According to the Myth (Homeric Hymn unto Hermes), Hermes secretly stole the oxen which were guarded by Apollo. Outside the cave wherein the oxen were hidden, he stumbled upon the shell of a dead tortoise and noticed that through it the sound gets amplified. So he made the first Lyra by adapting leather and strings out of oxen intestine upon the tortoise shell. In order to appease the wrath of Apollo he gave the Lyra to him as a gift and Apollo got bewitched by its sound.
Also Orpheus’s Lyra, the “magic phorminx”, was something like a seven-string guitar and there are dozens of stories regarding its “mystic” power as well as Orpheus’s voice influence. According to them, the magic of his music and his song tamed wild animals and moved “trees and rocks” which ran after him to listen to his divine melody!
According to some others, the “unexplained” power of the orphic music is attributed to the “superhuman” and metaphysical dimension of Orpheus. The descriptions of people, gods, animals and plants and even rocks approaching towards the sound if his Lyra, led to the conclusion that Orpheus was Sun itself, which made all living beings turn towards his light.
The Myth says that after Orpheus’s death the Gods took his magic Lyra with them and put it upon the sky for it to sing to them.
Lyra or “Chelys” was the national instrument of the Ancient Greeks. It was closely connected with Apollo’s cult and thus it was surrounded by great respect. We find the first evidence of Lyras in the Pylos palace and in Crete (1400 BC). It was the musical instrument of the Saga, of the calm cosmotheory and the musical instrument of God Apollo.
For the Ancient Greeks, Lyra was present in many social ceremonies, especially indoor ones and symposia and, unlike ancient guitar (Citharis) which was played only by professional musicians, Lyra was played mostly by non-professionals. It is the only musical instrument whose evidence we find in the Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations, while in the classical era it is the main instrument, along with the flute. Actually it was an instrument of great prestige. From ancient Greek texts, like “Thesmophoriazusae” by Aristophanes or the Homeric Hymns, we conclude that Chelys was played mostly by men (it was the instrument whichupon the youngsters learned music) and it accompanied human voice as it was not the central instrument in a musical performance.
The ancient Greek instrument possessed a resonator made by tortoise shell, covered by oxen leather. Two wooden arms, the cubits, were riveted upon the resonator. These arms, on their top, were connected with each other via another arm, the “zygos”. The upper ends of the strings were tied upon zygos with keys, the “collopes”. The lower ends of the strings were riveted upon the lower part of the resonator, via a metallic part, the “chordotonon”. Chelys had 7 strings, but there are sources which indicate more than 7 strings. The strings were made by sheep intestine and were put in an ascending order regarding the frequency, with the string of the lower tonic height to be the closest to the player. The vibrations of the strings were transmitted to the resonator through a wooden bridge (magas), whose lower part was totally tangent with the leather. Even though there is no written evidence regarding the existence of internal reinforcement of the instrument so that the shell could withstand the pressure applied to it by the leather, the specialists insist that this role was played by a piece of wood, the “donax”. Finally, the cueing of the strings was being made with a key.
Especially it is worth mentioning that it was an instrument used in the Asclepieia because it could produce a specific frequency which via the “chiliosphaerae” (see the Pythagorean law of spheres) enter the acoustic nerve and thence they get diffused into the whole body and the brain. With their reverberative action, neurons which are asleep and are responsible for the cure of the whole organism, awaken.
The “therapeutic music of Asclepieia” was used in the Ancient Greek Asclepieia as a cure or part of the cure of the patients.
Two arms (cubits) are riveted upon a resonator from tortoise shell or wood. Zygos is stretched vertically at the upper part of the cubits. The strings of equal length are constructed by twisted and dried intestines, nerves or flax. They are based upon a point (chordotonion) upon the sound-box, pass over a rider (magadion) and on top they twirl around zygos with a key system, the collopes or collabs, which helped the tuning. The strings initially were 3, then 4, 5 and 7 while during the “new music” era they reached 12. Lyras were played with the right hand, with the fingers or with a “key” made by horn, wood, bone or metal. The left hand helped by playing single strings, pressing them or fading the sound out. The strings had specific names which were the names of the phthongs. There are many types of Lyras with different names: phorminx (the most ancient Lyra), citharis or cithara, lyra, chelys (=tortoise), varvitos (with long cubits). These terms are often confused with each other.
The strings of the Ancient Lyra had specific names which related with the planets and corresponded to specific notes.
Lichanos or Hypermese
According to the Dorian harmony, which is considered the basic Greek harmony, we have the following tuning for Lyra: Ε, F, G, Α, Β, C and D. That’s the most basic. Thenceforth, some other harmonies are:
- Hypodorian: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
- Frygian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
- Hypofrygian G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
- Lydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
- Hypolydian: F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
- Mixolydian: B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B
Materials of Construction
The specific Lyra is an exact replica of the Ancient Greek Lyra “Chelys”, according to ancient sources. All materials used are natural and worked by hand. It is 100% hand-made. The sound-box (ηχείον) is made of real tortoise shell, the pecheis (πήχεις) by goat horns, the chordotonion (χορδοτόνιον), the magadion (μαγάδιον), the zygos (ζυγός) as well as the collopes (κόλλοπες) are made of beech wood and iroko. The sound-box membrane is made of processed goat skin. Only the strings are made of nylon and not of natural intestine, in order to make tuning easier.
The case is also hand-made and consists of thick carton, plasticized fabric, metal nails, supports and clips, leather grip and it is internally coated with insulating material for the protection of the instrument.