[about music] The Musical Heritage of Ancient Greece: Mythology and the lyre
(by Antonis Hatzinikolaou)

The Musical Heritage of Ancient Greece:
Mythology and the lyre

Music was one of the most important ways of expression in ancient Greek societies. Greek mythology glorifies the richness and variety of the Greek music and instruments in many legends. The surviving sources of mythology are literary reworkings of verbal traditions, complemented by interpretations of iconic imagery. Myths were the means for Greeks themselves to throw light on religious rituals and traditions that were no longer practiced. We can have an idea of the character and ethos of ancient Greek civilizations, through the readings of Homer and other great contemporary writers, and their interpretations of the mythology. This essay will look at the treasures of the musical heritage described in Greek mythology and other writings from ancient Greece. Within this, it will focus on the development of the lyre and the kithara as two of the most widely used instruments at the time.

Mythology and music
Greek mythology encompasses the collected narratives of Greek gods, goddesses, heroes, and heroines, initially created and spread through an oral-poetic tradition. In their various stories, legends, and hymns the gods are described as human in appearance, having their own personality, interests, and capabilities. According to mythology, the history of music in ancient Greece and the Aegean Sea begins with the birth of Zeus, father of all gods, and of Apollo, the god of music and light. Greek mythology places the birth of music and dance in the island of Crete (Lavdas, 1987). The legend describes the Curetes (people from Crete) dancing to the ruthless sound of clashing shields and cymbals to drawn the cries of the newborn Zeus, and to protect him from his father, the almighty Cronus, who eat greedily his own children. Zeus, first among the Olympian gods, fell in love with Leto, one of the many consorts of Zeus. The fury of Zeus’s wife Hera, pursued the pregnant Leto to find a refuge on a desolate rock, being eternally adrift on the sea. There, Leto gave birth to Apollo, the divinity who dominated the political and intellectual life of the Greek antiquity. Apollo became the god of music playing, with a golden lyre, and representing the light and truth. In return to the wrath of Hera, Zeus brought this isolated island at the midpoint of the Aegean, to a standstill, and named it Delos, Greek word for lambent (Tsakos, 1998).

Fig. 1 - Apollo playing lyre (GME, 1999)

 The famous Greek poet and Chief Librarian of the Alexandrian Library Callimachus (305 B.C. – 240 B.C.) describes in his book Aitia that all the sailors passing by Delos, had to stop and join in the songs, dances and sacrifices held around the altar of Zeus (Michaelides, 1978).  According to the Greek historian and essayist Plutarch (75 AC), even the legendary Theseus, king of Athens, who was sailing home from Crete joined with his companions in“(…) a dance which they say is still performed by the inhabitants of Delos, miming the twists and turns of the Labyrinth and danced in regular time with complicated variations. This sort of dance is called Crane (…)” (Lavdas, 1987, p.20). This dance is part of the tradition in many Greek islands of Aegean to date, though its form is slightly different from the ancient crane.
Another god closely associated with the Aegean music is Orpheus. He is considered as the greatest musician in Greek mythology, whose songs could charm the wild beasts, move rocks and trees, and freeze rivers (Headington, 1994). Orpheus, although originally from Thrace[1], took part in the famous Argonauts expedition[2] during the Trojan War, calming the sea and providing the rhythm to the oarsmen with his lyre. Apollonius of Rhodes (270 BC) describes in his book Argonautica how Orpheus with his divine melodies drowned the seductive songs of the Sirens, the mythical monsters, saving the Argonauts from a certain death. After Orpheus’ death, his head and his lyre were thrown into the Aegean by the Thracians and swept out to the island Lesvos by the current. According to the legend some fishermen found the lyre and gave it to the great 7th century Lesvian poet and musician Terpandros. This musician has been described as the link between myth and history since “he laid the conclusive foundations of Greek music and deserves the title of originator and founder” (Greek Ministry of Education, 1999).

Fig. 2 - Orpheus with a lyre

Ancient Greece and Musicians from the Aegean
The Aegean is the birthplace of most musicians, poets, and artists referred to by historians during Ancient Greece. This part of the essay will look at six of the most prominent personalities and their influence in the development of music and musical instruments throughout history. 
Three of the greatest names in lyric poetry were originally from the Island of Lesvos. Alcaeus (620-658 B.C.) was hymning love, good life, democracy and freedom with his lyre. He spent most of his life exiled in the island, for fighting tyranny with his poems and songs.
Another leading lyrical poet was Sappho (630-570 B.C.) who was described by Plato as the “10th Muse” (Lavdas, 1987). Due to her exceptional talent for poetry she was also called commonly “a female Homer”. Sappho introduced the plectrum into the playing of lyre for the first time and is also thought to be the creator of the mixolydian harmony.
The third legendary lyre performer and singer of the time was Arion (652 B.C.), who invented the dithyramb, a type of hymn that was sung for the praise of god Dionisus. He is frequently portrayed in archeological findings riding on the back of a dolphin. The great historian Herodotus (484 - 425 B.C.) described on his Anecdotes how while returning to Greece from a music competition in Sicely (Italy), where he had won the first prize, Arion fell into an ambush of pirats who stole his valuable presents and threatened to kill him. To win time, Arion asked to play a song with his lyre. His enchanting and magical abilities on the lyre managed to atract dolphins who saved his life when the pirats thrown him to the sea.

