Monday, October 6, 2008

The Bronze Ring

When I was a child, I read 'The Bronze Ring', a compilation of Irish Fairytales. The title was based on one of the tales in the book.

There are many fairytales, folktales, myths and epics centred on a magical or somehow vital ring. It is the symbol of eternity, of life and death united, of the serpent that swallows its own tail... love immortal, vows unbreakable, blessed or cursed depending on circumstances.

The ring of the Nibelungs was cursed. The rings wrought by Sauron in the epic of 'Lord of the Rings' were cursed, and the power of the 'One Ring' more poisonous and potent than the rest.

There is nothing sadder to me than the sight of an antique or 'used' Wedding Ring being offered for sale somewhere. Symbol of eternal love, too often the reality is quite different. A band of gold, platinum or silver is beautiful and some are more exquisite than others, but how many of us would be happy to wear a ring that had come to represent failed vows? One would imagine that a happily wedded individual would choose to have his/her wedding ring buried with him/her or to pass it down to a daughter or son. When a ring like that is sold, does it not usually mean that it represents either failure or something that may be even worse: a total lack of significance to any one?

The 'brass ring' or 'gold ring' of the carousel has nothing negative attached to it. It is a symbol of undiluted success, of having been able to grasp the dream. Actually, the only negative aspect of it is the fact that one is not allowed to keep it. It is interesting that the prize never is the ring itself but simply a chance to ride the carousel again.

After all, brass is not that valuable a metal. Why were these rings never offered to the intrepid individual who managed to grasp it from the mechanical arm of fate?

Once or twice, I have found carousel rings for sale, but sad to say, they never were connected in any real way to any carousel. They were manufactured solely in order to be sold to lovers of carousels without having been inserted in the arm of the machine even once, without ever having been in the presence of the carousel they purport to represent. Even so, the magic rubs off on them a little. A symbol has its own power.

The earliest carousels may have been exercises in combat, like the one I saw in a museum in Munich a few years ago. It was designed for knights or knights in training as a means by which they could practice their riding and their precision with a lance. It was neither for children nor for fine ladies. It was part of the machinery of war and strife.

Nonetheless, even those lists had romance attached to them, as knights rode with the 'favours' of their ladies and laid their victories at the feet of the ones to whom they had dedicated their contests.

I am not the only one for whom the carousel holds special magic. There are countless adults who carry the magic of childhood carousels in their hearts and souls. Unfortunately, my favourite series of novels about a magical carousel horse was one that I cannot find. They were written by a writer whose fame was less than middling, whose name I cannot recall. The name of the magical carousel horse was 'Gigi'.

I borrowed the books from a library one summer when I was about 7 or 8 years old and at that point in my life, never imagined they would haunt my dreams forever. Little did I realise that I never would be able to find those books again.

When I first saw 'proto-money' or money rings, a form of currency that predates actual coins, I was reminded instantly of the gold ring of the carousel. These rings may have lost their shine over the centuries but when new, must have held a glamour to the ancients. After all, ring money dates from a period when metalworking was considered almost a magical art. Although small and insignificant visually perhaps to the contemporary eye, to the ancients they would have represented something permanent in a society that dealt mainly in perishable goods. A money ring, after all, would survive and retain its value when grains had rotted or been spoilt and when animals had perished.

Large neck rings or torcs were given by great lords to their followers as were arm rings but money rings were more practical as currency. They could be strung on a cord for safekeeping and used to pay for goods and services in any market. They were not finger rings but some would have been large enough to be worn on a finger. One wonders if they were used as 'wedding rings' ever. The tradition of the exchange of rings in marriage is not that ancient although dowries have existed from time immemorial and the wedding ring was a symbol initially of property transfer or a promise to endow property.

The inclusion of a wedding ring in the traditional Western European ceremony of marriage may have begun in the 11th century although the Romans had a betrothal ceremony that included a ring.

Thus, rings are connected with wealth and an 'earnest' of the bestowal of property or wealth both in magic and in cultural and social traditions. Although the original purpose of the 'merry-go-round' may have been a practice tournament wherein a warrior attempted to catch the ring upon the tip of his lance, there always were connotations of magic and luck involved with any circular dance or movement. Those who designed the ancient carousels for jousting practice would not have been unaware of this.

I have included a photograph of a 'gold' ring from a carousel with two ancient Celtic money rings. The distance of centuries and indeed original purpose is bridged by the simple form they share.

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