Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ring symbolism

STONEHENGE "Let mathematicians and geometricians talk of circles and triangles charms, The figure I prize is a girl with bright eyes, and the circle that's formed by her arms." (Anon)

 Ring symbolism

The unbroken circle is an age-old symbol of eternity. It's easy to see why such an ancient symbol should be incorporated into a wedding ceremony, when 'everlasting love' is the hope of the couple, their families and friends. Nice idea, but sadly, just giving a ring does not ensure everlasting love.

The ring does not represent enslavement either; a more permanent mark could be made with a branding iron or a tattooed bar-code on the forehead1. No, the ring represents neither everlasting love nor bondage; rather it's a token stemming from ancient magic. Plato's plate "The soul is a circle" (Plato) "Glory is like a circle in the water, Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught3." (William Shakespeare) Typhoons, convection currents, the arc of a rainbow.

Roundness is a very natural shape. A ring is a circle (you've probably noticed that) and a circle has very strong magical connotations. The circle is endless and timeless suggesting a repetitive unbroken wholeness in time and space. It even suggests reincarnation to some people. "Everything tries to be round" says Black Elk (1863-1950) an Oglala Sioux holy man. It's the strongest and most 'natural' shape. Eggs and most fruit are round (especially when dissected in the middle).

A bird builds its nest in a circle. Fairy rings. Crop circles. Sharks and vultures circle their dinner. The earth is round, rotates, and orbits2. Small wonder that we get dizzy sometimes. Our lives move in repeated and interwoven circles. We leave home, go to work, return home. Work until we are tired, sleep until we are refreshed, work, sleep, work. We are born of dust, live, and return to dust.

Our blood circulates in our bodies. Each of us operates on a circadian rhythm of about 24 hours; our 'biological clock' (see also so-called 'biorhythms'). With the orbiting of the earth and moon, our day moves in a circle, as do our months (see days-months-seasons). Because of this, astrology had a huge influence on the way our ancestors perceived the world and the meaning of life. Stonehenge is a 5,000-year-old circle of huge stones in southern England, which may have been a pagan temple, built on top of a cemetery. An equally old stone circle in Scotland was, until recently, used in nuptials.

Circle studies have been going round (!) for years. In Greek mythology, Hesiod (c700 BC) wrote about Prometheus, son of a Titan, and brother to Atlas and Epimetheus. Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans to play with. Zeus was flaming mad about this and chained Prometheus to a rock as punishment. Not much of a punishment, you might think, but there's an added twist: An eagle, or some other great bird, descended on Prometheus and ate his liver. The liver regenerated itself overnight, only to be eaten again by the eagle the following day.

 In addition, Zeus sent Pandora to Prometheus' brother, Epimetheus. She brought him a jar, which Epimetheus assumed was a wedding gift, but on opening it, saw it contained "evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which give men death". She snapped the lid shut but not quickly enough. All the evils had escaped and were free to inflict themselves on mankind. She only managed to retain one element, the one real gift, the gift of hope. 

Eventually Hercules released Prometheus from the rock but as a reminder of his crime, he was forced to wear a link of the chain on his finger with a bit of the rock attached. Was this the origin of the custom for attaching a precious stone to a finger ring? Was this the inspiration for the Romans, who forced worn-out slaves to wear an iron finger-ring as a reminder that although they were released from work, they were never completely free from bondage? And today, some parolees are forced to wear electronic ankle bracelets. (The liver-eating eagle idea has not been retained. Another ancient Greek writer, Empedocles (490-430 BC)4, was more philosophical, when he said "The nature of God is a circle of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere", but in Greek of course.

Circles are important symbols in many religions. Fundamental concepts of Sikhism are reflected in the Khanda. This includes a Chakra (a weapon of Vishnu) which is circular and symbolizes the perfection of God. Hindus and Buddhists have a similar disc in the Wheel of Dharma. For Muslims, the Qur'an talks of Solomon's magic ring that could exorcise demons.

In Judaism and Christianity, we read in Ezek. 1 about mysterious rings appearing in the sky. Yes, flying saucers are also circular. The circular halo that we sometimes see around the sun and moon is usually depicted on icons in various religious to depict the bearer's brilliance.

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