings goes back to prehistoric times. It states that the groom binds the ankles and the wrists of the bride together with reeds or grass. In this way, the bride can not escape from him or her soul can not escape. After the ceremony, the groom removes the rope and ties a piece on her finger: the wedding ring. Because the rope lasts not that long, they made the ring first from grass but later from rope, leather, bone, and finally from metal.
The value of the material of the ring demonstrates the love and wealth of the giver. In the Northern part of Europa hair was the symbol of loyalty and friendship. And one uses it to braid a ‘love button’ in the hair of the loved one. After that, you cut that ‘button’ and wear it as a ring.
The Greek tradition
But there are more stories about the origin of wedding rings and it seems that every great culture has such a story: like Greece. They claim that the tradition of exchanging rings at a wedding starts about three centuries BC. They discover that there is a vein in the fourth finger of the hand, that leads straight to the heart. This vein is called the ‘vena amori’ or the ‘vein of love’. By wearing a ring around that finger the marriage could not fail.
The Romans use that same explanation, but the ring is not the symbol of love, but the symbol of ownership. The Roman groom claims his woman by giving her the ring made of iron: the symbol of strength and permanence. The engravement of the ring says to whom the woman belonged.
The Christian wedding rings
Around 860 the Christians start to use the ring in wedding ceremonies. Not the plain band as we know now, but a highly decorated ring with all kinds of heathenish symbols. The official Church was not happy with the custom. On the other hand at that time the official marriage did not exist; that is with the common people. When a man and woman love each other (or not, and the woman is forced) they just start to live together. There is no ceremony, only an oral agreement.
In the Middle Ages…
From the 12th century to the wedding ceremony, the exchanging of rings become common practice. And the Church encourages this. But… The ring symbolizes 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 around the dumb, the index finger, and then the middle finger. And he promises to take care of the girl he marries and slides 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 wedding rings
Wedding rings are an important symbol of Christian marriages, but the ring has no religious meaning. It symbolizes only the love for each other and the commitment to each other. It may be that 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 and no end. The Egyptians regard the circle as the sun and their most important god is 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 wears 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 Greeks and the Romans wear their wedding ring on the ring finger of their left hand. There is a vein that goes straight to the heart (‘vena amoris’).
Before the 19th century, only the woman wears a wedding ring, not only to spread the romantic message. But also to let other men know that she is 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 slides on the ring finger of the left hand. But in the time of the Reformation, the Calvinists disapprove of wearing a ring. That is inappropriate vanity. And the Protestants abolish the use of the wedding ring. In the 19th century, the Protestants change their minds and they agree with the symbolic meaning of the wedding ring.
But they do not want to copy the Catholic tradition exactly. And they wear 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 or the 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, married women wear their wedding rings on their right hand. In the 16th century, the Church decides that this should be changed. Wearing the wedding ring on the right is the symbol of power and only men can have power. As a result, the women have 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 originates 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 is 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 have to leave their home and their wife to fight for freedom, they start to wear their wedding rings 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.
There is a bit of controversy about on which hand you should wear your wedding ring. A lot of people think that it is more practical to wear a 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.
But now religion comes in. In the Netherlands, it is a tradition that Catholic people wear their wedding ring on the ring finger of the left hand. And the Protestant people wear theirs on the ring finger of their right hand. In my country, it is obvious, just by looking at the hands, what religion someone has. Although some people with minor religious feelings, do what is most practical.
The material of the wedding ring
In the Roman Times, people made the wedding ring of iron, to symbolize a strong and permanent marriage. It can not be broken. Since iron 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 of 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 Romans decorate the wedding rings with a key. That means that the woman opens her heart for her husband. And also opens the door to his possessions. The wife entitles to 50% of the possession of her husband. Marriage and the wedding ring in Roman Times are mostly not only a symbol of love but also the symbol of sharing possessions. This means that the husband owes his wife. But marriage is also a kind of insurance for the woman. That she financially is taken care of. And that it is very expensive for the husband to leave her for another woman. Later the wedding ring has a snake or a cross as decoration.
A wedding ring is not always made of gold!
In earlier times there is a diamond in a wedding ring. In the Greek language ‘adamas’ means invincible and that is exactly what a marriage should be. The bride gets a diamond ring from her groom as a sign that she is taken. That diamond ring is a symbol of possession and property. Only the woman wears a wedding ring. That changes. Nowadays both man and wife wear a wedding ring and are the symbol of commitment to each other and loyalty.
