Magical Rings are one of my favourite things about D&D. The idea of having something that won’t ever wear out, but gives you superpowers, is one of the coolest things I could possibly imagine. My only regret was that my group only allowed you to have one ring on each hand. I would have been the Mr. T of magical jewellery.
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, one of the greatest Neoplatonic thinkers of the 16th century (who also became a doctor, a feminist, a sceptic, and a lawyer who defended witches while humiliating witch-hunters) talked about rings:
“Rings impress their virtue upon us, inasmuch as they do affect the spirit of him that carries them with gladness or sadness, and render him courteous or terrible, bold or fearful, amiable or hateful; inasmuch as they do fortify us against sicknessm poisons, enemies, evil spirits, and all manner of hurtful things, or, at least will not suffer us to be kept under them.”
And for every wacky D&D power you can find in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you can find works of magical artistry merging astrological theories with ‘Natural Magic’ and Christian mysticism.
Whether or not magic has ever really existed, people have been making magical rings for thousands of years. In what was Chaldea, a semitic nation nestled in the corner of the Babylonian Empire, archaeologists are still finding rings dedicated to the seven planetary spirits, corresponding with the planets of astrology.
Likewise, the ancient Hebrews made astrological talismans out of parchment and knotted chord, and seem to have worn them as rings – not to mention that runic rings have been found in pre-Christian Nordic burials.
The Greek Magical Papyri show us the sorts of thinking that led to the Islamic ideas of natural magic, giving us the notes of a sorcerer born somewhere around the 2nd century AD to the 5th.
In the 5th papyrus fragment, we find a spell for enchanting a magical ring:
“Taking a scarab, engraved as described below, put it on a papyrus tablet and put under the table a clean sheet and olive twigs, scattering them about, and in the middle of the table, a small censer, burning myrrh and kyphi. Have ready a little Faïance vessel in which there should be a salve of lillies or myrrh or cinnamon. And taking the ring put it into the salve, having advance purified it from everything, and burning on the censer the kyphi and myrrh. Leave [the ring] for three days and, taking it [from the table], put it in a pure place. Have at hand for the consecration of pure bread and whatever fruits are in season…”
The spell is a typical work of magic from the age: to gain supreme knowledge in a world where travel and the sharing of information were severely limited. Another spell for a magical ring on the next papyrus fragment is the other age-old use of magic: to gain success and praise in business. This ring (the metal isn’t specified) has to be set with a heliotrope stone carved with an image of the sun, with the image of a snake swallowing its own tail, and a scarab surrounded by solar rays. On the reverse side of the heliotrope there should be, “the name in hieroglyphics, as the prophets pronounce it.”
As would fit Magic of the Ancients™, the rings in the Greek Magical Papyri are a little over powered for the average D&D campaign: the first one, called “The Ring of Hermes” allows you to know everything there is to know, including the thoughts in the head of every human being alive. If the Gods don’t comply with your wishes, the ring allows you to stop all oracles and tear deities down from the heavens.
The second ring amounts not only to Charm Person (everyone believes everything you’re saying while you wear it, and you can calm an angry King with a word), but it also opens locked doors, breaks chains, dispossesses demoniacs, and can be used in a rite to command God himself.
Seriously, what player could be trusted with that?
One of the key texts in all ‘Natural Magic’ is a book known (in Europe) as The Picatrix. Originally titled Ghayat-al-Hakim, “The Goal of the Sage”, it was written some time in the 9th century, by an unknown author. It came to Europe via the court of King Alfonso the Wise, King of Castile in the 13th century, who brought a huge amount of magical knowledge into Christian Europe.
The book’s main focus was philosophy and personal growth, but there was no denying that it was also a work of Theurgic Neoplatonism (magic working supposedly for good, greater closeness to the divine, and betterment of humanity). It also involved Mesopotamian Astral magic, giving us the powerful connection with Astrology that endured though the middle ages and early modern period.
