Ring And Its Many Symbolic Functions


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A ring is a round band, usually of metal, worn as ornamental jewellery. The term “ring” by itself always denotes the finger ring, but when worn as an ornament elsewhere, the body part is always specified, e.g. earrings, neck rings, arm rings, and toe rings. Rings always fit snugly around or in the part of the body they ornament, so bands worn loosely, like a bracelet, are not rings. Rings may be made of almost any hard material: wood, bone, stone, metal, glass, gemstone or plastic. They may be set with gemstones (diamond, ruby, sapphire or emerald) or with other types of stone or glass.

Although people wear some rings as mere ornaments, or as conspicuous displays of wealth, rings have symbolic functions in relation to marriage, exceptional achievement, high status or authority, membership in an organization, and the like. Rings can be made to sport insignia to be transferred in an impression in a wax seal, or outfitted with a small compartment in which to conceal things. In myth, fable, and fiction, rings are often endowed with spiritual or supernatural significance.

Along with the rings, other types of jewelleries including necklace, rings, bracelets, earrings, bangles, pendants, and others have been discovered from 3rd millennium BC civilization Indus Valley Civilization. Factories of small beads have been discovered in Lothal, India.

Finger rings have been found in tombs in Ur dating back to circa 2500BC. The Hittite civilization produced rings, including signet rings, only a few of which have been discovered. People in Old Kingdom Egypt wore a variety of finger rings, of which a few examples have been found, including the famous scarab design. Rings became more common during the Egyptian middle kingdom, with increasingly complex designs. Egyptians made metal rings but also made rings from faience some of which were used as new year gifts. Native styles were superseded by Greek and Roman fashions during the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Archaic Greek rings were to some extent influenced by Egyptian rings, although they tended to be less substantial and were not for the most part used as working signet rings. A lack of locally available gold meant that rings made in the eastern colonies tended to be made from silver and bronze while Etruria used gold.

The classical period showed a shift away from bronze to wider adoption of silver and gold. The most typical design of the period involved a lozenge bezel mounting an intaglio device. Over time the bezel moved towards a more circular form.

During the early and middle imperial era (first two centuries AD) the closest there is to a typical Roman ring consisted of a thick hoop that tapered directly into a slightly wider bezel. An engraved oval gem would be embedded within the bezel with the top of the gem only rising slightly above the surrounding ring material. Such rings are referred to Henig II and III/Guiraud 2 in formal academic parlance or simply as Roman rings by modern jewellers. In general Roman rings became more elaborate in the third and fourth centuries AD.

During this period the fashion was for multiple rings on each hand and on each finger. Rings during this period were mostly made from copper based alloys, silver or gold. Gems became common after 1150 along with the belief that certain gems had the power to help or protect the wearer in various ways. Engraved rings were produced using Lombardic script until around 1350 when it was replaced by Gothic script. Some of the inscriptions were devotional, others romantic in nature. For romantic inscriptions French was the language of choice. An increasing use of contracts and other documents that needed to have formal seals meant that signet rings became more important from the 13th century onwards.

Each finger has had a symbolic association or meaning (most lost in antiquity and that may vary from culture to culture) for the placement of a ring as a sign to observers.

The fourth digit or ring finger of the left hand has become the customary place to wear betrothal, engagement and wedding rings in much of the world, though in certain countries the right hand finger is used. This custom was practically established as the norm during World War II.

The use of the fourth finger of the left hand (the ‘ring finger’) is associated with an old belief that the left hand’s ring finger is connected by a vein directly to the heart: the vena amoris or vein of love. This idea was known in 16th and 17th century England, when Henry Swinburne referred to it in his book about marriage. It can be traced back to ancient Rome, when Aulus Gellius cited Appianus as saying the ancient Egyptians had found a fine nerve linking that particular finger to the heart.

Occasionally rings have been re-purposed to hang from bracelets or necklaces.

The signet ring is traditionally worn on the left pinky or little finger.

A birthstone ring and/or “birthday” stone ring is customarily worn on the first finger of the right hand and indicates respectively the month and day of the week in and on which the bearer was born.

Amulet rings, worn for a plethora of purposes from protection (pentacle rings) to augmenting personal attributes (wisdom, confidence, social status etc.) are worn on various fingers often depending on the intent of the ring’s design or attributes of the stone inset. Although it has been thought that worn on specific fingers for specific purpose enhanced their powers, most people simply wear them on any finger of which they fit.

Thumb rings were originally worn to protect the thumb from injuries caused by the launching of arrows and are a sign of an archer.

While the ISO standard defines ring size in terms of the inner circumference in millimeters various countries have traditional sizing systems that are still used. Sizing beads functionally reduce the ring size and are small metal beads added to the inner surface of a ring to hold it in place against the finger; they have the advantage of being easily added or removed.

After several thousand years of ring manufacture the total number of styles produced is vast. Even cataloging the rings of a single civilization such as the Romans presents a major challenge. As a result, the following list should be considered to be very limited.