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)