The lyre to be a stringed musical instrument play by the old Greeks and was more than likely the most important and also well-known tool in the Greek world. That was carefully related come the other stringed instruments: the chelys which was made native a tortoise shell, the four-stringed phorminx, and also the seven-stringed kithara.

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Greek Lyres in Mythology

In Greek mythology, all four instruments are regularly named interchangeably in assorted myths, and Hermes is generally attributed with their invention. The messenger god made the tool from a tortoise shell, gut, and also reeds, principally to aid him steal 50 prize cattle from Apollo"s sacred herd. Apollo found the theft and was just placated by Hermes" market of the lyre. Apollo, indigenous that suggest on, was taken into consideration the player par excellence that the lyre. Apollo additionally taught that other good mythical musician, Orpheus, just how to pat the instrument which would become his emblem. Orpheus was thought to it is in Thracian, which aided reinforce the belief that the lyre had its origins there. However, the development of the seven-string version of the lyre is attributed to Terpander the Lesbos. Other mythical numbers often seen with a lyre incorporate Eros and also the Muses.

Lyre materials & Design

The stringed tool usually had actually two solved upright eight (pecheis) or horns (kerata) and also a crossbar (zygos) v tuning pegs (kollopes) of bronze, wood, ivory, or bone. Seven strings (neurai or chordai) of equal length but varying thickness (usually made from lamb gut) stretched in between the crossbar and a fixed tailpiece (chordotonon) and also were play by strumming or plucking by hand, normally using a plectrum made of wood, ivory, or metal. Play sitting or standing, the instrument was held in the hand and also sometimes supported with a delivering strap worn end the shoulder that the player. The majority of musicians who played the lyre to be male, yet some depictions in art, many notably the clay dancers indigenous Minoan Palaikastro (1420-1300 BCE), do show a mrs lyre player. Certainly, musicians delighted in special status as their distinctive costume the a long gown in Greek arts shows. In addition, Minoan hieroglyphs had a unique symbol for musicians, and also a direct B tablet from Thebes (1250-1200 BCE) mentions lyre players as members the the Mycenaean royal residence staff.

The lyre was played either alone or together an accompaniment to to sing or lyric city at every manner that occasions such as official banquets, symposia (private drink parties), religious ceremonies, funerals, and in music competitions such together those held at the good Panathanaia, Pythia, and Karneia festivals.

Lyres in Greek Art

Greek lyres are generally depicted in all develops of Greek art and also the earliest examples day from the center Bronze period (c. 2000 BCE) in the Cycladic and also Minoan civilizations. In ~ Akrotiri ~ above Thera, a fresco reflects a tiny triangular lyre played by a blue monkey. In ~ Knossos ~ above Crete a small alabaster lyre is decorated v a swan"s head ~ above each arm of the instrument. Slightly later, across the Aegean in the 14th century BCE, lyres build S-shaped arms and are generally decorated with water-birds. Lyres were also used together decorative motifs on so late Minoan pottery. A sarcophagus native Hagia Triada depicts a seven-string lyre, a wall-painting from Mycenaean Pylos has a five-string lyre and also a krater native Tiryns depicts a three-string version. Decorated ivory pieces of lyres endure from Mycenae. Lyres frequently show up on later on Greek ceramic - geometric, red- and black-figure pottery - from the 8 hours century BCE. Interestingly, all lyre players portrayed in Greek art room right-handed.


A turtle sound-box indigenous the 5th century BCE survives, as execute tuning pegs native the sixth century BCE. Several carved figures from the arms of lyres have actually survived, notably an inlaid ivory youth native Samos (c. 7th century BCE) and also a woman v sphinx and also swan from c. 600 BCE. Finish lyres endure from the Hellenistic period, a notable instance being the copper lyre from the Antikythera shipwreck.

Lyres in Greek Culture

Music, and specifically play the lyre, was an integral component of Greek education. Also mythical figures took pleasure in the benefits of a musical education; because that example, Achilles was taught come play the lyre by the way centaur Cheiron. Plato considered only the lyre or kithara as perfect instruments because that musical education.

Several Greek city-states (poleis) likewise used a representation of the lyre on your coins. For example, the silver stater the Calymna in Caria (600-550 BCE) had actually a tortoise shell lyre on its reverse side. Unsurprisingly, considering its association v Apollo, the silver- drachma that Delos had a lyre on its reverse in the 6th century BCE. Coins of Kos indigenous the 2nd to first century BCE brought the head of Apollo on the obverse and a five-stringed lyre ~ above the reverse. In the very same period, coins that Thespiai - whereby there was a temple dedicated to Apollo and also another to the Muses - carried a three-stringed lyre on your reverse sides.

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Andrikou, E. (et al). Gifts from the Muses. Hellenic ministry of Culture, Athens, 2004Kotsanas, K. The Musical tools of the old Greeks. Kotsanas, Pyrgos, 2012Tsangari, D. Coins in the old Greek World. Alpha Bank, Athens, 2012


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Mark is a history writer based in Italy. His distinct interests include pottery, architecture, people mythology and discovering the concepts that all worlds share in common. He holds one MA in political Philosophy and also is the posting Director in ~ WHE.