The exchange of rings during a marriage ceremony is part and parcel of popular western wedding culture and a custom that has many similarities with the tradition of giving engagement rings. While an engagement ring is primarily presented to the future bride by the betrothed as a sign of commitment to marry at a future date, wedding rings are frequently worn by both men and women to represent the fulfillment of that covenant.
Like the engagement ring, in most cultures where rings are exchanged, the wedding band is worn on the fourth finger of the left hand. For the Egyptians and Romans this finger was supposed to represent a direct connection with the heart, as they believed there was a vein that went from the ring finger to the heart called the vena amoris. Another theory to explain why the fourth finger was deemed appropriate in most western societies relates to Christian traditions, where in a church ceremony, the minister would fall upon the fourth finger after announcing: “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…”
However, not all cultures wear weddings rings on the fourth finger, nor do all traditions call for the ring to be worn on the left hand. In many countries, including Norway, Poland, Greece, Russia, Germany and Spain, it is tradition to wear the wedding ring on the right hand, while in a Jewish ceremony it is customary for the bride to wear the ring on the index finger. Curiously in Sri Lanka and some parts of India, the groom wears the wedding ring on his right hand and his bride wears hers on the left.
The ring as a symbol is also very significant, representing the never-ending union between two people and the intention that the relationship will be eternal. For some cultural theorists, historically the ring also acted as sign of possession, the confirmation of a sealed transaction and sexual exclusivity. This idea dates back as early as prehistoric times when a man would tie the ankles and wrists of the woman he wanted to make his mate with reeds or grass, with the intention of stopping her soul from escaping, or as many argue, to stop her from changing her mind and running away. After the ceremony, the binding was removed and a symbolic blade of grass was then tied to her finger. Over the years, the grass was exchanged for other materials such as fabric, leather and later metals. Nowadays of course, the materials used as sign of this special commitment are amongst the precious metals such as gold, platinum and silver to show respect for the union.
For most couples today, the exchanging of rings is an important and intimate part of the marriage ceremony; it is the point at which words are made material and the bride and groom’s love is immortalized in a durable symbol for the world to see.