The exact origin of the wedding ring is uncertain and is rife with superstition and mythology. Papyruses dating back to the ancient Egyptian civilization depict wedding rings, and historians credit the land of the Pharaohs with originating this tradition. Engagement or betrothal rings were in use as far back as prehistoric times, but the wedding ring is a relatively new tradition, and unlike the engagement ring, is steeped in religious ritual.
In ancient times, accepting a wedding ring constituted a legally binding agreement between husband and wife. The wife became property of the husband, a holding of sorts. It also represented protection to the wife–a protection against challengers seizing her legal and rightful position in a power grab.
Early Egyptian wedding rings were simple circular bands, crudely crafted from indigenous materials such as hemp and reeds. The lifespan of the average wedding ring was approximately one year. It’s a safe bet that the average marriage outlasted the average wedding band, since the eternal circle signified eternal love and devotion. The circle also represented the joining of two halves to create a whole. The hole in the center symbolized the gateway to the unknown–the future. Wedding bands of ivory, leather, and other sturdy materials were crafted by those who desired a more permanent token of eternity.
Metals replaced the earlier hemp and reed wedding bands. The early Romans moved to lead, while other civilizations chose brass and copper. Eventually, gold emerged as the metal of choice. In fact, early Irish couples insisted on gold, as any other material was thought to bring bad luck at best, and constitute an illegal marriage at worst. For couples unable to afford gold wedding bands, gold wedding rings were secured for the service and returned immediately afterward.
Early crude designs were adorned with semiprecious metals in an attempt to disguise the handiwork. The color of the stones also held significance. The red ruby signified the heart, the blue sapphire signified the skies and the heavens, and the rare diamond’s indestructible nature signified the indestructible bond of marriage.
Fit played an equally important role in the realm of superstition surrounding the wedding ring. The fit had to be perfect. Too loose a fit would lead to a sloppy marriage, carelessness, and even cause the couple to grow apart. Too tight a fit would doom the couple to a suffocating, painful marriage.
In ancient times, wedding bands occupied the third finger on the left hand just as they do today. The significance of the third finger was the belief that the vein in the third finger, the “vena amoris,” led directly to the heart. This was a thought propagated by the Egyptians and adopted as truth by the ancient Greeks and Romans, until later disproved.
Even after the discovery that there was no vena amoris, the custom of wearing the wedding band on the third finger survived. Early Christian marriages included a ritual that landed the wedding band on the third finger: As the priest recited, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the holy Ghost,” he took the ring and touched the thumb, the first finger, and then the second finger. When he said, “Amen,” he placed the ring on the third finger, sealing the marriage. The wedding band has occupied the third finger into the 21st century, except for a short period during the Elizabethan era, when whimsy decreed that the wedding ring reside on the thumb.
Double-ring ceremonies gained popularity during World War II as young soldiers shipped off to war. The token of the marriage contract took on new sentimentality during those troubling times, and that custom remains intact today. Ceremonies differ, vows are often unique, but the tradition of the wedding band has survived through the ages, and probably will–for all eternity.