Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Rings


Not only are rings the most interesting of all personal ornaments, but all personal ornaments were originally rings. Besides finger-rings, ear-rings, and nose-rings, bracelets, armlets, and anklets are merely rings, and the most primitive form of the necklace is probably the famous torquis of the Gaulish chiefs. But this extended view of the subject would exceed our limits, and we must be content to speak of finger-rings, the most honourable of the class.

The ancient Egyptian sovereigns wore rings up to a date that makes us think of Tubal-cain, the great metal-worker, and wonder whether in them we see the traditional descendants of his antediluvian patterns. With these kings the signet-ring was of the same importance as in Europe from the classical times, and to give it to an officer was to delegate to him the royal authority, as in the case of Joseph. It is not generally known that the ovals within which the names of the Pharaohs were written, are merely elongated representations of signet-rings, so that the repetition of these ovals in the inscriptions is like the affixing of a royal seal. Many Egyptian rings have come down to us, some of them having been found on the fingers of mummies. The most beautiful of these was one belonging to the late Dr. Abbott of Cairo, which bore the name of Cheops, (in hieroglyphics Shufu, or Khufu,) the builder of the Great Pyramid, and was long supposed to be his actual signet. But this is not the case, for the inscription, although difficult to interpret, tells us that the owner was a priest of that king, or of his temple, and indicates that he lived about the time of Psammetichus II., the son of Pharaoh Necho, and, therefore, about half-way between us and the old pyramid-builder, quite a late date for Egypt, though before the beginnings of Roman history. The ring is of solid gold, exquisitely engraved; in fact, so well, that a learned German who had not succeeded in discovering anything as fine, asserted that it was too good to be true. Those who have seen the ancient jewellery from Thebes, in the Egyptian Court at the Exhibition, will not be disposed to believe that the moderns have surpassed the ancients.[1] The more common rings are in the form of sacred beetles, scarabæi, made of baked clay, covered with a blue vitreous glaze, and fixed upon a circle of metal. These sometimes bear mottoes conveying the good wishes of the giver, as “A perfect life!” From their fragility it is probable that they were not used as seals, but as ancient Egyptian is written both from right to left, and from left to right, the former by preference, this cannot be decided from the manner in which they were inscribed.

Greek rings are rare, and generally not older than the period of good art, although there are some of Phœnician work that must be more ancient. Homer does not speak of them, but that signets were in use at an early time appears from the mention of a law of Solon, forbidding an artist to preserve the form of a seal he had sold. It has been thought that the custom of wearing signet-rings was derived from Babylon, but it is far more likely to have come from Egypt, to which the art of the oldest rings found in Greece, the Phœnician, may be traced, whereas the Babylonians used cylinders as seals. The famous ring of Polycrates is the first historical one that is mentioned. Herodotus, with whom Pausanias agrees, says that it was an emerald set in gold, the work of Theodorus, son of Telecles; but Pliny and Solinus say that its stone was a sardonyx. Clement of Alexandria tells us that the subject was a lyre, a favourite one on Greek coins, but not occurring on those of Samos of the early period. Perhaps the most common kind of Greek ring was of gold alone, generally with designs in intaglio, sometimes with inscriptions. It is, however, impossible to guess how common were the rings with engraved stones, as the metal must have
Greek Ring.
frequently been melted by the discoverers. Many of the gems bearing designs which have been found, no doubt had been set as rings. They are generally intaglios, but cameos also occur, the former having been employed as seals, the latter intended for ornament alone. Ancient writers mention both modes of engraving. Some of the inscriptions are reversed, as this, within a wreath, on a solid gold signet: “Be eminent in virtue, chastity, and wisdom;” but they are more commonly not reversed, thus simply conveying the wishes of the giver, not expressing the feelings of the wearer.

These inscriptions are very commonplace, such as, “A Gift,” “Remember,” and “Good luck.” The modern “Ever,” AEI, supposed, we believe, to mean “An Engaged Individual,” we do not find justified in antiquity. Probably the engaged individuals of old Greece, with their fragile jewellery, were less given to strong promises, than those who buy their gages d’amour of the solid work of Hancock, or Garrard. The subjects are very various, and are generally taken from Greek mythology or poetry, portraits being uncommon. The best test of the truth of a gem supposed to be Greek is the fineness of the drawing, which often greatly excels the execution; whereas in modern gems, the execution always surpasses the drawing. The similarity of the designs of the rings and unset gems to those of the coins must strike every one. Probably this was owing to the great pains bestowed upon coin-dies, which raised a class of artists who would have found congenial occupation in gem-engraving. We believe that the designs of the gems are taken from the coins, as their style is generally later, and the subjects are more suitable to coins than to gems. The common stones are the carnelion, sard, chalcedony, agate, onyx, jasper, and heliotrope. Anciently great prices were given for rings, and Ælian says that the Tarentines, famous for their luxury, wore them of the value of ten minæ, or pounds, each, or about forty pounds of our money. Demosthenes, as we learn from history, was fond of rings, and wore so many that he was reproached for extravagance when the state was in difficulties.

