What Lyra means, no 2 – the lyre

The lyre accompanied Greek poets (for instance, Sappho’s who we celebrate in our first issue) in the Ancient world. Like the garish (and frankly tasteless) manner in which Greek marbles, like the Parthenon sculptures, were painted, this shows that the Greeks were far from staid. No near silent poetry readings, interrupted by mute coughs, but cocophanies of music and expression. I’ve always thought Greek must have been an odd, guttural language; and the earliest written record of the lyre, its name in Mycean Greek: ru-ra-ta-e. The wonderful Ensemble Kérylos, which attempts to play Greek music as the Greeks played it, seems to bare this thought through: it is beautiful, but rough – unrefined.

What Lyra means, no. 2 – the lyre

The oldest lyres were made from wood, turtle shells and cow guts. The myth of Hermes plays on this: the young god – exploring the world – steal a flock of cows from Apollo, and hides them in a cave. Perhaps bored, Hermes kills one of the cows and makes an instrument from its guts, and the shell of a turtle.  Apollo is angry – these were special cows – but Hermes mollifies him with the gift of his instrument, the lyre. Thus Apollo became the god of music and poetry, which explains Orpheus’ affection for him. The lyre is associated, then, with Hellenic antiquity, and feels European (that Hellenic antiquity is European is spurious, but that’s another argument). Yet, its heritage is far more cosmopolitan. The oldest lyres found were in Ur, in modern day Iraq, and date to 2500 BC. Moreover, historians disagree about its provenance, believing it to hail from North Africa – it was especially popular in Egypt – Western Asia or Southern Europe. Indeed, the lyre is still used in countries like Chad and Sudan, at Islamic celebrations and animist ceremonies.

On top of this, some believe that instruments similar to the lyre, but independent of it, were in use in Northern Europe, by Gallic, Scandinavian and Celtic people. Descendents of these instruments exist in the form of the Scandinavian talhampa and the Finnish jouhikko. However, the Northern European instruments date from a much later date – around the sixth century BC – and one can’t be certain that influence from the South was completely lacking.

The lyre is the instrument of poets – one can carry it, and hold it while reciting – and therefore an instrument that travels. It represents movement and art, and its cosmopolitan routes – and spread – illustrate music’s contempt for nationality and geography. No wonder both Byron and Shelly employed it as metaphors for poetry itself, and that it gave its name to lyric poetry, the sort most redolent of emotion.