The origin of the members of the bridal party has a long history. During the marriage-by-capture era, the loyal tribesmen and close friends of the groom within the tribe aided him to invade the enemy territory to capture his bride. While he dashed off with her, his friends stayed behind to fend off or fight the bride’s outraged relatives. Such were the first ushers and best man.
The maid-of-honour and the bridesmaids, as they are known today, can also be traced back through the centuries to Saxon England. The senior among them would attend the bride for a number of days before the wedding. She was especially responsible for the making of the bridal wreath, the decorations for the wedding feast, and for dressing the bride. Related forerunners of today’s bridesmaids were the guards who protected the maiden from capture. Other examples of the use of “bridesmaids” were the ten witnesses required by the Roman marriage ceremony.
The flower girls and ring-bearers of modern weddings are a vestige of the fertility rites practiced by many different peoples. The bride was often accompanied by a little child who was supposed to symbolize a fruitful union.
The origin of the processional has clearly developed from the ancient and medieval wedding processions. Among the Athenians, the ceremony began with morning offerings to Zeus and Hera, and especially to Artemis, who was not, we are told, in favour of marriages. Then, at nightfall, the bride was conducted to the bridegroom’s house. She rode in a chariot, drawn by a pair of mules, and was seated on a couch-like arrangement between her husband and one of his close friends. As the bridal procession advanced, it was greeted and joined by friends carrying nuptial torches and singing songs.
In medieval times, the processional was especially colourful. Gaily dressed minstrels sang and piped at the head of the procession. Next came a young man bearing the bride-cup, which was a chalice or vase of silver or silver-gilt, decorated with gilt, rosemary and ribbons.
Then the bride walked, attended by two bachelors, and a dozen or so knights and pages. Next came maidens carrying bride cake, followed by girls with garlands of wheat. The bridegroom then appeared, led by two maidens, and walked in the midst of his close friends, including his “best man.” The relatives walked after him, and these were followed by less intimate friends. Finally, at some distance and appearing to have no concern in the festivities, or ceremony, appeared the bride’s father!
As far as can be discovered, the wedding ring originated in the days of the caveman in a cord of reeds with which the man bound himself to his wife’s waist in order to make their spirits one. The Egyptians, it is thought, introduced the first metal finger rings which were probably made of gold. In Egyptian hieroglyphics a circlet indicated eternity. The 9th century Christians began using the wedding rings which have continued to the present.
There is a legend that the first wedding ring was made of iron adamant by Tubalcain for Prometheus. The iron symbolized lastingness, the adamant perfect concord.
The early Romans used iron wedding rings. Among the poorer English, even as late as the 19th century, it was customary to use the ring at the Church keep. And today, when a very poor Irishman cannot buy a wedding ring, he rents one! The Puritans forbade rings as they considered their use pagan.