The belief in the magical powers of certain rings is at least as old as the Greeks. Plato in his Republic[2] relates how by the discovery of one of these Gyges came to the throne of Lydia. The story is curious, as showing the antiquity of much of the machinery of Arab fictions; and therefore we record it here.

Gyges was (at first) a shepherd in the service of the Lydian king. Where he pastured his flock there chanced a heavy rain, and an earthquake, and a chasm opened in the land. He descended into this chasm marvelling, and beheld, with other wonderful things, a horse of brass which was hollow, with doors, looking through which he saw a corpse which seemed of a human form, having nothing but a gold ring on the finger, which he drew off, and took away. He soon discovered that when he turned the bezel towards him, he became invisible, but turning it from him, was at once seen as before. By the use of this ring, and the aid of the wicked queen, Gyges supplanted his sovereign, and seized upon the throne.

The combination of the horse of brass and the ring is suggestive, when we remember how much the Arabs have read, and still read, Plato. The magicians of Greece made a trade of charmed rings, which, as they were sold, sometimes at least, for a drachm, or less than a shilling, can scarcely have been as useful as this of Gyges.

Etruscan Ring.
Etruscan rings are not easily distinguished from the early Greek of Phœnician work: the style is very similar, though the Italian designs are somewhat grotesque, whereas the others are merely conventional. The technical workmanship is the best guide, and the Etruscan rings are generally to be known by the greater distinctness of their designs, a peculiarity followed in Signor Castellani’s admirable work in the same style in the Roman section of the Exhibition. Some are full of quaint beauty, as one in the British Museum, of which the hoop is formed by two lions grasping the bezel with their paws.

Roman Ring of the Imperial Age.
The Romans at first were content with iron rings, and long after the introduction of gold rings those who affected the simplicity of the good old times kept up the custom of their forefathers, as is told of Marius, in his triumph over Jugurtha. For long the right to wear a gold ring was limited to senators, magistrates, and knights; but the great officers of the Republic gave this right, though not without causing serious offence to the knights; and afterwards the Emperors did the like, and the right was at last extended to all Roman soldiers, and then to all citizens. The apostle’s mention of the rich man with the gold ring (James ii. 2), may refer to this ring; but it is probable that only a hoop of gold was used as the distinctive sign of rank, and that persons without the right might wear rings of this metal in other forms. We all remember reading of Hannibal’s boastfully sending to Carthage a bushel (or three bushels) of rings, taken from the knights (and senatorial persons), slain at Cannæ. Pliny remarks that this quantity—he mentions three bushels—proves that the right did not then exist. To this Juvenal’s fine passage on the end of the great Carthaginian by a poison-ring no doubt refers. The statements of ancient writers make it almost certain that poison was carried in rings, and specimens that may have served this purpose are known. With the growth of luxury, the Romans learnt to wear rings set with engraved stones. Sulla’s signet bore a representation of Jugurtha taken captive. Augustus first used a sphinx, then the head of Alexander, in the end his own head. The Emperor’s signet was a kind of state-seal which he sometimes confided to his representatives, as had been done by the Greek kings; witness the story of Alexander’s ring. Of the Roman signets that have come down to us, one of the most curious is a quack’s, with which a balsam used to be sealed for greater safety. It bears a figure of Minerva, and the inscription herophili opobalsamvm. It is now in the national collection. Others have the names of the owners, as procvla karissima, and the lady’s portrait; rather an Italian than an ancient Roman fancy.

The Romans are the first ring collectors on record. We read not only of private dactyliothecæ, but of two which may be called public, Pompey having dedicated the inscribed gems of Mithradatus in the Capitol, and Cæsar six collections of his own in the temple of Venus Genetrix. But there is no room to speak of the many curious things we read of Roman rings, the heavy for winter, and light for summer, the very large ones that some wore, and the sham ones of hollow gold that contented poorer dandies. Yet a word must be added as to the fingers upon which rings were worn by both the Romans and the Greeks.

Pliny tells us that rings were originally only put on the third finger, but later on the first and little fingers, so that the middle finger alone was left free. Some wore rings only on the little finger, others kept that finger for the signet. Plutarch, speaking of the Greeks, says that they mostly wore their rings on the third finger. The hand intended was of course the left, as the right is not convenient for rings, though the Arabs, as the left is the less honourable hand, always wear their signets on the little finger of the right hand. But as to the Orientals, I shall hope to speak about them on some future occasion: for the present, I forbear to enter upon the great subject of Solomon’s seal.

We have engraved three signet-rings, a beautiful Etruscan one described above, a Greek ring of the usual form, and a Roman one of the Imperial age.

R. S. P.

  1. This treasure is, I believe, in the hands of the Federal American Government, and, as containing a few sovereigns’ weight of gold, is in danger of being melted down.
  2. Herodotus (Book i.) gives a different version of the story.