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Sunday, July 19, 2020

Lyrists and Citharists

The earliest reference to the word lyre is in Mycenaean Greek ru-ra-ta-e, meaning "lyrists" and written in the Linear B script.  In classical Greek, the word "lyre" could either refer specifically to an amateur instrument, which is a smaller version of the professional cithara and eastern-Aegean barbiton, or "lyre" can refer generally to all three instruments as a family of stringed instruments. A classical lyre has a hollow body or sound-chest which, in ancient Greek tradition, was made out of turtle shell. Extending from this sound-chest are two raised arms, which are sometimes hollow, and are curved both outward and forward. They are connected near the top by a crossbar or yoke. An additional crossbar, fixed to the sound-chest, makes the bridge, which transmits the vibrations of the strings. The deepest note was that farthest from the player's body; since the strings did not differ much in length, more weight may have been gained for the deeper notes by thicker strings, as in the violin and similar modern instruments, or they were tuned by having a slacker tension.  The number of strings on the classical lyre varied at different epochs and possibly in different localities—four, seven, and ten having been favorite numbers.  Plutarch says that Olympus and Terpander used but three strings to accompany their recitation.

According to ancient Greek mythology, the young god Hermes stole a herd of sacred cows from Apollo. In order not to be followed, he made shoes for the cows which forced them to walk backwards. Apollo, following the trails, could not follow where the cows were going. Along the way, Hermes slaughtered one of the cows and offered all but the entrails to the gods. From the entrails and a tortoise/turtle shell, he created the Lyre. Apollo, figuring out it was Hermes who had his cows, confronted the young god. Apollo was furious, but after hearing the sound of the lyre, his anger faded. Apollo offered to trade the herd of cattle for the lyre. Hence, the creation of the lyre is attributed to Hermes.

Apollo Kaitharoidos from the Hadrianic Period (2nd century CE) Roman copy of Hellenistic original Marble photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

Apollo Kaitharoidos from the late 1st century CE Roman copy of Hellenistic original photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

Roman fresco of erotes playing with a cithara, a professional version of the lyre, from Herculaneum, possibly the basilica 1st century CE from MANN (Naples) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Fresco of actors with masks and a lyre from Pompeii 1st century CE MANN (Naples) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lyre player. Marble, Roman copy from the 2nd century CE after a Greek bronze original of the 5th century BCE at The Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Salli

The Mycenaean sarcophagus of Hagia Triada, 14th century BC, depicting the earliest lyre with seven strings, held by a man with long robe, third from the left courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor J. Ollé


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