The archetypal symbolism of a metal circle, or finger Ring, involves the eternal shielding, or protection, of mortal human liturgies. This is why a king, magician and ordinary husband and wife all become consecrated with a ring. Moreover, the ceremonial kiss of a king's regal band, represents the acceptance of his total authority and eternal sovereignty.
To demonstrate that rings serve essentially to display links and bonding, one need only cite two among countless examples - wedding rings and pastoral rings like the Fisherman's Ring used as a papal seal and broken on the death of the pope who wore it. Rings may thus be regarded as signs of a covenant, vow, community or common fate.
The ambivalence of the symbol arises from the fact that rings simultaneously bind and isolate, something not unrelated to the dialectic relationship of master and slave. The image of the falconer ringing a hawk, which thereafter will hunt for him alone, may be compared with that of the bishop, surrogate for the godhead, placing the wedding ring upon the finger of the novice, who thereafter becomes the mystic Bride of Christ and servant of the Lord, with this difference only, that the nun, unlike the bird, submits of her own free will. This is what gives rings their sacramental properties, since they are manifestations of a promise. In this context, it should be observed that tradition requires bride and groom to exchange rings during the wedding ceremonies. This shows that the relationship described above is established between them, but with twofold force and in twin directions, a dialectic of double subtlety in that each of those involved becomes simultaneously master and slave of the other.
The interpretation of ring symbolism may be compared at all levels with that of girdle symbolism and especially upon the spiritual plane, since it derives from the old Roman custom of forbidding the priests of Jupiter, the flamens, to wear rings unless they were broken and had no stone set in them (Aulus Gellius 10: 15). The reason for this taboo was that 'any sort of bond completely encircling any part of the celebrant's body would lock up his supernatural powers and prevent them operating in the outside world'.
That no stone was set in the flamen's ring brings us to a fresh symbolic aspect of rings. When they bear a seal which is a symbol of power, they cease to be symbols of submissiveness but become those of spiritual or physical dominion. Such was the ring to which, legend says, Solomon owed his wisdom. The Fisherman’s Ring, on the other hand, superimposes these two properties since it is simultaneously the symbol of temporal power and of spiritual submissiveness.
There have been several famous rings, with different symbolic meaning, especially among the Ancient Greeks. As a condition of his liberation by Herakles (Hercules), Prometheus had an iron ring on his finger in which was set a chip of rock as a reminder of the chains which had bound him to the rock in the Caucasus and, above all, as a sign of his submission to Zeus. Here again the symbolism is twofold, since his submission to Zeus conjures up what caused the hero's greatness and his punishment, the one inseparable from the other. The bezel of this ring may not hold a seal, but it at least contains a signature.
In China, the ring was the symbol of the endless cycle of unbroken continuity, the closed circle, by contrast with the spiral. It corresponded to the trigram ft, which is that of the Sun and of Fire. On the other hand, the ring into which pommels of swords were shaped would appear to have been associated with the Moon.
The greatest emphasis should, however, be placed upon the jade ring (pi) which possesses a symbolism of the highest importance. The pi is a thin, flat disk, the diameter of the hole in the middle either equalling or more frequently being half of the thickness of the ring. In the entry on jade, the royal components of the symbolism of this mineral have been described. Pi were royal jades and, significantly, the ideogram for pi was a combination of pi (prince) and yu (jade). Because the pi is round, it was a symbol of Heaven by contrast with the square ts'ong, a symbol of Earth. Ritual offerings of pi to Heaven and ts'ong to Earth were made at the solstices.
The hole in the middle of the ring is the receptacle for, or the channel of, celestial influence. It lies directly below the great bear or the pole Star like the emperor in the Temple of Heaven. It is therefore an emblem of the emperor as 'Son of Heaven'. Furthermore, the Temple of Heaven was surrounded by a circular moat called the Pi-yong, since it was in the shape of a pi. It is important in this context to observe that the Celts also employed very fine jade rings and that one of them was found in Brittany associated with an axe, its point marking the centre of the ring. Now axes are associated with thunderbolts, themselves a manifestation of celestial activity. The hole in the middle of a ring is the Monad, as well as being the void in the hub on which the wheel turns. It symbolizes and helps to actualize the void in the centre of the individual into which the celestial influx should pour down.
Some pi are extant, notched in such a way, it has been shown, to provide so accurate a map of the circumpolar heavens as to calculate the direction of the pole and the date of the solstices. This is because observing the heavenly bodies is an appropriate way of paying due honour to Heaven, to conform to the harmony which it teaches and to receive its beneficent influence.
Coomaraswamy has observed that the pi corresponds to the perforated brick on the top of a Vedic altar, which stood for Heaven, the two lower bricks corresponding to the ts'ong.
Jade rings are sometimes decorated and this might represent an alteration to the primitive symbol which called for austerity and restraint. When decorated with a pair of dragons, the ring signifies the changing yin and yang around the changeless essence in the centre. In rings decorated with the eight trigrams, the central void is very clearly yin-yang (or T'ai-chi) the undifferentiated state of primordial Oneness. Instead of alteration, this may well be the display or explanation of a symbol no longer understood directly and intuitively.
