Skull Rings and skull jewelry (Memento Mori) have a history as long as history itself, one that has evolved and had different meanings at different times and in different cultures.
From pop fashion back through the rockstars of the 80's and the bikers of the early 70's, regimental jewerly of WW2, imperial uniforms of the victorian era, religious iconography of the Catholic Mediavel period and back to the Roman Empire, the Memento Mori - reminder skulls - have been ever-present in one form to another.
Army Generals - The Roman Rockstars
Memento Mori ("remember that you have to die") is a Latin expression. Sources suggest it originated from a practice common in Ancient Rome. After a victorious battle, a Roman general could expect to come home to a fabulous welcoming parade. "Triumphs" as they were known were massive parties, the equivalent of today's huge concerts in front of a packed-out stadium.
As the rock stars of their day, these generals were heaped in the adoration and praise of the populace and ran the same risks as celebrities today - believing their own hype, falling victim to celebrity and thinking they are better than other people and developing delusions of grandeur.
A rockstar with an ego is one thing, but a general - in charge of a powerful, trained army, high on successful conquests - is quite another. Ego and power, just as today, is a dangerous combination.
To help keep the General's ego under control, while the crowd cheered and waved and heaped praise upon them, a lowly slave would be tasked with walking behind him and constantly remind him that all of this is temporary, all of it given by the people, you are no more special than any other man, you simply are in the right place at the right time - remember that one day, you too will die, only your achievements will live on.
"Respice post te. Hominem te memento"
( "Look after you [to the time after your death] and remember you're [only] a man.").
Memento Mori - remember death - has its genesis as a way to remind those who are tempted by ego to remember that all things must die.
Medieval Skull Rings - Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife
During the medieval period, the conbcept becomes related to the ars moriendi ("The Art of Dying") and related literature.
During the period following the fall of the Roman empire, as Catholic Christianity spread across the world, ideas about the afterlife became very important. The Catholic church was essentially a death cult, teaching that all real meaning was in the afterlife, that living was simply the prelude to the true, 'everlasting' life that began after death. Unlike pagan rituals which tend to involve celebration of natural forces that are life giving such as harvest and midsummer, Christians now were obsessed with the manner and conditions of their deaths. To die in the wrong way, having lived the wrong life as prescribed by the rules of the church, was to be damned to hell for all eternity.
As such, symbols of death became part of the wider expression of Catholic culture. In a time where war, famine, plague and lack of science and medical knowledge from the classical age meant that mortality rates were high, the very concept of death as a sort of god himself became prevalent.
To most people, heaven and Jesus the savior were a background theme, remote in Heaven somewhere in the clouds, accessible only through the middle men of the Church hierarchy. By comparison, Death walked the earth among them everyday, familiar from the lowliest serf to the most glittering lord in his castle.
Death then, was the every-man, the great leveler, in a time where inequality was an extreme between the high and the low. In many cases, Death was almost seen as a friend to the common man who would finally release him from the toil and hardship of life.
The concept of Memento mori has been an important part of religious disciplines as a means of perfecting the character by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and by turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.
In art, memento mori are artistic or symbolic reminders of mortality. In the European Christian art context, "the expression [Memento Mori] developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife".
Victorian England and