Open Essay

The Sexual Ring

Wendy Doniger is an American Indologist. Her books include the bestselling The Hindus: An Alternative History and Hindu Myths
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The visceral connections between jewellery and the body

The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry | Wendy Doniger | Speaking Tiger | 397 pages | Rs 899

JEWELRY IS OFTEN imagined as part of the body. Think of all those metaphors that liken a woman’s body parts to jewels: pearly teeth, ruby lips, eyes shining like diamonds, golden hair. Philip Roth, in Sabbath’s Theater, rhapsodizes on the clitoris and concludes: “Why do they need jewelry, when they have that? What’s a ruby next to that?” On statues of goddesses (I know the South Indian bronzes best, but it is true much more broadly), the bracelets and anklets seem part of their skin, more a part of them than any garment could be; this is especially true of statues of nude goddesses, even of naked women, who often wear nothing but jewelry. One of the earliest images of this sort that I know comes from the ruins of Mohenjo-daro in the Indus River Valley (now in Pakistan), from a great civilization that thrived c. 2000 BCE. It is a tiny (10 cm) bronze image of an impudent, defiant dancing girl, totally naked save for a chunky necklace and an assortment of bangles.

In the Yogavasishtha, a Sanskrit text from Kashmir composed in the eleventh-century CE, a woman named Chudala uses her magic powers to transform herself into a man by day and back into a woman by night; as she changes into a woman, at sunset, she exclaims, “I feel as if I am falling, trembling, melting. I am so ashamed as I see myself becoming a woman. Alas, my chest is sprouting breasts, and jewelry is growing right out of my body.” Jewelry in this culture was an essential part of a woman’s physical reality. Indeed, it was part of a man’s body, too; the ancient Indian warrior Karna was born with golden earrings and golden armor that were part of his skin; when he grew up, he was tricked into cutting them off, a bloody and excruciating, but not fatal, operation. There is only one form of ornamentation even more closely bonded to the body than jewelry, and that is tattooing. The women of the village of Kanker, in Chhattisgarh, central India, always say that tattooing “is the ornamentation that no one can take from you, the only ornaments that go with you in death.”

These visceral connections between jewelry and the body are particularly true of rings. Nowadays some people get rings tattooed on their fingers instead of buying metal rings. The naturally close association between rings and fingers (and the heart) underlies stories in which a ring conjures up a person in his or her physical entirety. The ring as the body of an absent lover appears in several Christian texts. Red marks in the shape of rings (called “espousal rings”) were said to have appeared miraculously around the fingers of a number of women in the Middle Ages, symbols of their marriage to Christ. A nun named Sister Benedetta Carlini (c. 1623) cited such an “espousal ring” as proof that Christ had married her; on the fourth finger of her right hand was “a circle, the width of an ordinary, inexpensive gold ring … and on the top side there were five points … of an almost dark red color.” But others claimed that she had imagined it, or that her lover was the devil or a kind of incubus who masqueraded as Christ. Benedetta complicated matters by testifying that a demonic masquerader of this sort did in fact appear to her—not instead of Jesus, but in addition to him, two months after the display of the first ring, at which time another ring appeared on her right hand, not nearly as beautiful and brilliant as the first. Benedetta’s own testimony about the masquerader is vivid and revealing: “Another time there came one young man with a ring to tell her that he wanted her to be his bride and she answered him that she wanted to be the bride of Jesus. He wanted to put the ring on her finger by force, telling her companion to hold her hand… She never wanted that young man to touch her hand to put the ring on it.”

The bracelets and anklets seem part of their skin, more a part of them than any garment could be; this is especially true of statues of nude goddesses, even of naked women

Benedetta was so sure that this was not the true bridegroom that she resisted and was symbolically raped by him with the ring. Finally, however, doubt was cast upon the evidence of the first ring: some of the nuns noticed that Benedetta’s adjoining fingers were sometimes stained with the same shade of yellow as the ring, and that the ring appeared sometimes very bright and at other times faded. Finally, Benedetta’s companion, Bartolomea, found a small brass box containing diluted saffron: “She surmised that Benedetta used the saffron to paint the ring and that she used her own blood for making the red stones.” So the ring was an artificial scar, transformed, unsuccessfully, into a supernatural sign.

