Names are important to us, and important generally. So we took a great deal of time, thought and consideration choosing ours – countless lists, little arguments and frustrating dead-ends. And then, one night, it just appeared – just like that. Natural, feminine and free, with a way of tripping along the tongue and tumbling from the mouth.
To mark the first week of our blog, we are going to delve into the many associations our name has, and finally trying to explain what it means to us.
What Lyra means, no. 1 – the myth
‘Lyra’ has two meanings, distinct but intertwined: the first is an instrument, (in English the lyre), which gave its name – or its shape – to a small constellation. It’s impossible to know, as the best things are, what came first, but both spring from the myth of that wonderer, Orpheus. And, as with all myths, there are many versions, but our favourite iterations are Robert Grave’s: they are short and precise. They allow the reader to add the gloss and the romance.
The essentials are that Orpheus was a semi-deity, a halfling born of the Muse Calliope and a Thracian king, and the most famous poet-musician that ever lived. His lyre was a gift from Apollo, and with it he enchanted wild beasts and made the very rocks of the earth dance. After traveling with the Argonauts, our poet met the lovely Eurydice (or Agriope) and married her.
One day, escaping a rapist, his bride stepped on a serpent and died from its bite. Orpheus boldly followed her into Tatarus – the underworld – charming its different gatekeepers, including the three-headed dog Cerberus, and Hades himself, and winning leave to return his beloved to the world. He had but one condition, that he not look behind him until they were safely out, but he did – I’ve never really known why – and so lost her forever.
Afterwards Orpheus saw the invasion, by the mad-god Dionysus, of his native Thrace. Rather than honour him, our poet turned to preaching the greatness of Apollo, to men of the city. Vexed by this, Dionysus set his hysterical women followers – the Maenads – on Orpheus, and had him ripped limb from limb. His head was thrown into a river, but floated – singing all the way – to the sea.
And though it is said that he had offended Aphrodite by condemning promiscuity and preaching homosexual love, the other Olympians felt his murder to be unjust. In recognition, and to mollify the Muses, his lyre was placed in heaven to form a constellation.
The myth of Orpheus has enjoyed a rich afterlife, redolent as it is in poetry, violence and sex. In music, our favourite iterations are Monteverdi’s L’Orpheo, Haydn’s L’anima del filosofo, and – of course – Nick Cave’s The Lyre of Orpheus, which – though it purposefully muddles the myth – captures the masculine narcissism of the poet. There are many films dealing with our poet, none I’ve seen touch the intensity of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, which through sheer aesthetic force, take the viewer on a trip in and out of Hades. Most interesting, though, are the feminist writers – Margaret Atwood chief among them – who give voice to the voiceless Eurydice.