The History (As We Tell It) Of Engagement Rings

What’s the story behind engagement rings? From caveman and rope to¬†aristocracy and diamonds – it’s an engaging tale.


The caveman was a rough type of guy, what with chasing after gazelle and hand-to-hand combat with grizzly bears so that he would have some meat to bring home at night and a coat for the missus. But it seems he had a sensitive side, too. He knew how to treat his woman right. Having found himself a mate, usually from the next-door cave, he bound himself to her with a cord of woven rushes to symbolize their spirits as one.

Some historians say early man tied plaited circlets around the bride’s wrists and ankles to keep her spirit from running away. Now, that’s something you don’t see much of anymore. And if we are talking sensitive, then what about the ancient Scandinavians whose menfolk believed that a lover’s knot symbolized love, faith, and friendship. So the hair of the beloved was woven into a knot and worn as a ring. Sounds so moving and spiritual, until you realize that the hair was probably hacked off with a blunt knife.

But we have come a long way in the past few thousand years. Instead of cavemen we have the rocker Tommy Lee and his ex-wife Pamela Anderson, tattooing a ‘ring’ on their wedding fingers. Tasteful. Generally, however, we find couples going out and choosing an engagement ring after many, many hours of deliberation. Painstakingly, modern couples check yet another brochure, magazine, jeweler and website until the lady is completely satisfied with her choice.

Which leads us to the question, just why do engagements or weddings have to be marked with the giving of a ring? Why not something a little more practical and useful, such as a box of fruit or a washing machine? As usual, the culprits are those ancient people.

While taking time off from praying to stone circles in the middle of nowhere, they decided that the third finger of the left hand, had a special vein called vena amoris, the “vein of love” that ran directly to the heart. Complete nonsense, of course, with no scientific basis whatsoever, but the tradition has stuck over the course of so many generations that it’s difficult to believe it will ever be replaced.

Meanwhile, another theory says the wedding ring has been traditionally worn on the third finger of the left hand because in the 17th century the priest arrived at the fourth finger (counting the thumb) after touching the three fingers on the left hand “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”. When Jewish couples marry, however, the groom places the ring on the index finger of the bride’s right hand.

Afterwards, most women move it to the customary “ring finger” of the left hand. The reason goes back to the time of the Talmud and the differences in beliefs at that time about which finger is closer or more directly leads to the heart. In fact in Jewish law, the groom doesn’t have to give a ring – that is just fitting in with the surrounding traditions – all he has to do, according to Jewish law, is give something as a symbol of having ‘bought’ his wife.

Anyway, back to the ancient Egyptians, around 5,000 years ago. They were happy to twist reedy plants, such as hemp, into rings because a circle with no end symbolized never-ending love. But it was the Romans who decided the ring should be made of metal. A sensible decision: ever seen what happens to a ring made of reeds after you’ve washed the dishes? But before the ladies out there start thanking the Romans for their revolutionary thinking, the reason for the change to metal was that the solid metal band symbolized a binding legal agreement of ownership by their husbands who regarded rings as tokens of purchase.

Although rings have become the accepted way in many parts of the world of showing the outside world that a couple is engaged or married, many other peoples have somewhat different ceremonies. For the Masai tribe of Kenya, for example, the father of the bride spits on the bride’s head and breasts at the marriage ceremony as a blessing and then she leaves with her husband walking to her new home while never looking back for fear she will turn to stone. And just to keep the evil eye at bay, sometimes the women of the groom’s family will even insult the bride as she walks to her new home.

Meanwhile, the Swahili tribe of Kenya bathes the bride in sandalwood oils and tattoo henna designs on her limbs. A woman elder, called a somo, gives instructions to the bride on how to please her husband and the old dear sometimes hides under the bed to be on hand in case there are problems. And if you think that is off-putting, the Samburu tribe’s wedding ceremony is concluded when a bull enters a hut guarded by the bride’s mother and is killed.

For the Himba people of Namibia, it is traditional to kidnap the bride before the ceremony and dress her in a leather marriage headdress. After the ceremony she is taken into the house where the family tells her what her responsibilities will be as the wife and then anoint her with butterfat from cows. Meanwhile, for the Neur people of southern Sudan the groom must pay 20-40 cattle for the lady and the marriage is completed only after the wife has borne two children. If the wife only bears one child and the husband asks for a divorce he can also ask for either the return of the cattle or the first child. Whichever he loves most.

The trend of giving a diamond engagement ring was reputed to have begun when Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond betrothal ring in 1477. It wasn’t though until De Beers started an advertising campaign in the early 20th century that this trend moved from the aristocracy into every man’s land.


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