The Picatrix brings in the idea of making magical items by carving expensive material, choosing specific days and moon phases to bring down the correct astrological influences. In fact, the power in the magical rings of the Pictrix came almost entirely from the physical properties of the items with little or no need for ‘magic words’.
In the book’s instructions on how to make the Ring of Jupiter, it directs the sorcerer to engrave a chalcedony stone on the day and hour of Jupiter, when the moon is in Saggitatrius. He should engrave the figure of, ‘…a man sitting on an eagle with festive or exalted garments…’
Once the gem is engraved and set into a ring of tin, whoever carries it will, “…be served by the sons of men, eagles, cultures, lions and all the works of Jupiter.”
There are no magic words, neither is there any ceremony while making the ring of Mars, which gives victory over all men in battle, and yet more animal servants. All that needs to be done is to choose the right house of the moon and astrological hours and the ring will have whatever powers it acquires through the natural influences of the planets.
All great things to give your players if you feel the need for insane numbers of animal servants in every battle (then again, haven’t you ever wanted to know the winner if a bear fought a hippopotamus?)
Medieval Magical Rings
Even before the Picatrix had made it’s way into Europe, medieval clerics were showing an attraction to magical rings. When 16th century craftsmen were rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica, a thin gold ring was discovered in the tomb of a woman called Mary. According to French historian Claude Lecouteux, the ring bore the names of the Archangels Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel carved in Greek.
Another magical ring was that of Seffrid, bishop of Chester in 1159, who owned a ring set with an Abraxas gem (another throwback to the Greek Magical Papyri, where it appears to be a divine name used for magical incantation). That particular ring can still be seen in Chichester Cathedral. The magical properties of rings to cure the sick is even mentioned in the regulations of the hospital of Troyes, which states that no nun can wear a ring unless she is sick. This certainly has some relation to medico-magical rings, like the one that Arnaldus de Villa Nova used on Pope Boniface VIII in 1301 when the pontiff was suffering from Nephritic Colic.
Magical rings were used in both Theurgic and Necromantic magic in the medieval period. In spirit books like the Lemegaton, which gave lists of spirits and methods of summoning them, a critical item for the sorcerer’s safety was the Ring of Solomon, which had to be made, consecrated and worn (after a specific ceremony) in order to protect its wearer from demonic attack.
Even the magic using monks of Canterbury might have made magic rings, since they had facilities for forging seals and other things out of metal, and there are records of a strange collaboration between a monk and a local goldsmith in the 14th century.
There is also much more ceremony to the magical rings created by medieval sorcerers: in a manuscript from the British Library we find the instructions to make a magical ring. It involves making a silver ring and having a stone set in it much as the Picatrix would, but when the ring is ready for enchantment the sorcerer must say:
“Iandispar reffna. Dardaneus. Effreniel. Sarbuniel. Gatintya. Panzarenus.”
Afterwards, a spirit takes the ring away, returning it the day after. The ring now has the power to force people to answer your questions, to make them love you, to make you invisible at night, to dispossess demoniacs, and to force the demons inside a possessed person to answer whatever questions you ask.
The links between this sorts of ring and the Greek magical papyri is obvious. In fact, it’s possible that the only reason no one ever found the God-commanding part of its power portfolio is because they didn’t check.
Finally, magical rings are an excellent sort of magical armour against harm. Various manuscripts offer protection against spells and poisons, drive away (or summon) evil spirts, protect you from harm in battle or (and this is really important) prevent you from getting cramp.
Anquarian collections and museums are full of magical rings, their power now become quaint, or a myth, but certainly very real in the lives of the people who created them. Anyone wanting to know if magical rings ever existed outside of Gary Gygax’s head, or the works of Tolkien, needs only to go to a museum: the British Museum, York Museum, the Roman Museum in Canterbury. There are probably a few in your local museum, or a good antique dealer. Even modern jewellery retailers sell magical rings. They’re here to stay.