Fig. 3 Arion on a sea horse, as pictured by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1855)

 A further important musician from the Aegean is Archilochus (680-640 B.C.), born in the island of Paros. He was the first person who applied the Greek word “metre” in poetry and developed it. The metre wasnbased on patterns of short and long syllabus and used in the lyrics of a poem, marking the rhythm of the verse. Archilochus was also the first person who established the free accompanying of songs. He was opposed to the instrumental technique of doubling the melodies, very much in use until then, and gave to the musical performance a new width and function (S. Michaelides, 1978).
Lastly, Pythagoras (582 – 496 B.C.) and Aristoxenus (350 B.C.) are two important personalities that held opposite but crucial opinions and theories related to music, that influenced musical thinking up to today. Pythagoras was a great philosopher and mathematician. He defined and defended with his renowned theories, related to music and acoustics, the scientific basis of music. He found the relation between the intervals and the length of strings practicing on an instrument of his own invention called “monochord”. Greeks began to write songs based on these scales and the small lyre harp was ideally suited to play songs in these scales. For Pythagoras, music was a science based on mathematics. He supported that its essence was the numbers and that its beauty and expression were hiding behind the harmonic relationship of numbers. Pythagoras was the first one who used the music with students in order to develop their ethical and spiritual renaissance (G.M.E 1999).
Aristoxenous was the most important theoretician musician in Greece during the 4th century. Although his origins were from Italy he studied with the Pythagorians and later on with Aristotle. He wrote books about harmony and rhythm. Opposite to Pythagoras, he believed that the music is far more than a science based on mathematics. He spoke about aesthetics and emotions in music. For him good music should be based on the “hearing sense” and “intelligence” rather than the mathematical relationships of the notes (Headington, 1993).
The rich musical life of the Aegean can be found in many archeological findings, from vases, paintings, and mosaics to written sources such as mythological accounts. An interesting sarcophagus from the Minoan Period (3000-1400 B.C.) was discovered in Aghia Triada (Crete) represents the oldest illustration of the seven string lyre and double flute accompanying a ritual. Another example is the famous Cycladic figurines of the harpist and flutist dated back to the Bronze Age found in the island of Keros.

Fig. 5 - Cycladic Harp Player from the island of Keros (2500 – 3000 B.C.)

Another significant finding is a vase also discovered in Aghia Triada dated to 1550 B.C. The scene on the vase illustrates a band of reapers dancing and singing to a measure provided by the seistron, which was a type of rattle. This scene brings to mind the beautiful descriptions of Homer in Iliad: “Amorous youths and maidens danced with their hand on one another wrists…among the was an inspired minstrel singing to and playing his lyre while a pile of acrobats ,keeping time to the music, were twisting and tumbling in their midst” (Homer, Iliad, lines 569). From Homer’s poetry to the testimonies of Herodotus, from folk legends to mythology, Greece’s journey through time has been an expanse of sea resonant with sounds and musical movements since the dawn of its history. The lyre has been an important component of this fascinating journey. The next section of the essay will provide a closer look at its use and development.

Lyre and Kithara: from myth to reality
There were four main string instruments in Ancient Greece: barbitos, phorminx, lyre and kithara. Although belonging to the same family, each instrument varied in shape, size, resonance, and pitch. The lyre and the kithara were more frequently used and are represented in many archeological findings and ancient scripts. Both instruments share a mythological origin but have slightly different historical development.
Greek mythology places Hermes and Orpheus among the inventors of the lyre. Homer in his Hymn to Hermes describes the construction of the first lyre from Hermes, who lived on the mountain Kellini. For the construction of the instrument Hermes used a large tortoise shell (khelus) for the body and bull intestines for the strings. In other descriptions, the lyre is found to be used, most commonly, by the aristocratic society and was connected with the worship of the god Apollo, making it a highly respected instrument. Apollo is the divinity that according to mythology improved the lyre developing the kithara (Lavdas 1987).

