Today, you’ll find countless gold and silver rings dating to Roman times in museums and archives around the world. There is one, however, that stands apart from the rest. The Ring of Silvianus, known alternately as the Ring of Senicianus and the Vyne Ring, comes with a remarkable story and a cursed past.

What we know about the ring’s origins are somewhat scant. In the 4th century AD, a Roman soldier stationed in Gloucestershire, England, by the name of Silvianus visited baths dedicated to the Celtic god Nodens. The Temple of Nodens sat on a hill above the River Severn at Lidney and celebrated the Roman-British deity associated with hunting, dogs, healing, and the sea.

Nodens boasts many literary and cultural references, including links to the Fisher King of Arthurian legends. Associations also exist with the Norse god Njord of the Vanir (god of wine, sailing, fishing, and fertile land), the Roman god Mars, and Nuada Airgetlam, the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

 

Sometime during the 4th century AD, Silvianus, a Roman stationed in Gloucestershire, England, visited the elaborate baths of the Celtic God Nodens. Located on a hill above the River Severn at Lydney, the Temple of Nodens celebrated the Roman-British deity that is associated with healing, hunting, dogs, and the sea.

 

Nodens is a cognate of the Old Irish Nuada Airgetlam, first king of the Tuatha de Danann who was disqualified from ruling Ireland because he lost his hand in battle. Nodens has also been associated with the Fisher King of Arthurian legends, the Norse god Njord of the Vanir (god of wine, fishing, sailing, and fertile land along the seacoast), and the Roman god Mars. By all accounts, Nodens could be a rascally deity and well inclined to help with a curse.

 

Njörd’s desire of the Sea (1908) by W. G. Collingwood ( Public Domain )

When Silvianus was at the Temple, his golden ring was stolen from him. Silvianus believed that it was Senicianus who stole the ring- how he knew this is not clear. Silvianus thus went to the Temple and prepared a lead plate known as a defixio or ‘curse tablet’. He inscribed the tablet in Latin:

DEVO NODENTI SILVIANVS ANILVM PERDEDIT DEMEDIAM PARTEM DONAVIT NODENTI INTER QVIBVS NOMEN SENICIANI NOLLIS PETMITTAS SANITATEM DONEC PERFERA VSQVE TEMPLVM DENTIS

Which translates as

For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.

The ring is large, perhaps intended to be worn on the thumb or outside of a glove. It has a diameter of 1 inch (25mm) and weighs 12 grams (0.4oz). The ring has ten facets and a square bezel engraved with the image of the Roman goddess Venus. When the pagan Silvianus owned the ring, the ten gold sides were bare. Yet a later Christian owner, perhaps Senicianus, had the ring crudely inscribed with the letters “SENICIANE VIVAS IIN DE.” Presumably, the inscriber meant to say “SENICIANE VIVAS IN DEO” or “Senicianus, may you live with God,” however, he misspelled ‘IN’ with two Is and therefore had no room for the O in DEO.

Little is known about the fate of Senicianus. The ring was discovered in 1785 in a plowed field on a farm near Silchester, England. Silchester is a town of Roman origins some 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Lydney. Some researchers say the ring was accidentally lost, others hold that it was purposefully discarded. Falling on hard times, the Silchester farmer sold the ring to the Chute family who lived in the nearby country house, The Vyne. The Chutes were known to be interested in history and antiquities, however, it was not until 1888 that Chaloner Chute took notice of the ring and published a paper on it. And it was not until 1929 that the connection between the Vyne Ring and Silvianus’ curse tablet was established by archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler. The connection cannot be entirely confirmed, however, Senicianus is an unusual name and the close dates of the artifacts seem to support Wheeler’s theory.

 

J.R.R. Tolkien, at the time merely a professor of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic literature at Oxford University, was asked by his friend Wheeler to help clarify who the obscure god Nodens was and what role he might play in the history of the Ring.

Many now believe that the Ring of Senicianus was the inspiration for the ring in The Hobbit . In an article published in History Today , Mark Horton, professor of Archaeology at the University of Bristol, and Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill, Education Officer for the Tolkien Society, explain:

Silvianus loses his gold ring at Lydney, as Gollum lost his under the Misty Mountains. Silvianus believes his ring has been stolen by someone whose name he knows – Senicianus – just as Gollum thinks his ring has been stolen by Bilbo Baggins. Silvianus curses by name the person he suspects. Similarly, when Gollum works out that Bilbo has found and kept his ring, he cries out in rage: ‘Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!’ Both Gollum and Silvianus know the identity of the persons they regard as thieves who have stolen their gold rings and both declare these names with maledictions.

It is important to recall that the ring in The Hobbit (1937) , which gives the wearer invisibility, is different from that ring in The Lord of the Rings books (1954-55), which gives the wearer unique sight, extended life, and untold power. Author J.R.R. Tolkien has acknowledged the difference, writing, “The only liberty … has been to make Bilbo’s Ring the One Ring: all rings had the same source, before ever he put his hand on it in the dark.”