Although the story of the wedding ring may not perhaps possess all the fascination and romance which are associated with the tokens of betrothal, it is, nevertheless, full of interest and touched with much that is picturesque. It is rich, too, in legendary lore and poetic associations. And what a wealth of untold joy, sorrow, hope, and tragedy lie within its narrow circle !
Its origin is somewhat obscure, but the tradition now generally accepted is that it was the outcome of the ancient Egyptian custom of placing a piece of ring-money, used before coins were introduced, on the bride's finger to indicate that she was endowed with her husband's wealth (Fig. 1). It will be perceived at once that this symbolism is, in a measure, still retained in the modern marriage service.
Among the ancient Romans a key-ring was at first used, and here again symbolism played an interesting and suggestive part. For in those far-off days it was customary, in the absence of banks and similar places of safe deposit, for valuables to be kept in a strong-box, the key of which was, for the sake of security, attached to a ring and worn on the finger. It was not presented to the bride during the actual ceremony, however, but after she had been lifted over the threshold of her new homea strange superstitious practice, based on the belief that should she trip or stumble at the entrance her wedded life would be unhappy. The presentation of the key denoted the confidence reposed in her by her husband, and in gold, an Egyptian custom which
Fig. 1. Ancient bridal ring-money probably gave rise to the use of the ring in marriage key was that of the treasure-chest
Fig. 2. Bronze key-ring. The and given the bride as a token of confidence was a token that henceforth she should share all that he possessed (Figs. 2, 3, 4).
Fig. 3. Another form of the bronze key-ring of old Roman days
But the key-ring was obviously an inconvenient adornment, and in course of time more suitable tokens were substituted-possibly a snake ring, among others, for, strange though it may appear in our eyes, the serpent has long been regarded as an emblem of eternity, and was used as such by the ancients. Naturally, its associations with Eden did not suggest themselves to the pagan mind (Fig. 5).
The leaven of Christianity was already at work, however, and its influence is discernible in our next illustration (Fig. 6), where the introduction of the cross between the two busts marks the spirit of the times.
Still more marked is this influence in the Byzantine wedding ring of the tenth century (Fig. 7). Here our Lord is seen in the act of uniting the couple, a representation founded, no doubt, on the incident at Cana of Galilee. The word omonov - meaning unity, concord, or oneness of mind-is usually to be found on these Byzantine rings, and pious mottoes are often engraved upon the hoop, just as in later years " posies " were similarly inscribed. The ancients seem to have regarded the wedding ring rather more seriously-certainly with less light-hearted, airy sentiment -than the gallants and maids of Tudor times. As a rule, however, the serious note has predominated. Witness, for example, that remarkable annular ornament known as the Paradise ring (Fig. 8). The ornamentation of these rings, which may be seen in most museums, while it varies in matters of detail, depicts, as a rule, such scenes as the Creation, the Temptation, the Fall, and the Expulsion from Eden
Fig. 4. A Roman key-ring in gold, of the third century form of ring supplanted among the
Fig. 5. A gold snake ring. This
Romans the ancient key-ring
Fig. 6. An early example of a Roman wedding ring in gold after the introduction of Christianity
-hence the name. The rings are usually of gold, silver-gilt, or silver, and the figures and other objects, wonderfully modelled, are embellished with enamels of appropriate colours. As used in the picturesque marriage ceremony of the Jewish community in Germany during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, their symbolic meaning was that, man and wife being one, they would bear jointly even the most unfortunate doom.
Symbolism has, indeed, nearly always played a conspicuous part in connection with the tokens of conjugal unity, and nowhere is its influence more appropriately manifested than in the picturesque wedding rings still worn or preserved by the Continental peasantry. In the German provinces, for instance, one may often see examples of the curious design shown in Fig. 9. The ring is of silver, the shoulders being elaborately pierced in the style characteristic of seventeenth century work, and embellished with paste gems; two hearts are roughly symbolised by the teeth of the fallow deer, whose heart, according to an old legend, is, above all things, pure; while the keys and padlock are emblems that call for no explanation.
A still more precious heirloom, by the way, but one that is rarely to be seen, is religiously preserved in many homes in Dresden. When Napoleon with his conquering legions was devastating Europe with fire and sword, the women of Dresden, in a noble spirit of sacrifice, gave their gold wedding rings in order to raise funds to resist the invader. In return, the Government presented them with iron rings inscribed with the simple yet eloquent legend: " Ich gabe Gold fur Eisen "-I gave gold for iron. Another quaint ring, favoured by the Spanish peasantry a century or so ago, is the subject of the next illustration. At first glance the symbolism may seem a little confused ring of the tenth century, made of
Fig. 7. A curious Byzantine wedding gold and engraved with a sacred subject and motto wedding ring, a form popular in
Fig. 8. A Jewish "Paradise"
Germany during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a type still to be found in the German
Fig. 9. An ancient silver wedding ring of provinces. The teeth of the red deer are used in the ring to symbolise hearts and obscure; but the arrow which has pierced the heart is not from Cupid's bow, but from the quiver of Divine love; the crown, too, is Heaven's gift, and the heart, thus crowned, can wing its flight into realms of joy.
In the Scandinavian wedding ring (Fig. 11), the clasped hands, the oldest emblem of plighted troth and wedded unity, appear once more to remind us, as it were, of the truth conveyed in Browning's lines:
" Hand grasps hand,
And great hearts expand,
And grow one in the sense of this world's life."
It is indeed curious that the primitive folk of Scandinavia, like the rough yet simple fisherfolk of Clad-daugk, in Galway, should cling so tenaciously to this old yet appropriate device. In Italy, too, it may be found among the peasantry, to whom the wedding ring is still known by the ancient Roman name of Fede; but a more common device is that shown in Fig 12, two hearts united by a key.
In the Finnish nuptial ring (Fig. 13), symbolism is conspicuous by its absence, unless the small hoops attached to the shield-shaped bezel possess a significance known only to the initiated.* One by one the quaint and often characteristic rings here shown have been discarded in favour of the simple hoop. For the sake of the picturesque one cannot but regret this change; uniformitycan never possess the charm of variety; and this growing adherence to a rigid convention is robbing modern life of an element it already sadly lacks.
Men on the Continent seem to have worn wedding rings, especiallysince the fifteenth century, much more often than have Englishmen. For many years the Gimmal ring, popularly ascribed to Martin Luther, was a favourite form, but in more modern times less elaborate designs have been adopted.
* Tradition says that once each ring represented a cow, and that, therefore, the number of rings indicated the extent of the bride's dowry.
Wedding ring of the Spanish peas-
Fig. 10. An eighteenth century antry, full of symbolic meaning.
The metal is silver-gilt
Fig. 11. A Scandinavian wedding ring of the eighteenth century in silver-gilt, bearing the clasped hands, the oldest symbol of plighted troth
Fig. 12. A gold eighteenth century Italian wedding ring. To the peasants these rings are still known by their ancient Roman name of Fede
Fig. 13. A silver Finnish wedding ring of the nineteenth century, in which symbolism plays no part