As I was listening to my local radio station the other day, the song “Little Rock” by Reba McEntire came on. As Reba sang about taking off her “little rock” and “untying the knot,” my mind wandered to the symbolism and expressions commonly associated with marriage. I kept thinking about what the origins could be and why we continue to practice these wedding traditions without any knowledge of their original meaning.
One tradition that Reba references is the untying of a knot. Based on a marital practice used in almost every civilization, ‘tie the knot’ is an expression synonymous with ‘getting married.’ The act of ‘tying the knot’ took place by tying a leather strap (now commonly a ribbon or piece of fabric) around the right hands of the bride and groom before being removed once the ceremony was over. The act symbolized an unbreakable bond between the bride and groom; and displayed their commitment to one another.
Another symbol that Reba brings up in her song is the ‘little rock’ that she takes off before she goes off and unties her marriage bonds. While it is a traditional symbol of marriage (especially in Western society), similar to the ‘unbreakable bond’ of the leather strap, a ring represents an eternity of love (since a circle has no beginning or end). In ancient Rome, women wore papyrus rings around their wrists and ankles to symbolize their marital commitments and years later began using iron which led to the use of gold years after that.
Gold wedding bands are not the only rings synonymous with weddings. The engagement ring has become an extravagant piece of the wedding process, but it was not always customary to wear an engagement ring. It was not until 1214 when Pope Innocent III had couples wanting to marry participate in a period of engagement. During this time, the engagement ring became a popular way for the future bride and groom to express their commitment.
Though the engagement ring became popular during the 1200s, it was not until 1477 that the traditional engagement/wedding ring became the ‘little rock.’ Again chosen for its symbolism, the stone used for Maximillian I, the Holy Roman Emperor’s engagement ring for Mary of Burgundy, was the diamond. Though Mary only lived to the ripe old age of 25, their arranged marriage, like the diamond, symbolized long-lasting love. The diamond represents long-lasting love because they are the hardest gemstone and would ‘last for an eternity.’
The wedding ring as we know it in Western society has wearers placing their engagement/wedding ring on the fourth finger of the left hand (now commonly known as the ‘ring finger’). Though a wedding ring has been worn on every finger throughout history and currently in many different cultures, the ancient Egyptians began putting a gold ring on the fourth finger of the left hand. Symbolically, the purpose of using the fourth finger of the left hand is due to a vein that runs from that finger straight to the heart.
As you can see, these two traditions, used in many Western weddings, have symbolic meanings that mean much more than we realize. Besides that, we can see why it means so much to Reba to take off that little rock and untie that bond.
Profile Image – A white gold wedding ring image by CLW at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.Wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2190129
Knot of Love for Lifetime image (described as a Traditional Marriage Ritual of Maharashtra, India) attributed to RAHUL SHIVTARKAR – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76928626
13th/14th Century Devotional Ring attributed to the Wartski Ltd, London, Fair Use, HTTPs://wartski.com/collection/ring-13th14th-century/
Diamond Platinum Engagement Ring image by Cs1791 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32613149
Reba McEntire by Gage Skidmore image accredited to Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57215041