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THE ORIGIN, PURPOSES AND METHODS OF RING WEARING
THE ORIGIN OF THE RING
THE origin of the ring is somewhat obscure, although there is good reason to believe that it is a modification of the cylindrical seal which was first worn attached to the neck or to the arm and was eventually reduced in size so that it could be worn on the finger. Signet rings were used in Egypt from a very remote period, and we read in Gen. xli,42, that the Pharaoh of Joseph's time bestowed a ring upon the patriarch as a mark of authority. From Egypt the custom of wearing rings was transmitted to the Greek world, and also to the Etruscans, from whom the usage was derived by the Romans. The Greek rings were made of various materials, such as gold, silver, iron, ivory, and amber.
In his Natural History, Pliny relates the Greek fable of the origin of the ring. For his impious daring in stealing fire from heaven for mortal man, Prometheus had been doomed by Jupiter to be chained for 30,000 years to a rock in the Caucasus, while a vulture fed upon his liver. Before long, however, Jupiter relented and liberated Prometheus; nevertheless, in order to avoid a violation of the original judgment, it was ordained that the Titan should wear a link of his chain on one of his fingers as a ring, and in this ring was set a fragment of the rock to which he had been chained, so that he might be still regarded as bound to the Caucasian rock.
Another origin ascribed to the ring is the knot. A knotted cord or a piece of wire twisted into a knot was a favorite charm in primitive times. Frequently this was used to cast a spell over a person, so as to deprive him of the use of one of his limbs or one of his faculties; at other times, the power of the charm was directed against the evil spirit which was supposed to cause disease or lameness, and in this case the charm had curative power. It has been conjectured that the magic virtues attributed to rings originated in this way, the ring being regarded as a simplified form of a knot; indeed, not infrequently rings were and are made in the form of knots. This symbol undoubtedly signified the binding or attaching of the spell to its object, and the same idea is present in the true-lovers' knot.
Many rings of the Bronze Age were found in the course of excavations conducted in 1901 by M. Henri de Morgan in the valley of Agha Evlar, stretching back from Kerghan on the Caspian Sea, in the region known as the "Persian Talyche." Here several sepulchral dolmens were discovered which yielded a considerable number of ornamental objects of metal and stone, as well as beads of vitreous paste. There was no trace of inscriptions to aid in dating these " Scythian" finds, but they are considered to belong to the second millennium before Christ. The bronze rings are of several different types, some of them showing from three to five spirals; in other cases the ends are overlapping, or else brought together as closely as possible.
Although it would scarcely be safe to assume that finger-rings were never worn by the ancient Assyrians, still the almost total absence of representations of them, even on female figures, renders it safe to say that this must have been only very rarely the case. Possibly the persistence in Assyria and Babylonia of the cylindrical form of seal may account for this, in part at least, for the signet ring in many places was evolved from the cylinder-seal. Moreover, the absence of small intaglios in the period earlier than 500 B.C. would have deprived a ring of its almost essential setting. The plates in Layard's great work on Assyrian remains, as well as those published by Flandrin and Coste, also offer strong negative evidence, although Dr. William Hayes Ward states that he would have expected finger-rings might have come from Egypt by the way of Syria. At a later period, under Greek influence, rings were not uncommon. In the immense cemeteries at Warka and elsewhere numerous iron rings have been found, many of them toe-rings, as well as some made of shell, but the date of these burials is not easily determined, and they are probably, in most instances, not of much earlier date than the eighth or even the sixth century before Christ.
A proof that genuine antiques can still be picked up in our day in the East is given by Doctor Ward, who said that he bought in Bagdad a lovely gold ring set with a cameo on which was inscribed in Greek characters " Protarchus made it." When, on visiting London, he told this to Doctor Murray, of the British Museum, the latter gave full expression to his scepticism, saying, "There are plenty of those signed things." But when the gem itself was shown him, he exclaimed, "This is jolly genuine," and he had it photographed for his book.
A very interesting find was made in 1893, during the excavations conducted under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania at Nippur. In the northwestern part of the mound, as many as 730 inscribed tablets were unearthed, which had been carefully stored in a chamber measuring eighteen by nine feet. These tablets, when deciphered, proved that the chamber was the record room of the sons of a certain Murashu, Bêl-hâtin and Bêl-nadin-shumu, whose activity seems to have been analogous to that of our counsellors-at-law. Many of the tablets bear records concerning the members of the family personally, but in other cases their services appear to have been claimed in various legal difficulties. One of the most curious of these ancient documents is a contract dated the eighth of the month of Elul, in the year 429 B.C. (thirty-fifth year of Artaxerxes I of Persia), in which Bêl-ah-iddina, Bêlshumu, and Hatin give the following guarantee to Bêl-nadin-shumu, son of Murashu:
As concerns the gold ring set with an emerald, we guarantee that in twenty years the emerald will not fall out of the gold ring. If the emerald should fall out of the gold ring before the end of twenty years, Bêl-ah-iddina, Bêlshumu, and Hâtin shall pay unto Bêl-nadin-shumu an indemnity of ten mana of silver.
