I hadn’t known that there were so many purposes and connotations for this millennia-old finger adornment – until we stepped into an exhibition at the Upplandsmuséet (Uppland Museum) in Uppsala last week.
This was the unexpectedly delightful dénouement of a guided walking tour through a beautiful old Swedish city. Our hostess was the Governor of Uppsala’s knowledgeable wife, Lena Eghardt. Beginning with a warm welcome and morning fika (coffee and cakes), Lena then took our group through Uppsala Castle, the Gustavianum Museum, and the Cathedral.
Lunch was enjoyed at the excellent Castle Café, and was most welcome after a morning of tramping around in the cold misty rain. In the Cathedral we were fortunate to witness part of the doctoral graduation of several white-bearded, illustrious gentlemen, conducted entirely in Latin.
Uppsala is the fourth largest city in Sweden, after Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, and lies 71 km north of Stockholm. Getting there is by train, bus or car, but the train trip is much more fun. The city has been the ecclesiastical centre (seat of the Archbishop) of Sweden since the 12th century, and the Cathedral is the largest in Scandinavia. Uppsala University, which was founded in 1477, is the country’s oldest centre of tertiary education, and a much sought-after institution.
Titled MAKT MODE MAGI (POWER FASHION MAGIC), the small exhibition of rings at the Upplandsmuséet sets out to illustrate that for thousands of years rings have signified more than simply decorative ornamentation. “Just like clothing, they tell us who a person is – or would like to be, and something about their taste.” The signet ring, for example, often bearing a family crest or initials, was not only used to categorise a family and its members, but also useful in identifying a slain warrior, or to make an impression in hot sealing wax that secured a secret or important document or letter. This functioned as the sender’s signature.
Rings signify different things to different people, depending on their era, location and culture. The shape of a ring – the never-ending circle, symbol of eternity – is universal, and as fascinating now as it was when first fashioned millennia before our time.
Long ago, before the advent of money, precious metals such as gold and silver signified wealth and power. The adornment of a leading man’s wife would also have been a status symbol, indicative of the man’s wealth and place in society. Precious jewellery hordes have been found at the burial sites of significant men and women from eras long past, amongst them rings, bracelets, necklaces, fibulae (cloak pins or brooches) and earrings. The men were chieftains, shamans, kings – or a Roman general:
The women could have been a queen, a princess, or a priestess:
Significant heads of the Church and State have always worn magnificent and highly valued rings, such as the Pope, Cardinals, Kings and Queens. The tradition of kissing the Pope’s ring signifies that he is a successor to St. Peter, the humble fisherman.
A later extension of the ring as a symbol of male power, success or exclusivity was the fraternity ring, associated with specific academic institutions (especially in the United States), clubs or groups, such as the Freemasons.
Traditionally worn to signify the commitment to, or even ownership of a woman by a man, rings have also been a fashionable means of adornment. During the 19th century Romantic Era, rings made from human hair became sentimentally valuable tokens between not only lovers, but also especially treasured friends. These were called “memory” rings, and became popular as loving or commemorative gifts.
Puzzle rings are sometimes exchanged by lovers – two strands of metal bound ingeniously together, or to simply provide a moment’s frivolous entertainment.
The diamond engagement and/or wedding ring symbolises love as being as strong, indestructible, and valuable as a diamond:
Rings given by parents, a spouse, or lover often carry a “birthstone”, such as an amethyst for those born in February, and an emerald for those born in the month of May:
In ancient times a ring was an amulet, charged with magical or religious powers. Sacred inscriptions and magical gemstones increased the ring’s powers.
Rings have been invested with magical properties in myths and legends, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Examples are JRR Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, and Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, a tetralogy of four magnificent operas also based on Nordic mythology, and collectively titled The Ring of the Nibelung in which the composer set his own (lenghty) texts to music. Rings feature in the Arabian Nights tales, and Aladdin summoned a genie by rubbing not only a magic lamp, but also a magic ring. In Sir Thomas Malory’s tale about Sir Gareth of Orkney, in his 15th century epic La Morte d’Arthur, the Knight is given a ring which has magical powers that will prevent his losing any blood during a tournament by a damsel from Avalon. In WM Thackeray’s novel The Rose and the Ring, the ring has the power to make any of its wearers beautiful, and its passage from person to person in the story shapes the author’s satire.
Today modern designers and jewellery-smiths have launched interesting initiatives to add further glamour and mystery to rings.
Artist and goldsmith Titti Bjernér collects fragments of glass from vandalised places in Sweden and abroad, and sets them in rings which she calls Street Diamonds. These rings are then engraved with the date and location of the event. She describes her Street Diamonds as “the city’s uncensored voice, and a piece of urban history.”
Here is one of my favourite childhood poems, read to me by my Grandmother. It relates the theft of a very significant ring, and the dire fate that befell the unfortunate thief!
The Jackdaw of Rheims
by Richard Harris Barham (Thomas Ingoldsby) (1788–1845)
THE JACKDAW sat on the Cardinal’s chair!
Bishop and abbot and prior were there;
Many a monk, and many a friar,
Many a knight, and many a squire,
With a great many more of lesser degree,—
In sooth, a goodly company;
And they serv’d the Lord Primate on bended knee.
Never, I ween,
Was a prouder seen,
Read of in books, or dreamt of in dreams,
Than the Cardinal Lord Archbishop of Rheims!
