The History of the Lyre

What is a lyre?

Lyre (from Gr. λύρα, lyra, Lat. lyra, Ger. Leier, Fr. lyre) is used today as an organological term for a stringed instrument with a box- or bowl-shaped body and two arms extending in the same plane as the sound board, joined at the top with a yoke (…) (Stauder 1977: 396).

Historical development

The lyre is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world.  The earliest lyre discovered so far is from the Royal Cemetery of Ur (in modern-day Iraq), dating to 2500 B.C.

ancient greek musicians

The lyre was an important instrument in the classical world, and included several variations such as the larger Cithara (it was the cithara that the emperor Nero was infamous for playing very badly), and the small Chelyx, whose bowl was made from a tortoise shell.

There are illustrations of lyre players from ancient Greece going back as far as the Bronze Age (the earliest is from around 2000 B.C.).  These instruments usually had between five and seven strings, although references exist to lyres with as many as thirteen strings, and as few as three.

Dark Age Crafts uses the term “North European Lyre” as a broad way of referring to the lyres played by the peoples of northern Europe, including the British Isles, Scandinavia and the north-western region of continental Europe.  This includes the lyres played by the “Celtic” clans of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as the Anglo Saxons and Danes, all of which are very similar in their construction.  There are differences between these instruments and those lyres found in southern European countries and further afield, the main characteristics being that the bodies were hollowed out from a single block of wood, and had between five and eight strings.

To date, twenty six examples of such lyres have been discovered, from sites in England, France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, dating from the 5th to 13th centuries.

The lyre was one of the main forms of entertainment for the people of northern Europe, and the earliest evidence of them discovered so far is from the fifth century B.C. (a fragment of a lyre bridge found in a cave on the Isle of Skye).

In Old English (Anglo Saxon) the lyre was called a hearpe, a term which was only later applied to the larger triangular instruments we call harps today.

“Ðǽr was hearpan swég” (there was the sound of the harp”) – Beowulf

Very similar looking instruments are depicted in illustrations from all over the northern European region from the Iron Age until the thirteenth century.

david

An Anglo Saxon depiction of the biblical King David playing the lyre.

After this time, it is assumed that the playing of the lyre must have died out, having been replaced by the forerunner of the modern harp.  The term “lyre” continued to be used interchangeably with “harp”, especially in Ireland and Scotland.

The Welsh Cruit, a type of bowed lyre, is the only descendant of the lyre still played in the British Isles.

What kind of people played the north European lyre?

From the archeological evidence discovered so far, it is not possible to distinguish any single social group to with whom the lyre was primarily associated, it seems to have been played by a variety of people in medieval society, including warriors and nobility of the Dark Age/early Medieval period, clergymen, professional musician/storytellers (known as Scops in Anglo Saxon England, or Skalds in Scandinavia), as well as members of the lower classes.  High status individuals including royalty seem to be common in the earlier centuries (5th to 9th), but after the 10th century, the instrument seems to have fallen out of favour with the upper classes and been largely played by less affluent people.