The record bears the names of seven witnesses and that of the scribe, and is signed with the thumb-nail marks of those who guaranteed the jewel, "instead of their seals."
It seems that we have here the names of the members of a firm of jewellers doing business in Nippur, in the fifth century before Christ, and evidently they were quite confident that the work they sold was well and solidly done, for the indemnity represented a sum equivalent to about $400 in our money. This must have been the estimated value of the emerald. As the stone was probably not very large, this particular gem must have been highly valued at that time, a fact due, in all likelihood, to the special talismanic virtues attributed to it.
Several gold rings of Egyptian workmanship, excavated in tombs at Enkomi, Cyprus, date back to the time of the Middle Empire in Egypt. One in pale gold, now in the British Museum, has a flat oval bezel, inscribed " Maät, the golden one of the two lands." This belongs to the period from the XIX to the XXI Dynasty (or approximately from 1350 to 1000 B.C.). A ring found on the surface of the ground is of electrum and very massive, and is engraved with a draped figure seated on a throne, to whom approaches another figure clothed with a lion's skin and wearing on the head a disk and horns; a lien walking is in the exergue, and the sun's disk is above the two figures. This is believed to belong to the late XVIII Dynasty, toward 1400 B.C. A thin, rounded hoop of pale gold, the ends of which are twisted round each other, and a rounded hoop of yellow gold engraved with four uræi, are two other ex-amples in the British Museum of the rings from Enkomi. A massive silver ring from the same place has a large oval bezel with the following names and titles inscribed in Egyptian hieroglyphics: Rä- Heru- Khuti, Rä-Kheperu Nefer, Meri-Rä, Ptah-neb-nut-maät. The Cypriot gold ornaments which these rings help to date are considered to be essentially contemporary with those from the tombs in the lower town of Mycenæ, the period being approximately 1300—1100 B.C., possibly some years earlier or later.
A beautifully worked, perforated gold ring, set with a scarab of carnelian, was found in Cyprus and is now in the Konstantinidis Collection at Nicosia. The workmanship as well as the style of the setting indicates that it was produced in the sixth century B.C. Engraved on the carnelian is a fabulous monster, somewhat resembling a chimæra, half lion, half boar. Another ring of the same period from Marion-Arsinoë, Cyprus, has a silver hoop, and is set with a flat scaraboid, engraved with a female figure kneeling.
One of the largest Mycenæan rings shows a goddess seated near a tree, and worshippers approaching to do her homage. Others offer various devices: an altar with worshippers; a griffin and a seated divinity; a pair of sphinxes; griffins, bulls' heads, etc., in heraldic ordering. Here we have early Greek art transforming and adapting Oriental forms of metal engraving, to be succeeded, more than five centuries later, by the great gem-engravings of the palmy days of the art of Ionia and Greece.
Among the Cyprian rings of the Mycenæan period, about 1000 B.C., in the British Museum, is a double gold ring which had been evidently inlaid with some vitreous substance, all but faint traces of which have now disappeared. This was found in a site near Famagusta, Cyprus, that has been satisfactorily identified with the spot where the Greeks under Teucer are said to have established a settlement on their return from the siege of Troy. Other gold rings discovered here at the same time, in 1896, have plain hoops, with a small cylindrical ornament strung on the hoop, to serve in place of a bezel with setting. Still another of these rings has, on one side, an extension squared off at the corners, making a long and narrow flat surface on the outside of the hoop; along its edge runs a beaded ornamentation.
The oldest Greek ring bearing an inscription is one believed to belong to the late Mycenæan period. The gold hoop has engraved upon it the Cypriot syllables Le-na-ko, possibly meaning the name Lenagoras. It was found with other ornaments in a grave near Lanarka, Cyprus. The similarity of the name Lanarka with the phonetic value of the inscribed signs might perhaps suggest that a place name rather than a person's name is signified. That in ancient times several cities had their special signets is proved by a Greek inscription as to the cities of Smyrna, Magnesia, and Sipylum.
Pliny already remarked the fact that nowhere in the Homeric poems is any mention made of rings or of seals. This is the more singular that we have so much positive evidence in Cretan and Mycenæan remains that rings were known to a part of the Greek world for a long time prior to the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey. Probably due allowance must be made for the individual preference of the poet, or school of poets, to whom we owe these masterpieces of ancient literature. In our own day, the present writer in his researches has often been disappointed to find nothing concerning precious stones or jewels in a given work treating of a subject that would invite their mention, the obvious reason being that the author cared little or nothing for such things, and hence passed over, unnoticed, all data regarding them. Nevertheless, the metal-worker's art evidently appealed strongly to the author (or authors) of the Homeric epics, as is shown in many places, notably in the long description of the representations on the elaborately wrought shield made by Vulcan for Achilles (II., xviii, 478—608).