In and out
Through the motley rout,
That little Jackdaw kept hopping about;
Here and there
Like a dog in a fair,
Over comfits and cates,
And dishes and plates,
Cowl and cope, and rochet and pall,
Mitre and crosier! he hopp’d upon all!
With a saucy air,
He perch’d on the chair
Where, in state, the great Lord Cardinal sat,
In the great Lord Cardinal’s great red hat;
And he peer’d in the face
Of his Lordship’s Grace,
With a satisfied look, as if he would say,
“We two are the greatest folks here to-day!”
And the priests, with awe,
As such freaks they saw,
Said, “The Devil must be in that little Jackdaw!”
The feast was over, the board was clear’d,
The flawns and the custards had all disappear’d,
And six little Singing-boys,—dear little souls!
In nice clean faces, and nice white stoles,
Came in order due,
Two by two,
Marching that grand refectory through.
A nice little boy held a golden ewer,
Emboss’d and fill’d with water, as pure
As any that flows between Rheims and Namur,
Which a nice little boy stood ready to catch
In a fine golden hand-basin made to match.
Two nice little boys, rather more grown,
Carried lavender-water and eau-de-Cologne;
And a nice little boy had a nice cake of soap,
Worthy of washing the hands of the Pope.
One little boy more
A napkin bore,
Of the best white diaper, fringed with pink,
And a Cardinal’s hat mark’d in “permanent ink.”
The great Lord Cardinal turns at the sight
Of these nice little boys dress’d all in white:
From his finger he draws
His costly turquoise;
And, not thinking at all about little Jackdaws,
Deposits it straight
By the side of his plate,
While the nice little boys on his Eminence wait;
Till, when nobody’s dreaming of any such thing,
That little Jackdaw hops off with the ring!
There’s a cry and a shout,
And a deuce of a rout,
And nobody seems to know what they’re about,
But the monks have their pockets all turn’d inside out;
The friars are kneeling,
And hunting, and feeling
The carpet, the floor, and the walls, and the ceiling.
The Cardinal drew
Off each plum-color’d shoe,
And left his red stockings expos’d to the view:
He peeps, and he feels
In the toes and the heels;
They turn up the dishes,—they turn up the plates,—
They take up the poker and poke out the grates,
—They turn up the rugs,
They examine the mugs:
But no!—no such thing;
They can’t find THE RING!
And the Abbot declar’d that, “when nobody twigg’d it,
Some rascal or other had popp’d in and prigg’d it!”
The Cardinal rose with a dignified look,
He call’d for his candle, his bell, and his book:
In holy anger, and pious grief,
He solemnly curs’d that rascally thief!
He curs’d him at board, he curs’d him in bed,
From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head!
He curs’d him in sleeping, that every night
He should dream of the devil, and wake in a fright;
He curs’d him in eating, he curs’d him in drinking,
He curs’d him in coughing, in sneezing, in winking;
He curs’d him in sitting, in standing, in lying;
He curs’d him in walking, in riding, in flying;
He curs’d him in living, he curs’d him in dying!
Never was heard such a terrible curse!
But what gave rise
To no little surprise,
Nobody seem’d one penny the worse!
The day was gone,
The night came on,
The monks and the friars they search’d till dawn;
When the sacristan saw,
On crumpled claw,
Come limping a poor little lame Jackdaw.
No longer gay,
As on yesterday;
His feathers all seem’d to be turn’d the wrong way;
His pinions droop’d—he could hardly stand,
His head was as bald as the palm of your hand;
His eye so dim,
So wasted each limb,
That, heedless of grammar, they all cried,
“THAT ’S HIM!
That’s the scamp that has done this scandalous thing!
That’s the thief that has got my Lord Cardinal’s Ring!”
The poor little Jackdaw,
When the monks he saw,
Feebly gave vent to the ghost of a caw;
And turn’d his bald head, as much as to say,
“Pray, be so good as to walk this way!”
Slower and slower
He limp’d on before,
Till they came to the back of the belfry-door,
Where the first thing they saw,
Midst the sticks and the straw,
Was the RING, in the nest of that little Jackdaw?
Then the great Lord Cardinal call’d for his book,
And off that terrible curse he took;
The mute expression
Serv’d in lieu of confession,
And, being thus coupled with full restitution,
The Jackdaw got plenary absolution!
—When those words were heard,
That poor little bird
Was so changed in a moment, ’t was really absurd.
He grew sleek and fat;
In addition to that,
A fresh crop of feathers came thick as a mat.
His tail waggled more
Even than before;
But no longer it wagg’d with an impudent air,
No longer he perch’d on the Cardinal’s chair.
He hopp’d now about
With a gait devout;
At matins, at vespers, he never was out;
And, so far from any more pilfering deeds,
He always seem’d telling the Confessor’s beads.
If anyone lied, or if any one swore,
Or slumber’d in pray’r-time and happen’d to snore,
That good Jackdaw
Would give a great “Caw!”
As much as to say, “Don’t do so anymore!”
While many remark’d, as his manners they saw,
That they “never had known such a pious Jackdaw!”
He long liv’d the pride
Of that country side,
And at last in the odour of sanctity died;
When, as words were too faint
His merits to paint,
The Conclave determin’d to make him a Saint;
And on newly-made Saints and Popes, as you know,
It’s the custom, at Rome, new names to bestow,
So they canoniz’d him by the name of Jem Crow!