The Musical Lyre and its History

Greektown Chicago has a new outdoor art exhibition: My Painted Lyre: Seeing Music in Chicago’s Greektown. The twenty-six three-dimensional objects that will line Halsted Street for months to come are inspired by the lyre, one of the principle instruments of ancient music.

Considering that it was not possible to record sound until the middle of the 19th century, as you might imagine, there are some real challenges to studying ancient music. Nonetheless, as a result of the importance that music held in ancient Greek life, we can find a lot of information about ancient music in the records that do survive, including literature, philosophy, and visual art. For example, the earliest image of a lyre is found on a sarcophagus found at the Minoan site of Hagia Triada on Crete. The sarcophagus dates from the Mycenaean occupation of Crete. So it should come as little surprise that the first time we see the word lyre appear in ancient Greek it is in the Mycenaean Linear B script around 1400 B.C.E.

The word found in the Mycenean text means “lyrist,” meaning the instrument is named after the fact that the lyre was used to accompany the recitation of lyric poetry. This made the lyre an important and common feature of everyday Greek life. Consequently, the lyre also played an important role in Greek mythology, and various legends arose about the origins of the lyre. According to one legend, the lyre was the creation of the messenger god Hermes. One day, Hermes stole a sacred herd of cattle that belonged to Apollo, the god of art, music, and prophecy. Knowing that Apollo would come looking for his cattle, Hermes fitted the holy bovine with shoes that made it appear they were walking in the opposite direction. This made it impossible for Apollo to track the cows. Along the way, Hermes slaughtered one of the cows, offering all of the animal to the gods, except for its entrails. This was significant and particularly offensive to Apollo, because it is the entrails of an animal that are used in fortune-telling. However, Hermes had another idea for the entrails. Using the sacred cow’s intestines and a tortoise shell, he made the first lyre. When Apollo ultimately found Hermes, he was enraged. As Apollo moved toward him, Hermes began to play the lyre. So beautiful was its sound, Apollo’s rage subsided. In fact, he offered Hermes his sacred cows in return for this new, beautiful sounding instrument.

Thus the lyre became sacred to Apollo. And now its modern descendants will line the sidewalks of Halstead Street.

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