Certainly the traditions of Homeric times, recorded by later Greek writers, tell of several rings worn by Homeric personages. A ring of Ulysses, engraved with a dolphin by order of the wily hero, in memory of the rescue of his son Telemachus by one of the creatures of the deep, is mentioned by Plutarch (" De solertia anim."). Moreover, Helen of Troy is stated to have worn on one of her fingers a ring bearing the figure of an "enormous fish," and, finally, the great Greek painter Polygnotus, a contemporary of Pericles (495— 429 B.C.), in a painting showing the descent of Ulysses into Hades, represented the youthful Phocus as wearing a ring, set with an engraved gem, on one of the fingers of his left hand. This painting was highly reputed in ancient times, and had been dedicated to Apollo in the shrine at Delphi by the Cnidians.
The significance of the ring in the fourth century before Christ, as an ensign of office in Athens, is brought out by a passage in the " Knights" of the comic poet Aristophanes, where the people, as an expression of their discontent with the administration of Kleon, demand that he surrender the ring with which he has been invested, as a proof that he is no longer entrusted with the office of treasurer.
A clever use of a ring is reported to have been made by Ismenias of Thebes, when he was sent by the Boeotians as an envoy to the Persian King. Before he was brought into the royal presence he was instructed by the master of ceremonies that he must prostrate himself before the sovereign. This act was strongly repugnant to his Greek consciousness, both as a debasement of his individual dignity, and as an act of divine homage offered to a mortal. To escape from the dilemma, the envoy, as he approached the throne, took off his ring and succeeded in dropping it without attracting too much attention; whereupon he stooped and picked it up. The Greek onlookers understood the meaning of his action, while the Persians believed that he had satisfactorily conformed to the court ceremonial. His little ruse was rewarded by a favorable reception of his requests by the Persian King, who had long been offended by the obstinate refusal of the Greeks to render him the homage he regarded as his due.
The iron ring of the Romans, accounted for in popular fancy by the tale of the rock and link ring of Prometheus, probably came to the Romans from the Etruscans, who appear to have owed the fashion to the Greeks, and Pliny notes in his " Naturalis Historia," written about 75 A.D., that even then the Lacedæmonians, with true Spartan sobriety, still wore iron rings. Roman tradition carried back the introduction of such rings to the age of Numa Pompilius, about 700 B.C., and there is evidence that, at a later time at least, they were regarded as symbols of victory when worn on the hand of a successful general, a late instance being the wearing of an iron ring by Marius at his triumph for the victory over Jugurtha in 107 B.C.
The progressive changes in the Roman regulations and customs governing the wearing of rings and the material of which they should be made have been stated in a concise and convenient form by M. Deloche, and his conclusions are of considerable value, based as they are upon a very careful study of the classic sources and their best interpreters in the past.
Toward the latter part of the third century A.D. all Roman soldiers could lawfully wear gold rings, although in the late Republican and earlier Imperial periods this right was accorded only to the military tribunes. Thus, finally, all class distinctions in this respect were done away with. Every freeborn man could wear a gold ring, freedmen, with a few exceptions, were confined to silver rings, and the iron ring became the badge of slavery.
After the battle of Cannæ (August 2, 216 B.C.), in which the Romans were totally defeated by Hannibal, the Carthaginian leader ordered that the gold rings should be taken from the hands of the dead Romans and heaped up in the vestibule of his quarters. Enough were collected to fill a bushel basket (some authorities say three bushel baskets), and they were sent to Carthage, not as valuable spoils of war, but as proof of the great slaughter among the Roman patricians and knights, for at this time none beneath the rank of knights, and only those of highest standing among them, those provided with steeds by the State (equo publico), had been given the right to wear gold rings.
On days of national mourning the gold rings were laid aside as a mark of sorrow and respect, and iron rings were substituted. This was the case after the defeat at Cannæ in 216 B.C. and on the funeral day of Augustus Cæsar in 15 A.D. This usage is noted in one of the poet Juvenal's satires. Occasionally, as a mark of disapprobation, senators would remove their gold rings at a public sitting, as, for instance, when, in 305 B.C., the appointment as edile of Cneius Flavius, son of the freedman Annius, was announced in the Senate.
Excerpted from Rings for the Finger by George Frederick Kunz. Copyright © 1945 Mrs. Ruby Kunz Zinsser. Excerpted by permission of DOVER PUBLICATION, INC..
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