rings of power

The Magic of Rings

If there is any piece of jewellery that has been associated with magical powers, it has to be the ring. Rings carry a lot of meaning, and a lot has been written about Classical and European rings: how about rings in North Africa and Southwest Asia? Can a ring be an amulet? In this article, I’ll go into 5 aspects that need to be considered for rings to work as amulets.

Rings are very prominent items of jewellery. They sit on our finger, where they are visible to both ourselves and the people around us. They can be used to attract attention or to show off riches, but at the same time their presence is very personal, felt on our fingers by our every move. And that is an even more important symbiosis: rings move along with every gesture of our hands. As such, they are almost active jewels. This symbiosis is of influence on the placement of rings on the finger. In Oman, a pointed ring is worn on the index finger: it reminds the wearer of her daily prayer. But in Morocco on the other hand, the index finger is left unadorned for precisely the same reason. [1] That is always something to bear in mind: just like any other form of informal ritual, the magic of rings differs from region to region and also over time.

The significance of rings is reflected in the Arabic word for ring, khatim. Originally, this referred to a seal. That brings along that symbiosis again: when the wearer seals something, they will need to move both their hands and fingers, as well as the ring itself. The ring becomes an inextricable part of that act. In everyday life, this seal would be an engraved seal with the owner’s name, or a pious text. In magic, it could be a particular design that was assumed to hold power, such as the seal of Solomon or magic squares. This practice of wearing rings with images or texts that were considered powerful, was already widespread in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In that respect, rings with inscriptions are a continuation of a practice that is millennia old.

Over time, the use of rings for sealing was joined by inscriptions that were not meant to seal: they are legible when worn, instead of engraved in a mirror image. Engraving a text in a ring would enhance its efficacy: Edmond Doutté, when writing about North Africa in the early 20th century, mentions a spell to attract prosperity in business, which needed to be engraved in a ring. When worn, this would lead to an increase in profit. [2] So, a ring was something to seal with, but also something that held power of its own.

That is also due to its shape. A ring has no beginning and no end, it is the perfect symbol for eternity and cyclical events. That makes it the perfect symbol for, for example, love and friendship, or to designate a space. But because of their power to encircle, in some cases rings were believed to do more harm than good. That works along the same lines as knot magic. Just like anything knotted (see more about that here), pilgrims to Mecca were advised not to wear rings on their person. [3]

The material of which a ring was made, contributes to its power, too. Iron is believed to keep evil at a distance as jinn are afraid of it (see more here on conflicting views on iron and adornment), and silver was the material of the Prophet’s own signet ring. [4] Besides the ring itself, materials used in its setting were also chosen for their properties. A ring set with a carnelian stone was believed to bring continuous blessings to the wearer [5], and the three varieties of a stone named yaqut were believed to protect against the plague when set in a ring or a necklace. [6] Here, the power of the material chosen to be set in a ring is combined with the power of the ring itself, and of course of the image or text engraved in that material. Rings are not simply carriers of powerful images or texts, but the entire ensemble including the ring itself is a threefold agent of protection and power. That is also why many sorcerers and magicians are said to carry signet rings, and rings feature in magical tales [7]: in the 1001 Nights, it is a ring that binds a jinn to do as the owner of the ring commands. [8]

Making rings could also be part of the process that imbued them with special powers. Not only should they be created on a particular moment in time (often calculated based on astrology, see more on that here), but instructions to make rings could also include specific acts to be carried out, such as slaughtering an animal or incensing the finished product. [9] And finally, notably the powerful rings are associated with vivid tales on how hard it is to actually get your hands on them. There are many tales in which rings travel long distances or find themselves in seemingly impossible situations. King Solomon’s ring was stolen from him, and after many adventures was found inside a fish. [10]

There is power in rings: in their shape, their material, their colour, the process of making them and the journey of obtaining them. Rings have fascinated us for thousands of years, and now you have a little more background on why!

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[1] See my book Desert Silver; in prayer, the index finger is pointed upward.

[2] Doutté, E. 1909. Magie et Religion dans l’Afrique du Nord, p. 264.

[3] Doutté, E. 1909. Magie et Religion dans l’Afrique du Nord, p. 88.

[4] See Iafrate, A. 2016. Solomon, Lord of the Rings: fashioning the signet of power from Electrum to Nuhas, in: Al-Masaq 28:3, pp. 221-241 for a discussion of the material of the Ring of Solomon.

[5] Doutté, E. 1909. Magie et Religion dans l’Afrique du Nord, p. 84, see also Porter,V., Saif , L.and E. Savage-Smith, 2017. Medieval Islamic Amulets, Talismans, and Magic, in: Flood, B. and Necipoglu 2017. A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, p. 543.

[6] Content, D. 2016. Ruby, Sapphire & Spinel: An Archaeological, Textual and Cultural Study, p. 18-19, discussing the Stone Book of Aristotle which dates back to the 9th century. This lapidary is not by Aristotle, but has been composed in the Middle East. The varieties of Yaqut are ruby and two varieties of sapphire.

[7] Gunther, S. and D. Pielow, eds, 2018. Die Geheimnisse der Oberen und Unteren Welt, p. XXII

[8] Idem, p. 405 and 407, referring to the story of Aladdin.

[9] Porter,V., Saif , L.and E. Savage-Smith, 2017. Medieval Islamic Amulets, Talismans, and Magic, in: Flood, B. and Necipoglu 2017. A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, p. 522-523, discussing an example from the Arab Middle Ages.

[10] Doutté, E. 1909. Magie et Religion dans l’Afrique du Nord, p. 157.

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.