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 p720  Lyra

[image ALT: An engraving depicting a device in the shape of the two horns of a cow, towards the tips of which a cross-slat has been fastened from one to the other; from this slat to the base of the horns run four strings. It is a Graeco-Roman lyre.]

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp720‑721 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

LY′RA (λύρα, Lat. fides), a lyre, one of the most ancient musical instruments of the stringed kind. There can scarcely be any doubt that this and similar instruments were used by the Eastern nations and by the Egyptians, long before the Greeks became acquainted with them, and that they were introduced among the Greeks from Asia Minor (Wilkinson's Manners and Cust. of the Anc. Egypt. II pp272, 288, &c.). The Greeks themselves however attributed the invention of the lyre to Hermes, who is said to have formed the instrument of a tortoise-shell, over which he placed gut-strings (Hom. Hymn. in Merc.; Apollod. III.10 §2; Diodor. V.75; Serv. ad Virg. Georg. IV.464). As regards the original number of the strings of a lyre, the accounts of the ancients differ so widely, that it is almost impossible to arrive at any definite conclusion. Diodorus (I.16) states that Hermes gave his lyre three strings, one with an acute, the other with a grave, and the third with a middle sound. Macrobius (Sat. I.19) says that the lyre of Mercury had four strings, which symbolically represented the four seasons of the year; while Lucian (Deor. Dial. 7), Ovid (Fast. V.106), and others, assume that the lyre from the first had seven strings. All ancient writers who mention this invention of Hermes, apply it to the name lyra, though its shape in this description of Apollodorus and Servius rather resembles that of the instrument which in subsequent times was designated by the name cithara (κίθαρα or κίθαρις), and in some degree resembled a modern guitar, in as far as the latter the strings were drawn across the sounding bottom, whereas in the lyra of later times they were free on both sides. In the Homeric poems the name λύρα does not occur, with the exception of the Homeric hymn to Hermes; and from the expression which occurs in this hymn (423), λύρῃ κιθαρίζειν, it appears that originally there was very little or no difference between the two instruments, that is to say, the instrument formerly used was a cithara in the later sense of the word.​a

The instruments which Homer mentions as used to accompany songs are the φόρμιγξ and κίθαρις (Il. I.603, Od. VIII.248 and 261). Now that the φόρμιγξ and the κίθαρις were the same instrument, appears to be clear from the expression φόρμιγγι κιθαρίζειν, and κίθαρι φορμίζειν (Od. I.153, &c.). The lyra is also called χέλυς, or χελώνη, and in Latin testudo, because it was made of a tortoise-shell.

The obscurity which hangs over the original number of strings of the lyre, is somewhat removed by the statement made by several ancient writers, that Terpander of Antissa (about B.C. 650) added to the original number of four strings three new ones, and thus changed the tetrachord into a heptachord (Euclid. Introd. Harm. p19; Strab. XIII p618; Clem. Alex. Strom. VI p814, ed. Potter),  p721 though it cannot be denied that there existed lyres with only three strings (Blanchini, De Tribus Generibus Instrumentorum Musicae Veterum Organicae Dissertatio, tab. IV). The preceding representation of a tetrachord and the following one of a heptachord are both taken from the work of Blanchini.

[image ALT: An engraving depicting a device in the shape of the two horns of an oryx or antelope, towards the tips of which a cross-slat has been fastened from one to the other; from this slat to the base of the horns run seven strings, and below that base is attached a tortoise shell. It is a Graeco-Roman lyre.]
The heptachord introduced by Terpander henceforth continued to be most commonly used by the Greeks as well as subsequently by the Romans, though in the course of time many additions and improvements were made which are described below. In the ancient tetrachord the two extreme strings stood to each other in the relation of a fourth (διὰ τεσσάρων), i.e. the lower string made three vibrations in the time that the upper one made four. In the most ancient arrangement of the scale, which was called the diatonic, the two middle strings were strung in such a manner, that the three intervals between the four strings produced twice a whole tone, and one semi-tone. Terpander in forming his heptachord, in reality added a new tetrachord to the ancient one, but left out the third string of the latter, as there was between it and the fourth only an interval of a semi-tone. The heptachord thus had the compass of an octave, or, as the ancients called it, a diapason (διὰ πασῶν). The intervals between the seven strings in the diatonic scale were as follow:— between one and two a whole tone, between two and three a whole tone, between three and four a whole tone and a semi-tone; between four and five and five and six a whole tone each, between six and seven a semi-tone. The seven strings themselves were called, beginning from the highest, νήτη, παρανήτη, παραμέση, μέση, λιχανός, παρυπάτη, ὑπάτη (Böckh, de Metris Pindari, p205, &c.). Pindar himself made use of the heptachord, though in his time an eighth string had been added. In the time of Philip and Alexander the number of strings were increased to eleven by Timotheus of Miletus (Suidas, s.v. Τιμόθεος; Müller, Dor. IV.6 §3), an innovation which was severely censured by the Spartans, who refused to go beyond the number of seven strings (Cic. de Leg. II.15; Athen. XIV p636).​b It is however clear that the ancients made use of a variety of lyres, and in the representations which we still possess, the number of strings varies from three to eleven.​c About the time of Sappho and Anacreon several stringed instruments, such as magadis, barbiton, and others, were used in Greece, and especially in Lesbos. They had been introduced from Asia Minor, and their number of strings far exceeded that the lyre, for we know that some had a compass of two octaves, and others had even twenty strings, so that they must have more resembled a modern harp than a lyre (Bode, Gesch. der Lyrisch. Dichtkunst der Hellenen, vol. I p382, &c.; compare Quinctil. XII.10).

