Sparkling engagement rings and gleaming wedding bands are so connected with the western ideal of marriage today that anyone might think rings have always been part of the marriage contract.
Not so, indeed, it is a wee bit hard to say exactly where the tradition of the wedding ring began.
Could it have started with the ancient Greeks? Prometheus, a titan of Greek myth wore a metal ring on his finger to symbolise an eternal bond. In Greek stories, Prometheus was responsible for helping Zeus to literally make the first humans and teach them skills for life—except the use of fire. Zeus couldn't have mere mortals gaining power over the flame—they might challenge his own supremacy.
But dear old Prometheus did teach people about fire and the mighty Zeus was livid. He had Prometheus chained on a mountaintop and an eagle was to fly down and eat Prometheus’ liver. But that wasn't all. This was to be repeated every day for the rest of eternity. Overnight the liver would re-grow, the eagle would come back and it would start all over again.
After years of this, Zeus felt guilty for imprisoning and torturing Prometheus (besides he needed his help fighting giants) and sent Hercules to release him. But ever after Prometheus was obliged to wear a middle band on his finger to symbolise the iron fetters and chains of Zeus’ punishment.
We know that in later Greek and Roman culture, rings were often exchanged, not through marriage, but between males as a token of friendship. If the tradition of a wedding ring rises from this myth it brings up rather interesting ideas. Certainly it might suggest that marriage involves having one's liver eaten every day by a screeching eagle. While some spouses might agree with this as a symbolic summary of married life, seen another way, the ring could actually represent a release from a life chained on the lonely Mountaintop of singledom.
This ancient story provides clues to the symbolic nature of the ring, and although it's doubtless that the wedding ring has many origins, what’s clear is that it has long represented a bond between two people.
Today wedding and engagement rings are a billion dollar business, and rings and styles are as individual as their wearers. The monetary value of the ring itself is important, or unimportant, depending on the attitude of the couple.
Modern western culture has both allowed people to reject the convention of the ring and yet the culture of wealth worship drives the desire for fabulous jewels ever onward. We must admit too, that women—and men—simply love the glitter of diamonds and the lustre of silver and gold.
But why? Is it because the little magpie within swoops with a cry of delight upon anything shiny, not because it's useful, but simply because it sparkles with beauty? The role that monetary value has played in the marriage contract since the very earliest times goes hand-in-hand with the wearing of a wedding ring. The value of the ring of course was, and still is, not always for the sake of eye candy, but represents the wealth and status of its wearer—and giver.
Ancient Egyptians made some of the earliest rings from the rushes and reeds growing alongside the Nile. As time went by the Egyptians began making these rings out of more sturdy materials, leather, bone and ivory, and the more valuable the material the more love shown to the receiver—and naturally demonstrated the wealth of the giver. The classic diamond ring seems to have been born from a wildly successful advertising campaign in the late 1940s. The advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Sons was hired by De Beers to boost its diamond sales. The slogan they created has been imprinted on our collective conscious—"A diamond is forever.”
The diamond, as we know, is associated with the engagement ring, which was used in Roman times in the form with which we are familiar today—the hopeful man presented one to his prospective bride and her acceptance marked the formal agreement to marry. The ancient Romans also had a hand in influencing the finger upon which many engagement and wedding rings are worn—the third finger of the left hand. They believed the "Vena Amoris" or vein of love, ran through that finger and connected directly to the heart.
Matters of the heart are more closely associated with marriage today than they have been in the distant past. There are countless threads of tradition and culture from around the world that weave together in the circle of mutual promise represented by the wedding band. The meaning of the ring for modern couples is connected with their beliefs and feelings and the choice to have and to hold, and to wear a ring, is their own expression of commitment—and love.