Vena Amoris

Have you ever wondered why we traditionally wear engagement and wedding rings on the fourth (counting the thumb) finger of the left hand?

Supposedly, it all started with the ancient Egyptians, who believed there was a nerve that directly connected the heart and the fourth finger of the left hand. As Aulus Gellius, a 2nd century Roman grammarian, explains:

When the human body is cut open as the Egyptians do and when dissections… are practiced on it, a very delicate nerve is found which starts from the [ring] finger and travels to the heart. It is, therefore, thought seemly to give to this finger in preference to all others the honor of the ring, on account of the loose connection which links it with the principal organ.

However, it was not the Romans who coined the term vena amoris (“vein of love”) for this supposed link between the heart and the fourth finger on the left hand. After all, they didn’t think the connection was a vein- they thought it was a nerve.

In the 16th century, a Dutch physician named Levinus Lemnius was the first to propose the connection was a blood vessel and not a nerve:

A small branch of the artery and not of the nerves, as Gellius thought, is stretched forth from the heart unto this finger, the motion whereof you may perceive evidently in all that affects the heart of woman, by the touch of your forefinger.

It was Henry Swinburne, a 17th century lawyer, who first used the phrase vena amoris. In his 1680 Treatise of Spousals, or Matrimonial Contracts, he wrote:

The finger on which the wedding-ring is to be worn is the fourth finger of the left hand, next unto the little finger; because by the received opinion of the learned … in ripping up and anatomising men’s bodies, there is a vein of blood, called ‘vena amoris’, which passeth from that finger to the heart.

Of course, if you know anything about the circulatory system you know that this is nothing more than romantic nonsense. There is no special vein running between the heart and the ring finger of the left hand- there are digital veins and arteries running between the heart and every finger on both hands. There is no special connection between the heart and our traditional ring finger.

Romantic nonsense, sure. But it’s still romantic nonsense that brings a smile to my lips. Throughout history, we’ve been searching for physical manifestations of love within our bodies. Where does it reside? We know now that, like all emotions, love is a series of biochemical reactions in the brain. But the emotion can be so all-consuming and devastating, with such a strong physical sensation attached to it, that we want to believe there’s more to it than that. We want to believe it is an essential part of the universe, the fifth physical force- stronger than gravity, more powerful than the strong force.

I find something beautiful in that, misguided though it might be.

Anyway, there’s your useless information for the week, dear galleons.

One response to “Vena Amoris

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