We’ve all known more than a few married couples who forego the custom of wearing wedding rings, such that it’s definitely a guess to assume an empty ring finger on the left hand means a person is unmarried. Customs are different around the world and some couples don’t attach much meaning to rings. Though it isn’t a rule, a great many Asian couples, especially those of earlier generations believe rings to be merely ornamental without any social or religious significance. And then there are those who don’t like to wear rings of any type.
The origin of the wedding ring has a couple of versions. First, there is an old story of the ring being symbolic of the chains used by barbarian men to secure the bride to her captor-groom’s home. If there is any veracity to that tale, modern couples who exchange rings are evidence of twenty-first century equality of the sexes. Another story has it that the exchange of wedding rings follows the ancient Egyptian thought that a circle or band, having no beginning or end signifies eternity—the rings symbolizing the joining of a couple for eternity. Gold rings were highly valued by the Egyptians, the first worn on a finger was around 2800 BC in the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.
7th century Byzantine wedding ring depicting Christ uniting bride and groom
The custom of wearing gold rings on the fingers also became popular in early Roman culture. Archeology at Pompeii has unearthed many gold rings, among them a design that reappeared in Europe centuries later, as well as in the era of American Flower Children during the 60s and 70s. That was a design of two hands clasped in handshake that came to be known as a ‘friendship ring.’ Tertullian, a Christian priest writing in second century Rome described the average Roman housewife as proudly wearing her gold band in public but exchanging it for a ring of iron in the home. Another Roman design carried a key, a symbol that bore relation to Roman law stating that the marriage contract entitled a wife to half her husband’s wealth, and that she was free to help herself to whatever her husband’s storehouse held. Two thousand years later that attitude reemerged in modern marriages.
Wedding rings haven’t always been worn on the finger next to the little finger. The early Hebrews wore their wedding rings on the index finger, and in India there were worn on the thumb. It was the Greeks who started the custom of wearing it next to the little finger, their reason based upon an incomplete knowledge of the human anatomy. In the third century BC, Greek physicians erroneously believed that the vein they called the “vein of love” ran from the ring finger directly to the heart. Their thinking was that it must be the proper digit for a ring symbolizing heartfelt love. Not long after the Greeks, the Romans too adopted this notion. They took it a step farther by describing the ring finger as the “healing finger” and used it exclusively to stir mixtures of medicine. The idea was that the vein in that finger running to the heart would alert a physician of any toxic mixture, a danger he would feel in his own heart before administering the drug.
Later Christians had their own practice regarding the wedding ring and the ritual of its placement on the finger. The groom first set the ring at the top of his bride’s index finger with the words, “In the name of the Father.” He then moved the ring to the middle finger with the words, “In the name of the Son, concluding by slipping the ring on the bride’s ring finger and ending, “and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” This ritual was called the Trinitarian formula.