The ring from Christ takes an even more vivid form in the story of Catherine of Siena (who died c. 1380). She had, according to the hagiographies, visions of a ring made of silver or of gold, ruby-encrusted and diamond-studded, but she herself said, in several letters, that “we do not marry Christ with gold or silver but with the ring of Christ’s foreskin, given in the Circumcision and accompanied by pain and the shedding of blood… the ring of flesh with which Christ marries us in the Circumcision is a sign that he is the spouse of our humanity.” The reference to male genitalia sexualizes the ring, while the reference to a divine, spiritual marriage rather than a human, carnal union desexualizes it. The scar that a wedding ring makes on a finger is the next thing up from circumcision, as a form of sexual marking.

Indeed, a ring was more broadly regarded as a symbol of the male sexual body. Words for the male genitalia often refer to jewelry, as in the expression “the family jewels.” The Tibetan word for the male genitals is “jewel” (nor bu), and the word schmuck means “jewel” in German and “genitals” in Yiddish (and, then, also in Yiddish, comes to designate a man who is a contemptible jerk, a creep—in a word, a prick).

But far more common than the association with male genitalia is the representation of women’s genitalia as a ring. The wearing of a ring has obvious sexual meanings, perhaps on the analogy between putting your finger through a ring and putting one sexual organ into another. Since Shakespeare’s time, “ring” has been a slang term for the female genitalia, just as “jewel” (bijou) is in French. In the very last line of The Merchant of Venice, Gratiano, punning on the finger ring that has played an essential part in the plot, promises: “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring”. About which David Bevington delicately comments, “As Gratiano bawdily points out in the play’s last line, the ring is both a spiritual and a sexual symbol of marriage.”

One of the earliest images is a tiny bronze image of an impudent, defiant dancing girl, totally naked save for a chunky necklace and an assortment of bangles

Throughout the Slavonic oral tradition, the vagina is represented as a golden ring. In one story, a husband (named Staver Godinovich) fails to recognize his wife, who is masquerading as a male warrior, until the warrior “lifts his garment up to the very belly button and then the young Staver Godinovich recognised the golden ring.” In a Russian tale recorded by A. N. Afanasiev, a magic ring on a young man’s finger, like a kind of proto-Viagra, made his penis grow longer, the lower down on his finger he put the ring. When a thief who was riding in a carriage slipped the ring down to the middle of his finger, he got an erection that “knocked the coachman off his box, passed over the horses and extended five miles in front of the carriage.”

The association of the ring with female genitals underlies a naughty French satire on the motif of the ring “fished up” from vast waters. It was published c. 1462, in The One Hundred New Tales (Les cent nouvelles nouvelles) collected by Antoine de la Sale:

A miller had a beautiful but rather stupid wife, whom a clever knight tricked into allowing him to bed her on several occasions. The miller decided to take revenge on the knight. When the knight was away from home for a month at least, the miller called on the knight’s wife. Knowing that she was in her bath, he brought a fine pike to her and insisted on presenting it to her himself. She thanked him and sent it to the kitchen to have it prepared it for supper. Meanwhile the miller saw a large, beautiful diamond ring sitting on the edge of the tub, where the lady had placed it before bathing. The miller stole it and left. Only later did the lady discover that she had lost the ring, and she was deeply upset, for the knight, her husband, had given it to her on their wedding day. Finally she summoned the miller, who assured her that he knew nothing about the diamond but then suggested that, since she had left her diamond at the edge of the bathtub, it must have slipped from her finger, fallen into the water, and worked its way into her body. He asked her to lie on her bed, examined her, and claimed that he could see the ring and would extract it. “Begin, then, handsome miller,” she replied. Then, “The miller even made use of the same type of tool as the knight had used, in order to fish for the diamond.” It took several attempts, and she begged him to keep fishing until he found it. Finally, “the miller fished so diligently that he returned madam’s diamond.” When she told the knight what had happened, he realized that the miller had repaid him heartily. When they met again, the knight greeted the miller with, “May God keep you, fisher after diamonds!”

The fish is brought to the house and is sent down to dinner, where anyone who knew the old story of the ring-in-the-fish might expect to see someone open the pike and find the ring. Not so; the tale moves in another direction, brilliantly satirizing the idea that a woman might lose her wedding ring in the deep waters of her own insatiable (and naive) sexuality and find it only in the course of an adultery. It may also be a blasphemous take on the disciple Peter, whom Jesus said he would make a “fisher of men.” Here the fisher after diamonds is a fisher of women.

(This is an excerpt from Wendy Doniger's latest, The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry | Speaking Tiger | 397 pages | Rs 899)