The Ancient, Cursed Ring Tolkien Studied At Oxford

“I wonder how could he have been able to invent all this stuff. It feels more like Tolkien discovered some sort of long-lost scrolls.” —Peter Jackson

In A Nutshell

Most Tolkien aficionados know that the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and grandfather of the high fantasy genre often used mythology and ancient languages as a source material for much of his work. While working as a professor at Pembroke College at Oxford, Tolkien was called upon to assist with an allegedly cursed ring that may have inspired the One Ring in his famous works.

The Whole Bushel

Note: The above is not a photo of the ring. Those photos are protected—see link below.

To create his landmark works of fantasy, Tolkien frequently borrowed from mythology as inspiration for his characters, most notably the wizard Gandalf and the non-human races of Middle-earth. But perhaps his most well-known creation is the One Ring, the dark device that grants its bearer invisibility and blackens their soul in the process.

And that’s where the real-life inspiration comes in. In 1786, a strange golden ring was found outside Silchester, a small village in Hampshire. Nearby Roman ruins had been abandoned in the seventh century A.D. and were never again occupied. The 12-gram golden ring was then presumably sold to the family that resided in The Vyne, a large country house in Hampshire whose name the ring now bears. Carved upon the Vyne Ring is the phrase “SENICIANE VIVAS IN DE[O],” which roughly translates to “Senicianus Live Well in God.” So far, so good—no strange curses or mysterious dark lords of any sort! Until you learn about the tablet.

Roughly 130 kilometers (80 mi) away, on a site that archaeologists call “The Dwarf’s Hill,” a defixio was found on the site of an ancient Roman temple. A defixio is a lead tablet upon which a curse is written in hopes of the gods appeasing their wishes and doing terrible, unspeakable things to their enemies. These were actually a common type of curse found in the Roman world. The defixio in question bore a message for a god known as Nodens, and it asks that a man named Senicianus, who had stolen a ring, be cursed and brought ill health until the ring was returned to Silvianus and the temple of Nodens. Considering the ring was found so far from the temple, we’re going to assume Nodens didn’t check his cosmic email that morning.

So where does Tolkien come in? In 1929, Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, roughly two years before he began to write the story that would eventually become The Hobbit. When famed archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler helped excavate the site at Dwarf’s Hill, he discovered the tablet and consulted with Tolkien to decipher the origin of the word “Nodens” and figure out what god it referred to. Tolkien would have been well aware of the background behind the defixio and the ring associated with it, perhaps even visiting the aforementioned temple and the ring serving as even a partial inspiration for the One Ring. The Dwarf’s Hill site may also have been an inspiration for Tolkien’s dwarves.

The ring was put on display at The Vyne in April 2013 along with a transcription of the curse upon the defixio. The Vyne itself has been converted into a hub for Lord of the Rings fans to figure out for themselves whether or not this ancient Roman ring helped inspire one of the most groundbreaking works of fantasy in the 20th century.

Show Me The Proof

National Trust: The Vyne (incl. photo)
The Guardian: The Hobbit ring that may have inspired Tolkien put on show
Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, edited by John G. Gager
The British Museum: Lead curse (defixio)

  • Lisa 39

    This just made tolkien more awesome! I’m also interested to find out if nathaniel already knew this 😉

    • TheMadHatter

      Sneaking in the phrase there. By the way, I was going to do that yesterday but I didn’t think “Suicide is awesome” would be well received… Love Tolkien and all he’s done. And the movies are great even if the real story is in the books. LOTR and the like are my favorite books ever.

      • Lisa 39

        It took me a while yesterday to work it into my comment lol, i read the hobbit in 6th grade, it didn’t really hold my interest tho, it was kind of like reading the bible, complicated, so i’m very grateful for the lotr movie, its like my student bible lol

        • TheMadHatter

          That definitely holds true with the hobbit, although I really wanted to see Tom Bombadil in the Hobbit, but beggars can’t be choosers…

          • Lisa 39

            Do you know who’s going to be in the hobbit movie?

          • TheMadHatter

            I’m pretty sure all of the hobbit movies are out already… Except the third. I only say this because I’ve seen the first two… And Tom should’ve been in the first at least.

          • Lisa 39

            I’m officially confused now, after the 3rd lotr came out i heard that there were plans for making the hobbit, the prequel to lotr, but i never heard if it was one movie which would make it like “the mummy” “the mummy returns” and then “the scorpion king”, or 3 movies like “star wars 4,5,6” and then “star wars 1,2,3”. I think i just gave myself a headache lol

          • TheMadHatter

            Three movies for one book. They just needed another trilogy I suppose. And I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it, it has been out for nearly a year!

          • Lisa 39

            Crap, i’m so unimformed.

          • Dalton

            It wasn’t they NEEDED a trilogy, staying true to the epic need of the book demanded a trilogy, they would have had to leave do much out to fit it all into one 3 hour movie

          • Lisa 39

            Thank you dalton, i really don’t remember the book at all, 6th grade was so long ago lol, i’m glad its a trilogy, i love lotr and know it wouldn’t have been as awesome if they had left anything out, do you know when the third hobbit will be out?

          • P5ychoRaz

            December 17th, 2014

          • Lisa 39

            Thank you P5choraz 🙂

          • P5ychoRaz

            You’re welcome 🙂

          • TheMadHatter

            I wasn’t commenting on that, I thought it peculiar that they made two trilogies. I like the idea of fitting everything that they can into the movie, but I’m still kind of hung up on the fact that they STILL left out Tom. I love Tom Bombadil!

          • Joseph

            They didn’t stay true to the epic though.

      • Joseph

        I was with you until “And the movies are great”.

        • TheMadHatter

          Taken as completely removed from the book entirely it is an engaging and wonderful movie. You don’t have to compare every movie with the books. On their own they are both equally amazing.

          • Joseph

            I guess I can agree with that. I wish they had stuck to the book more this time though.

        • Lisa 39

          You don’t like the movies?

          • Joseph

            I like the movies. His response was pretty accurate. They’re better if you don’t think about the books. That’s true for most movies though. I just had higher hopes for these movies.

          • Lisa 39

            I didn’t enjoy the book but i was 11, i love the movies tho, i think they’re beautiful, everything about them, well except liv tyler, bitch, but whatever lol