In the Middle Ages when gold becomes a way to pay, goldsmiths start to make golden wedding rings. That is… only the nobility is supposed to wear golden wedding rings. The other people have 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 are warnings or legends to make you take care of your ring. In the old days, they say that when the wedding ring breaks the couple will die early. When a woman loses her ring she will lose her husband fast. And.. you always have to 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!
Talking about men wearing a wedding ring… My husband wears our wedding ring, he wants to show his commitment to me. But nowadays you see quite a lot of married men not wearing their wedding rings anymore. If you ask them, they say it is not practical at work. But I wonder whether that is the real reason. Involuntarily you look at someone’s finger if you want to know whether he is married, or not. And now you don’t know for sure. Mmmm.
Maybe the #MeToo movement has to look into this phenomenon too!
The Jewish betrothal ring
After studying this historical engagement ring I think that ‘the most beautiful ring is a Jewish betrothal ring. I love to get such a ring for my engagement, although it is huge. And not practical at all. There is a story around these rings. Read this blog post to know all about it.
The history of the Jewish betrothal ring
You find the first documentation about these rings in the 10th century AD. From the 14th century on, people really find these beautiful rings.
In the 14th century, Europe suffers from a kind of Covid-19 virus, called the Black Death. About 200 million people die from it and the Europeans blame the Jews to cause this illness. They are chased and massacred. A terrible situation for the Jewish people.
The Jews bury their belongings and valuables and want to recover them when the Black Death finishes. Sad enough the day to dig the valuables never comes and centuries later (in Erfurt and Colmar/Germany) people find the Jewish treasures, especially the Jewish betrothal rings by accident.
From the 16th until the 19th century, the rings are made with filigree work and enamel. The enamel adds some color to the rings.
What is a betrothal ring?
Betrothal rings are engagement rings and they belong to a family. They use the same engagement ring many times and it goes from father to son. Sometimes a whole community owns a betrothal ring and the ring goes from engagement to engagement. The jewel is too expensive to keep for yourself.
The ring is made of pure gold, no gemstones, and is often decorated with Hebrew inscriptions. On top of a simple golden ring, you see houses, temples, palaces, or castles in miniature. It is a very delicate and high standard work. Sometimes you see a lid with a clasp on top and inside there is a miniature Thora and the words ‘Mazal Tov’ or ‘Good luck’ in the Hebrew language.
The rings with a house on top are mostly the marital home of the bride or groom. And a temple represents mostly the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
What about a wedding ring?
The symbol of love – a wedding ring- is not a part of Jewish marriage in Biblical Times. Jewish couples pick up the tradition of using wedding rings during times. But in those days you can marry without rings. Three things are essential for a wedding. First, you give the bride money as a bride price. You sign a marriage contract and third, you consume the relationship.
In the Middle Ages, the wedding ring becomes popular in Jewish circles. It is (mostly) a ring of gold, round and plain without inscriptions. And you wear it on the index finger. The value is higher than one ‘perutah’, the smallest coin in those days, and represents the bride price.
Accepting that the ring is of low value shows that your bride is not bought and that it is her own free will to marry you. And she is no slave either. Accepting the ring and the marriage states that she is only intimate with her husband.
Engagement or wedding rings?
There is some discussion about when to use a betrothal ring. On an engagement or on a wedding day? When you look at some famous paintings from Rembrandt (the Jewish bride) and Jozef Israel (the Jewish Wedding) you can not exactly see what kind of rings they exchange.
The fact that the ring stays in the family or in the community is for me the proof that you exchange these beautiful rings at engagement parties and the plain gold wedding rings to keep as a daily jewel.
Writing this blog about the origin and the meaning of wedding rings I became a real enthusiastic feminist again. Normally I promote women 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, commitment, and equality. And I am happy to express that with a wedding ring, just as my husband is doing.
In the Netherlands we have a proverb, saying (literal translation) ‘even though a monkey wears a gold ring, it is and remains an ugly thing’. This means that if you have a bad character you can decorate yourself with jewelry, but you remain ugly’. Personally, I translate this proverb in quite another way… I don’t judge your or anyone else’s character. But I know that you can wear extremely expensive pieces of jewelry, but if they are not ‘doing’ anything for you, if they don’t make you beautiful, you might take them off and look even more beautiful.
You look stunning if you wear the right jewelry to accentuate your best features and to camouflage or hide your lesser features. Having said that you might think… nice Florence, very nice, but how do I know what jewelry looks best on me? What jewelry accentuates my best features? And how can I cover up my larger hips?
There are answers to your questions and they are all in my very new practical PDF! It is free of charge. Just let me know where I can send them to.
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