Fig. 6 -  Muse playing lyre - Greek vase. Collection: Munich, Antikensammlungen. Dated: 445 BC

 The lyre had a sound chest made of a tortoise shell which was covered by a leather membrane for soundboard. From this sound chest raised two hollow arms made from deer horns and could bend both outward and forward. They were connected to their upper part by a small piece of wood called zygos and on their lower part with a similar piece of wood (something like the modern bridge), which transmitted the vibrations of the strings to the body. This type of construction made the lyre to produce a thin, meager and intimate sound which forced the musicians to perform only in small concert halls. The lyre was held sideways the performer’s body, and could be played with both plectrum and fingers. The most important role the lyre had was to accompany the recite of the Epic poetry. Therefore, the Epic poetry took the instrument’s name and changed to lyrical poetry due to the use of the lyre.
The other popular instrument was the kithara, also spelled cithara. The main deference in its construction from the lyre was the shape of the body. The kithara was a seven-stringed lyre with a bigger size and plane wooden body. It produced richer and deeper sounds than the simpler lyre and it could be played in the open air. Strings of gut or sinew were stretched from a holder at the base of the instrument over a bridge to the crossbar that joined the two sidepieces. The kithara with its large sound box was more appropriate for virtuoso display. Kithara was played by professional musicians called “kitharodes”, thus, it was considered a more masculine instrument (Nef, 1985). During performances, the instrument lied in the musician's shoulder, and was hold by a sling that wrapped around the left wrist. The musician could control pitch by the tension and, possibly, thickness of the strings. By the end of the seventh century B.C., the kithara found a major niche in Greek public recitals.

Fig. 4 – Apollo Kithara. Attic red figure amphora. 500-475 B.C. Archeological museum, Athens.

The lyre, kithara, and similar instruments were used to accompany and to produce background music for singers and poets in Ancient Greece. These instruments became part of the folk expression of ancient Greece. From the exceptional musicians of the Aegean and from the Phoenicians these string instruments spread throughout the empire from the Black Sea to Thrace, and from Mediterranean to Spain and Central Europe. Hundreds of years later these instruments were innovated by different generations and slowly developed into various shapes and names such as: guitar, chitarra, vihuela, kithara, lyre, pandora, kinnor, psalter, kinnaret, nabla,etc. The lyre and the kithara are both considered among the ancestors of the modern harp and guitar.

Summary and Conclusions
This essay has analysed the role of music and musicians in Ancient Greece. First, a description of myths and gods linked to the development of music was presented. Zeus, Apollo, Hermes and Orpheus, are all divinities closely associated to the development of rhythms, songs, instruments, and musical festivals according to Greek mythology. Legends, myths and history at times are difficult to distinguish, if they are not the same entity. It is probably not a coincidence that myths describing the birth of music and the God of music are connected to the Aegean Sea and its islands, birthplace of great musicians. Second, some of the most legendary lyre performers, poets, and scientists from the Aegean were mentioned. They developed musical theories, hymns, and scales that influenced musical thinking and performing ever since. In a preliterate society, musicians played an important role not only as entertainers but also as storytellers who propagated myth and folklore through songs. Some archeological findings and historical accounts supporting the existence these musicians and theoreticians were also discussed. Finally, the use and development of the instruments that allowed these musical developments, the lyre and the kithara, were discussed. Once again, myth and reality merge to provide a fascinating account of the origins of music.

Antonis Hatzinikolaou
antonis@tar.gr ( mailto:antonis@tar.gr )

February 2007


  1. Apollonius of Rhodes (Apollonius Rhodius) 270 BC Argonautica. 2004 Athens: ΑΚΑΔΗΜΙΑ ΑΘΗΝΩΝ ( http://www.books.gr/SearchTableLookup.aspx?TableId=57&val=9589 ).
  2. Barker, A.D. (1978) Music and perception: A study in Aristoxenus. Journal of Hellenic studies. VOLUME 98  
  3. Headington, C. (1994) History of Western music. Athens: GUTENBERG.
  4. Herodotus(5th Century) Eight novels and four anecdotes. 2001 Athens: Agras.  
  5. Homer. Iliad.  2002, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
  6. Lavdas, L. (1987) Music in the Aegean. Athens: Ministry of culture- ministry of the Aegean.
  7. Lippman, E. A. (1964) Musical thought in ancient Greece. New York: Columbia University Press.
  8. Michaelides, S. (1978) The music of ancient Greece. An Encyclopaedia, London: Faber and Faber.
  9. Ministry of education of Greece, 1999 Music through its history. Athens: Organization of publishing didactic books.
  10. Nef, K. (1945) History of music. Athens: N.Botsis.
  11. Tsakos, K. (1998) Delos- Mykonos, Historical and arheological guide. Athens: Esperos.
  12. Εκμεκστόγλου, Χ. (1985) Ιστορία της κιθάρας απο την αρχαιότητα μέχρι σήμερaΑθήνα :Εκδόσεις Γαιτάνου.
  13. Πλούταρχος (Plutarch), (75 A.C.) Θησεύς Ρώμηλος 56. Theseus – Rumulus. 1992, Athens: Κάκτος.

[1] Thrace is an area in southeast Europe extended over southern Bulgaria, northeastern Greece, and Turkey. Thrace borders on three seas: the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

[2] In Greek mythology, the Argonauts were a band of heroes who, in the years before the Trojan War, accompanied Jason to Colchis in his quest for the Golden Fleece.