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Foto Credit: User:FA2010 who has kindly released to the Public Domain: Johann Joachim Kaendler: Apoll und die Musen auf dem Parnass, Porzellan; Meissen, um 1750, Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt am Main. File:Kaendler Apoll und die Musen makffm 03.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

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Discussion of the words lýra and kithára

Few people have actually seen an lyre, but everyone knows from pictures what a lyre looks like. This stringed musical instrument has its origin in our mythology and it has deep mystical meaning in Ællinismόs (Hellenismos; Gr. Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion. In antiquity, we find another term, perhaps more commonly: kithára (cithara; Gr. κιθάρα) from which we have the modern word guitar. The kithára could be said to be a type of lýra (lura or lyre; Gr. λύρα) although there may have been a difference between the instruments. The lýra was the smaller of the two and had a somewhat different construction; the kithára was made of wood and was larger while the lýra had a sound-box made from a tortoise-shell. The lýra is precisely the type of instrument described in the Homeric hymn to Ærmís (Hermes; Gr. Ἑρμῆς), an invention of the God, yet at line 515 it is called a kithára. To reiterate, the hymn perfectly explains the construction of a lýra with a tortoise-shell, yet calls it a kithára, and this kithára was given by Ærmís to Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων). The Orphic hymn to Apóllohn at line 16 uses the word kithára, referring to the mystical qualities of his use of the instrument. According to Pafsanías (Pausanias; Gr. Παυσανίας), there was a tradition that Ærmís invented the lýra and that Apóllohn invented the kithára [1], but for the purposes of understanding the mystical nature of these instruments, particularly as they are both identified with Apóllohn, it is unnecessary to distinguish between them and we will use the terms interchangeably.

The phórminx (Gr. φόρμιγξ) looks markedly like the kithára but had straighter, more elaborately carved arms and a curved bottom, where the kithára often had a flat bottom, the bottom here being that part of the instrument opposite to the arms. The kithára and the phórminx had strings up to seven in number. Another ancient instrument, the várvitos (barbitos; Gr. βάρβιτος), was larger and had longer arms than either the phórminx or the kithára and, therefore, must have been more of a bass instrument.

The invention of the lýra

The Homeric hymn to Ærmís gives us the mythology which explains why we have the lýra:

"For it was Hermes who first made the tortoise a singer. The creature fell in his way at the courtyard gate, where it was feeding on the rich grass before the dwelling, waddling along. When he saw it, the luck-bringing son of Zeus laughed and said:

'An omen of great luck for me so soon! With joy I meet you! Where got you that rich gaud for covering, that spangled shell --- a tortoise living in the mountains? But I will take and carry you within: you shall help me and I will do you no disgrace, though first of all you must profit me. It is better to be at home: harm may come out of doors. Living, you shall be a spell against mischievous witchcraft; but if you die, then you shall make sweetest song.'

"Thus speaking, he took up the tortoise in both hands and went back into the house carrying his charming toy. Then he cut off its limbs and scooped out the marrow of the mountain-tortoise with a scoop of grey iron. As a swift thought darts through the heart of a man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when he had made it he proved each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvelously; and, as he tried it, the God sang sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals."

Thus the mystical lýra has seven strings; Tǽrpandros (Terpander; Gr. Τέρπανδρος, 7th century BCE), the ancient poet and kitharohdós (kithára-player; Gr. κιθαρῳδός), is given credit for increasing the number of strings on the kithára from four to seven, but there are also mythological explanations, such as this one from the Poeticon astronomicon attributed to Hyginus:

"...Mercury (ed. Ærmís), when he invented the lyre on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia, gave it seven strings, from the number of Atlas's daughters, of whom his mother, Maia was one." [3]

The acquisition of the lýra by the God Apóllohn

After Ærmís invents the lyre, next follows the charming story of the stealing of the cattle of Apóllohn followed by his apprehension by the God, presentation to Zefs for judgement, and their reconciliation. The two brothers exchange gifts:
"(Hermes) held out the lyre; and Phoebus Apollo took it, and readily put his shining whip in Hermes' hand, and ordained him keeper of herds. The son of Maia received it joyfully, while the glorious son of Leto, the lord far-working Apollo, took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string with the key. Awesomely it sounded at the touch of the God, while he sang sweetly to its note." [4]

Thus we have the mythology whereby Apóllohn comes to possess the kithára.

