June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
Of the three basic rites of passage— birth, marriage, and death—the most vital is marriage, according to a historian of wedding customs, because it is the only one at which we are fully present, fully aware. Marriage is certainly the rite of passage that has, through the ages, accumulated the greatest weight of ritual, superstition, and ceremony.
Even in America, where young people have generally chosen their partners out of affection rather than for purely economic or dynastic reasons, the rituals of older cultures have come along with the bargain. The word wedding , for instance, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word wed , meaning the purchase price a groom pays to his bride’s father. Our present-day wedding cake is a sweeter version of the bread formerly broken over a Roman bride’s head to assure fertility. Among the most romantic of our rituals is that of the ring—a circular shape that to the ancient Egyptians symbolized unending love. (Incidentally, the same Egyptians placed the ring on the fourth finger of the left hand because they believed that a vein ran directly from that finger to the heart.) And brides still, regardless of today’s sexual customs, wear white wedding gowns—the color that traditionally connotes purity.
In moving to the New World, colonists brought along their superstitions too. June as the favorite wedding month, for instance, harks back to ancient Rome, where Juno was honored as the goddess of marriage and patroness of the young. Less easily attributable bits of folklore contend that the bride who finds a spider crawling on her wedding gown will have good luck, and that a bit of salt sprinkled into the bride’s shoe will assure happiness.
Throughout the centuries, there have been certain constants in wedding customs: drinking, feasting, partying, and, less common but more enduring, picture making. There are paintings on cave walls of primitive wedding rituals. Egyptians and Etruscans painted frescoes of marriage ceremonies on the walls of their tombs; wedding processions wind around Greek urns; watercolors and oils, both naive and sophisticated, celebrate bridal couples and scenes from every country; and today photographers record every moment of the big day. Here is an album of wedding paintings, by Americans, in honor of June, brides, rings, and marriage.