Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Inside The Messenger: Memento Mori and Mourning Rings

"Also, I do will and appoint ten rings of gold to be made of the value of twenty shillings a piece sterling with a death's-head upon some of them."
— a will dated 1648, quoted in Finger Ring Lore by William Jones

Those of you who've read The Messenger know that a special memento mori ring is part of the story. While only Tyler and Amanda can tell you where to find a ring exactly like the one in the book, memento mori rings are real.

Rings have long symbolized the eternal -- the unbroken circle. "Memento mori" is a Latin phrase that literally means "remember you shall die," and refers to objects that serve as a reminder that death awaits us all, and for those who believe in an afterlife, that it, too, awaits.
"As I am, so shall you be."

Memento mori and mourning rings were often made of gold or silver, might include gemstones, enamel work, or hair art. They were often decorated with symbols of death and mourning: skulls, skeletons, hourglasses, coffins, urns, willows, acacias, and garlands, to name a few. In my research I came across a few that had a single eye painted on them -- the deceased keeping watch. A little unnerving for the surviving spouse, one would think.

Memento mori rings have been worn since ancient times. Some of the most elaborate were made in 16-19th centuries in England, but they were also worn in many other countries.

William Shakespeare bequeathed memento mori rings to his wife and his daughter -- it was not uncommon at that time (and in later centuries) for wills to contain instructions that mourning rings be made with inscriptions to reminder the wearer of the deceased.

In Searching for Shakespeare, Tarnya Cooper writes that "Memorial rings were not only given or bequeathed as a lasting token of remembrance, gratitude and affection at death, but were also exchanged in betrothal and marriage." The book shows several examples of these rings.

Here are some links to photographs of memento mori rings and places where you can find more information about them:
The Art of Mourning Lots of historical information and many beautiful photographs of rings.
A ring worn at Jamestown, early 17th century. Possibly worn by Captain Christopher Lawne.
Laurell Antique Jewelry This site also has beautiful photographs of mourning rings.
Victorian Hair Art - This page shows a lovely example of mourning jewelry made with hair art -- a fascinating subject of its own!
Morning Glory Antiques - has photographs of several other examples of hair art from the Victorian period, including mourning rings

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