It has been remarked above that the name lyra occurs very seldom in the earliest Greek writers, and that originally this instrument and the cithara were the same. But about the time of Pindar innovations seem to have been introduced by which the lyra became distinct from the cithara, the invention of which was ascribed to Apollo and hence the name of the former now occurs more frequently (Pind. Ol. X.113, Nem. III.19, XI.8, Pyth. VIII.42, et passim). Both however had in most cases no more than seven strings. The difference between the two instruments is described above; the lyre had a great and full-sounding bottom, which continued as before to be made generally of a tortoise-shell, from which, as Lucian (Dial. Mor. I) expresses it the horns rose as from the head of a stag. A transverse piece of wood connecting the two horns at or near their top-ends served to fasten the strings, and was called ζύγον, and in Latin transtillum. The horns were called πήχεις or cornua (Schol. Venet. ad Iliad. II.293; Hesych. s.v. Ζύγα; Cic. de Nat. Deor. II.59). These instruments were often adorned in the most costly manner with gold and ivory (Cic. ad Heren. IV.47; Ovid. Met. XI.167). The lyre was considered as a more manly instrument than the cithara, which, on account of its smaller-sounding bottom, excluded full-sounding and deep tones, and was more calculated for the middle tones. The lyre when played stood in an upright position between the knees, while the cithara stood upon the knees of the player. Both instruments were held with the left hand, and played with the right (Ovid. Metam. XI.168). It has generally been supposed that the strings of these instruments were always touched with a little staff called plectrum (πλῆκτρον) (see woodcut under Mensa), but among the paintings discovered at Herculaneum we find several instances where the persons play the lyre with their fingers (see also Ovid. Heroid. III.118). The lyre was at all times only played as an accompaniment to songs.

The Latin name fides, which was used for a lyre as well as a cithara, is probably the same as the Greek σφίδες, which, according to Hesychius (s.v.), signifies gut-string; but Festus (s.v.) takes it to be the same as fides (faith), because the lyre was the symbol of harmony and unity among men.

The lyre (cithara or phorminx) was at first used in the recitations of epic poetry, though it was probably not played during the recitation itself, but only as a prelude before the minstrel commenced his story, and in the intervals or pauses between the several parts. The lyre has given its name to a species of poetry called lyric; this kind of poetry was originally never recited or sung without the accompaniment of the lyre, and sometimes also of an appropriate dance. (Compare the article Musica; Plutarch, de Musica; Böckh, de Metris Pindari; Drieberg, Musikalische Wissenschaften der Griechen; and by the same author Aufschlüsse über die Musik der Griechen; Burney, History of Music; Hawkins, History of Music; Krüger, De Musicis Graec. Organis circa Pindari tempora florentibus, Göttingen, 1840; Müller, Hist. of Greek Lit. p148, &c.)

Thayer's Notes:

a The dictionary article would have been much better if the cithara had been broken out and made the subject of its own entry; the student should keep in mind that the lyre and the cithara, though closely related, were different instruments. See the article Cithara in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, with 6 woodcuts.

b Plutarch refers to this at least four times; the editor's footnote to Apophth. Lac., Ecprepes (220C) collects the citations, and adds one in Boethius.

c As for tuning the instrument, Dio Chrysostom tells us (Or. 68.7) that the middle string was set first, and the others then tuned to it.

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Page updated: 5 May 18