Or: Trinketry Through the Ages

Approximately circular bits of metal, stone, bone, hair and whatever else have been with us for ages. Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians all wore them for various reasons, though the beginnings of the ring remain largely a mystery.

Today, we still adorn our fingers with both the value and symbolism of rings; throughout time they have meant love, wealth, authority, and power.

And they're pretty, too.

Going Greek

One of the oldest stories of the ring comes from Greek Mythology, specifically the tale of Prometheus, the plucky lad who nicked fire from the gods and whose liver had an on-again, off-again relationship with a hungry eagle.

Certain versions of the myth have it that he stayed perfectly put, or that Hercules drifted by and freed him. But according to Hesiod, Zeus ultimately relented in his judgement, and let Prometheus slip from his chains on the Caucasus Mountains.

But he didn't get away clean. Zeus' command was not entirely escaped. He ordered Prometheus to wear an iron ring, in which was set a fragment of the mountain. That way, he would still be bound to the rock.

And that, as far as Hesiod was concerned, was the origin of the ring.

The Greeks probably took the ring-wearing habit for their own from Asia, where everyone who was anyone wore them.

Pyramid Scheme

The Egyptians were using rings as gifts and currency for much of their history. Rings proper--as opposed to simple wire wrappings--first appear during the Middle Kingdom, growing increasingly elaborate into New Kingdom times, when large signets gained popularity.

The Egyptian gods-on-earth wore circular rings to symbolize the eternal, unending nature of their power: one of the oldest actual rings in existence--said to be the most valuable antique ring--is the ring of Suphis, whom you may know by the slightly funnier sounding name of Cheops.

This King of Memphis, the man who brought you the Great Pyramid, had a ring forged for himself that was covered in hieroglyphics and featured images of Isis, Osiris, lotuses, and crocodiles.

All your favorites from Egyptian mythology are here in this fabulous collection, now in the private collection of someone else.

Some theorize that the use of rings in marriage ceremonies dates back to the Egyptians, but there are conflicting reports.

Biblical Knowledge

The real chronology of ring-wearing may be altered by belief in the bible as fact, or the actual date} of its initial publication.

The Book of Genesis features rings in several stories.

Rings are among the raiments worn by the high priest Aaron, and Joseph received one from the Pharaoh upon being made superintendent of his kingdom.

That ring was found, or so it is believed, in 1824, in a tomb in the necropolis of Sakkara. It resides now (along with a museum's worth of other Egyptian antiquities) in the hands of the British.

Romanus Eunt Domus! Romani Ite Domum!

When Romans went home, they took rings with them from whoever they conquered--Gauls, Spaniards, and Britons all wore them, as did the Sabines--the folks from whom the Romans most likely picked it up.

Male Citizens were supposed to restrain themselves to a single iron signet ring that could double as a personalized seal for important documents, but gold soon worked its way in, the first mentioning of a Roman gold ring being AD 432.

Gold became the metal of choice for senators and ambassadors away from home, and (ultimately along with equites) they had the exclusive right to wear them-the jus annulorum. The right could be conferred on lesser but distinguished freemen, even if the ability to afford one could not.

Gold became increasingly popular and coveted over the years, prompting the emperors Severus and Aurelian to extend the right of rings to all soldiers; but it took Justinian to open the field to all citizens.

It wasn't long before Romans of both sexes were developed the habit of decking out all their digits with elaborately carved, bejewelled, and fairly tacky trinkets.

Mawwiage. Mawwiage Is What Bwings Us Togevahhr, Today.

It's perhaps the most recognizable and widely known ongoing symbolic functions of the ring. And it typically takes two--an engagement ring followed by a wedding band.

Weddings more often than not also include some rubbish about the perfection of a circle, no beginning, no end, etc., forever joined, all that sort of nonsense. Nothing about rings being round because your fingers are. And nothing about people having gotten married before without bands of silver, gold, or as is now increasingly popular, platinum, but there we are. The tradition goes a long way back.

Of course, before you get the ring, you should know where you're going to put it.

The Finger

Ancient folks had ten choices, and went through a couple of them:

Western tradition took for what we now know as the ring finger from the later Greeks, who mistakenly but romantically believed that the vena amoris--the vein of love--ran from that finger directly to the heart.

Running Rings Around You

They weren't always requisite, even if they were used. Sometimes, it just takes a pope or king to get things done. Someone with money, anyway.

Killer Jewelery, Man.

We've all seen the movies where the evil court noble with the large ring flips open the stone and slips some unsuspecting sap a medieval mickey finn.

This actually happened, and it started a lot earlier. One of the first said to conceal poison in a ring was Demosthenes, the famous orator.

Much later in history, the Borgias-a murdering family of great reknown--also employed such devices. In Dumas' Crimes Celebres, Caesar Borgia is described as wearing a ring with two lions' heads, the teeth of which were poisonous. When shaking hands with an enemy, he would press them into the target's palm, then smile and wait.

And the rest is history.

Hm. Has a nice ring to it.

Platinum bands to:

Annulus Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh on pp95-97 of William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

Special thanks to evilrooster for that last article.

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