The lyre in the Orphic Hymn to Apóllohn

"...the inventor of the blessings of music was not a man, but one graced with every virtue, the God Apollo. ... Thus music is in every way a noble pursuit, being an invention of the Gods." [5]

In the Orphic hymn to Apóllohn we have these lines (15-26):

παντός· σο δ' ρχή τε τελευτή τ' στ μέλουσα,
παντοθαλής· σ
 δ πάντα πόλον κιθάρηι πολυκρέκτωι
ρμόζεις, τ μν νεάτης π τέρματα βαίνων,
λλοτε δ' αθ' πάτην, ποτ Δώριον ες διάκοσμον
πάντα πόλον κιρν
ς κρίνεις βιοθρέμμονα φλα,
ρμονίηι κεράσας τν παγκόσμιον νδράσι μοραν·
μίξας χειμ
νος θέρεός τ' σον μφοτέροισιν,
ς πάταις χειμνα, θέρος νεάταις διακρίνας,
Δώριον ε
ς αρος πολυηράτου ριον νθος.
νθεν πωνυμίην σε βροτο κλήιζουσιν νακτα
να, θεν δικέρωτ', νέμων συρίγμαθ' έντα·
νεκα παντς χεις κόσμου σφραγδα τυπτιν.

For the origin and completion are both in your care,   15
The cause of the blooming of all things, with your resonant lyre you command the axis of the heavens,
Placing all in harmony, by which, indeed, you advance to the lowest pitch,
Elsewhere to the highest, at times playing in the Dorian mode,
Tempering all the poles you keep the tribes of living creatures distinct,
You have mingled harmony into the share of all mortal men,   20
Giving each an equal measure of winter and summer,
The highest three strings in the winter, the lowest in the summer,
The Dorian mode produces the lovely and blooming spring,
Thereupon the mortals celebrate and call you lord and
Pan, the two-horned God who sends the whistling winds,   25
Wherefore you form and bear the seal of the entire Kózmos.

The Neoplatonist Thomas Taylor, comments on this section of the hymn:

"Gesner well observes, in his notes to this Hymn, that the comparison and conjunction of the musical and astronomical elements are most ancient; being derived from Orpheus (ed. Orphéfs; Gr. Ὀρφεύς) and Pythagoras (Pythagóras; ed. Gr. Πυθαγόρας), to Plato (ed. Plátohn; Gr. Πλάτων). Now, according to the Orphic and Pythagoric doctrine, the lyre of Apollo is an image of the celestial harmony, or the melody caused by the orderly revolutions of the celestial spheres. But I cannot believe that Orpheus and Pythagoras considered this harmony as attended with sensible sounds, according to the vulgar acceptation of the word: for it is surely more rational to suppose, that they meant nothing more by the music of the spheres, than their harmonical proportions to each other. Indeed these wise men, to whom metaphors were familiar, may be easily conceived by vulgar sound and vulgar harmony to insinuate internal sound, and harmony subsisting in its origin and cause. Hence we may consider the souls of the celestial spheres, together with the soul of the world, as composing the choir of the nine Muses (ed. Mousai; Gr. Μοῦσαι) (who are called by the Platonists nine Syrens [ed. Seirínæs; Gr. Σειρῆνες]) and dancing in numerical order round Apollo the sun of the intellectual world. But these nine Muses are far different from the marine Syrens of the poets who, resident as it were in the sea of material delights, draw us aside by their alluring melody, from the paths of rectitude. For these are divine Syrens inviting us to the proper end of our nature; and forming from the eight tones of the eight spheres, one perfect and everlasting harmony.

"The following quotation from the Platonic Nichomachus (ed. Nikhómakhos; Gr. Νικόμαχος), Harm. i. p. 6. illustrates the meaning of the Hypate (ed. Ypáti; Gr. Ὑπάτη) and Nete (ed. Næáti; Gr. Νεάτη), or the highest and lowest string. From the motion of Saturn (ed. Krόnos; Gr. Κρόνος), (says he) 

'The most remote of the planets, the appellation of the gravest sound, Hypate, is derived: but from the lunar motion, which is the lowest of all, the most acute sound is called νεάτη, Nete, or the lowest.' 