In Christian tradition, rings symbolize faithful affection freely given. They are linked to time and the cosmos. Pythagoras' dictum, 'Do not carry God's image on your ring', shows that God must not be associated with time. There are two further interpretations of the saying. The biblical is that one should not take the name of the Lord in vain; the pagan, that it is wisest to make sure one's life is free and untrammelled.
The early Christians copied the Gentiles in the wearing of rings and St Clement of Alexandria advised his contemporaries that the bezel should bear the image of a dove, a fish or an anchor.
Knights were permitted to wear gold rings.
In Irish poetry, legend and song, rings serve as a means of recognition, symbols of a force or bond which cannot be broken, even if the ring itself is lost or left forgotten at the roadside. In the second Battle of Moytura, a woman of the Tuatha De Danann, Delbaeth’s daughter Eri (Eri is a variant of Eriu, ‘Ireland’, and Delbaeth means ‘shape’) had a brief love-affair with an unknown man who arrived in a miraculous boat. When they parted, he told her that his name was Elada (‘Knowledge’), son of Delbaeth - they were therefore brother and sister - and gave her a ring which would enable him to recognize their child. In another legend, Ciichulainn treated Aoife, a female warrior whom he had conquered and seduced, in exactly the same way with respect to the child whom she would bear him.
Legend attributes Solomon’s wisdom to a ring. Arabs tell the story of the day when he sealed with his ring the demons whom he had assembled for his work of divination and they became his slaves. One day he lost his ring in the Jordan and did not regain his wisdom until a fisherman found it and brought it to him. Esoteric writers have suggested that perhaps it might have been stolen by a jealous jinnee to use its power, until God forced him to throw the ring into the water so that it could be found and returned to Solomon (GRIA p. 89).
This ring may thus be regarded as a symbol of Solomon’s knowledge and the power which he possessed over others. It is like the seal of fire, the gift of Heaven, which was the badge of his spiritual and physical dominion. It is reminiscent of other magic rings.
Mention has already been made of Prometheus’ ring, and among other rings famed in Greek legend is the one which belonged to Polycrates. This king enjoyed such a steady run of good fortune that he became convinced that his privileged position could not last. He therefore decided to sacrifice of his own accord something precious and to which he was particularly attached. So, from the top of a tower, he cast into the sea his ring in which a splendid emerald was set. However, it was swallowed by a fish, the fish was caught and taken to Polycrates. The latter had attempted to confine his fate within the magic circle of the ring, but the sea had rejected his offering. Oroetes, the Persian governor of Sardis, lured him from Samos and crucified him. The ring thus symbolized the fate from which no human can escape, as well as manifesting the indissolubility of a bond. Polycrates tried to offer it as compensation, but the gods accept only what they themselves have decided to take and their decrees are not to be altered by some showy material offering. The only sacrifice is the inner sacrifice, the acceptance of one’s fate, and this is what Polycrates’ ring would seem to mean.
The story which Plato tells of Gyges’ chance finding of a ring is as rich in symbolic meaning. When he put the ring on his finger, Gyges accidentally discovered that it possessed the power of making him invisible ... and this was the beginning of his good fortune. Is the meaning of this ring so very different from that of Polycrates? Since it was found upon a dead man and in such unusual circumstances as an earthquake which exposed it in a brazen horse, the ring could only be the gift of the forces of the Underworld and was to pass to those who dwelt on this Earth extraordinary powers. However, its magic only operated when Gyges ‘rotated the bezel of his ring in front of him and in the palm of his other hand’. Here again, true strength lies within us and the invisibility conferred by the ring is a withdrawal from the external world to acquire or to repossess those essential teachings which come from the world within. Gyges’ ring might therefore symbolize the high point of inner life and perhaps mysticism itself. The symbol’s bipolarity resides within us. The ring’s powers may result as easily, should its magic be perverted, in the successful commission of crime and the establishment of tyrannical rule as in mystical attainments. And this is what happened in the story of Gyges.
The Ring of the nibelungen was the pledge of their power, wot an snatched it from them with a thrust of his spear. In this context, the ring symbolizes the bond which can be created between man and nature through the exercise of the will. When the human being wears the ring it is a sign of man’s dominion over nature, but it enslaves man to the destructive passions of lust and greed which are the painful consequences of the exercise of that power. Man, thinking that he rules, feels himself manacled and ruled by that golden ring which binds him to every sort of craving. It is an image of the drive for power. Wotan, however, as a god, was unwilling for what he had created to steal from him his power over creation, and returned the ring to mankind. Later, Siegfried and the god’s daughter, brunhild, were to cast the ring back into the Rhine as a sign that, in order to destroy evil in the world and because of their awareness of the power of love, they themselves rejected power. The symbolism of the ring of the Nibelungen may be graduated to different political and social, moral and metaphysical, and even mystical levels.