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Lyre

Greek: Λυρα
What: A stringed musical instrument
Lyre family: lyre, chelys, phorminx and kithara

The lyre depicted in  Ancient Greek Pottery.

The lyre depicted in
Ancient Greek Pottery.

The lyre was a stringed musical instrument was one of the most important and commonly used instruments in ancient Greece. The lyre, in Greek mythology, was said to have been invented by Hermes who made the instrument to help him steal 50 prize cattle from Apollo’s sacred heard. When Apollo realized he had been robbed he protested to Maia and Zeus. Zeus ordered Hermes to return the cattle at which point Hermes began playing his lyre. The music was so enchanting to Apollo that he offered Hermes to keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre. Apollo would then become the player of excellence for the lyre and beacon one of his symbols. Apollo found out about the theft and was then offered the lyre from Hereme’s. The real inventor of the lyre is not known however the commonly used seven stringed version of the lyre is credited to Terpander of Lesbos, regarded as the father of ancient Greek music.

The lyre had seven strings of equal length but of different thickness (made of sheep gut) and was usually played by strumming with a plectrum, rather than being plucked. The lyre had two fixed upright arms or horns and and a crossbar at the top with turning pegs made of bronze, wood, ivory or bone. The lyre was played sitting or standing and was held with one hand that would be sometimes supported with a carrying strap worn over the shoulder of the player. The lyre would be played at many different occasions and was mostly played alone or accompanying singing or lyric poetry.

The earliest known depictions of the lyre date to the middle of the Bronze Age in the Cycladic and Minoan civilizations. Lyre’s can be seen on decorative motifs on Minoan pottery, wall-paintings in Mycenaean Pylos show a five string lyre and Mycenae shows decorated ivory fragments. Lyre’s can also be seen in 8th century BC Greek pottery. Surviving lyre’s from ancient Greece include a tortoise sound-box from the 5th century BC and turning pegs from the 6th century BC. In one incredible discovery a bronze lyre was uncovered from the Antikythera shipwreck dating back to the Hellenistic period. The lyre was an integral part of ancient Greek education. It was said that Achilles was taught how to play the lure while Plato considered the lyre or the kithara as the only suitable instruments for musical education. Some Greek city-states even depicted the lyre on their coins. These include the silver stater of cayman, the silver drachma of Delos, coins of Kos and coins of Thespiai.

The Ancient Greek Lyre:

Kithara of Apollo from Michalis Georgiou on Vimeo:

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