But Gesner observes, that a more ancient, and as it were archetypal appellation, is derived from the ancient triangular lyre, a copy of which was found among the pictures lately dug out of the ruins of Herculaneum; where the highest chord next to the chin of the musicians is the longest, and consequently (says he) the sound is the most grave. Gesner proceeds in observing, that the three seasons of the year are so compared together in a musical ratio, that Hypate signifies the Winter, Nete the Summer, and the Dorian measure represents the intermediate seasons, Spring and Autumn. Now the reason why the Dorian melody is assigned to the Spring, is because that measure wholly consists in temperament and moderation, as we learn from Plut. de Mus. p. 1136. E. and consequently is with great propriety attributed to the Spring, considered as placed between Summer and Winter; and gratefully tempering the fervent heat of the one, and the intense cold of the other." [7]

The lýra of Orphéfs

"...and one may see among the stars the Lyre, its arms spread apart in heaven, with which in time gone by Orpheus charmed all that his music reached, making his way even to the ghosts of the dead and causing the decrees of hell to yield to his song. Wherefore it has honour in heaven and power to match its origin: then it drew in its train forests and rocks; now it leads the stars after it and makes off with the vast orb of the revolving sky." [8]

"Next, with the rising of the (ed. constellation) Lyre, there floats forth from Ocean the shape of the tortoise-shell, which under the fingers of its heir gave forth sound only after death; once with it did Orpheus, Oeagrus' son, impart sleep to waves, feeling to rocks, hearing to trees, tears to Pluto, and finally a limit to death. Hence will come endowments of song and tuneful strings, hence pipes of different shapes which prattle melodiously, and whatever is moved to utterance by touch of hand or force of breath. The child of the Lyre will sing beguiling songs at the banquet, his voice adding mellowness to the wine and holding the night in thrall. Indeed, even when harassed by cares, he will rehearse some secret strain, tuning his voice to a stealthy hum; and, left to himself, he will ever burst into song which can charm no ears but his own. Such are the ordinances of the lyre..." [9] 

The above quotations from the ancient astrologer Marcus Manilius refer to the constellation Lýra and its effects in the affairs of the world. This grouping of stars was given this name by the astronomer Klávdios Ptolæmaios (Ptolemy; Gr. Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος); he named the constellation after the famous singer and mystic of our religion, Orphéfs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς). The great Thæológos (Theologus; Gr. Θεολόγος), as he is known, was given a lýra by Apóllohn [10] ; therefore, the lyre of Orphéfs is the lyre of Apóllohn. The conception of the lyre of Apóllohn above us in the heavens brings to mind other celestial ideas associated with the power of music and the mystical kithára, now associated with Orphéfs, the Apollonian soul who most exemplified his father. 

We have a note from a scholiast on Virgil which talks of the lyre of Orphéfs:

"But some say that Orpheus' lyre had seven strings corresponding to the seven circles of heaven." [11]

This would seem to refer to the divisions of the heavens, i.e., the sky, where it was believed that the divine beings dwelled, but the quotation goes on to say:

"Varro says there was an Orphic book about summoning the soul, called the Lyre. It is said that souls need the cithara in order to ascend." [11]

This would imply that the music of the kithára of Apóllohn has the ability to cause a transformation in the soul, enabling it to ascend or progress. In antiquity, it was generally believed that the earth was the center of the universe, but the idea was that our planet was the grossest part, not the most important. What was above the earth was not merely more elevated, but it was the realm of divine beings. The heavens were believed to produce musical tones and one means to access the divine was through music which is in harmony with these realms. This is described in a composition by Cicero known as the dream of Scipio, being a dream that Africanus is supposed to actually have experienced:

" What is this loud and agreeable sound that fills my ears?"

"That is produced," he replied, "by the onward rush and motion of the spheres themselves; the intervals between them, though unequal, being exactly arranged in a fixed proportion, by an agreeable blending of high and low tones various harmonies are produced; for such mighty motions cannot be carried on so swiftly in silence; and Nature has provided that one extreme shall produce low tones while the other gives forth high. Therefore this uppermost sphere of heaven, which bears the stars, as it revolves more rapidly, produces a high, shrill tone, whereas the lowest revolving sphere, that of the Moon, gives forth the lowest tone; for the earthly sphere, the ninth, remains ever motionless and stationary in its position in the centre of the universe. But the other eight spheres, two of which move with the same velocity, produce seven different sounds, ---a number which is the key of almost everything. Learned men, by imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in song, have gained for themselves a return to this region, as others have obtained the same reward by devoting their brilliant intellects to divine pursuits during their earthly lives." [12]

The important point being that the mystical lýra is not merely an instrument for pleasure and amusement, but that it has a deeper function: to enable the listener to access the divine and that this instrument is the possession of Apóllohn and Apollonian souls such as Orphéfs.


[1] Παυσανίας Description of Greece 5.14.8.

[2] Homeric Hymn Ærmís 25-55, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914, found in the 1936 edition entitled Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, LCL, Harvard Univ. Press (Cambridge, MA) and William Heinemann LTD (London), where this quotation may be found on pp. 365-367.

[3] (pseudo) Hyginus Poeticon astronomicon 2.7, trans. Theony Condos, 1997. Found in the book entitled Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook, Phanes Press (Grand Rapids, MI), where this quotation may be found on p. 134.

[4] Ibid. Homeric Hymn Ærmís 496-502, Evelyn-White, p. 399.

[5] Πλούταρχος (Plutarch) Ἠθικά (The Morals) Περί Μουσικής (On Music) Section 14, trans. Benedict Einarson and Phillip H. De Lacy, 1967. Found in the volume entitled Plutarch's Moralia XIV, Loeb Classical Library 428, Harvard Univ. Press (Cambridge, MA) and William Heinemann (London), where this quotation may be found on pp. 383-385.

[6] Orphic Hymn 34
 Apóllohn lines 15-26, trans. by the author of this essay.

[7] Thomas Taylor in The Hymns of Orpheus, 1792, London England, printed for the author, pp. 162-164.

[8] Marcus Manilius Astronomica 324-330, trans. G. P. Goold, 1977, Loeb Classical Library 469, Harvard Univ. Press (Cambridge, MA) and William Heinemann (London), p. 31.

[9] Marcus Manilius Astronomica 324-330, trans. G. P. Goold, 1977, Loeb Classical Library 469, Harvard Univ. Press (Cambridge, MA) and William Heinemann (London), p. 327.

[10] (pseudo)-Hyginus Poeticon astronomicon 2.7.

 Found in The Orphic Poems by M. L. West, 1983, Clarendon Press - Oxford, where this quotation may be found on p. 30. Prof. West states that it is known from a scholium on Virgil discovered in a Paris manuscript in 1925 and regarding the quotation, he makes this reference: J. J. Savage, TAPA 56 (1925), 229 ff. Not in Kern.

[12] Cicero De Re Publica 6.18, trans. C. W. Keyes, 1928. We are using the 1977 edition, Loeb Classical Library 213, Harvard Univ. Press (Cambridge, MA) and William Heineman (London), where this quotation may be found on pp. 271-273.

The logo to the left is the principal symbol of this website. It is called the CESS logo, i.e. the Children of the Earth and the Starry Sky. The Pætilía (Petelia; Gr. Πετηλία) and other golden tablets having this phrase are the inspiration for the symbol. The image represents this idea: Earth (divisible substance) and the Sky (continuous substance) are the two kozmogonic substances. The twelve stars represent the Natural Laws, the dominions of the Olympian Gods. In front of these symbols is the seven-stringed kithára (cithara; Gr. κιθάρα), the lyre of Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων). It (here) represents the bond between Gods and mortals and is representative that we are the children of Orphéfs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς).

PLEASE NOTE: Throughout the pages of this website, you will find fascinating stories about our Gods. These narratives are known as mythology, the traditional stories of the Gods and Heroes. While these tales are great mystical vehicles containing transcendent truth, they are symbolic and should not be taken literally. A literal reading will frequently yield an erroneous result. The meaning of the myths is concealed in code. To understand them requires a key. For instance, when a God kills someone, this usually means a transformation of the soul to a higher level. Similarly, sexual union with a God is a transformation.

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.


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