Lyra constellation and the myth of Orpheus’ lyre: history of a musical instrument in the sky

lyra constellation and the myth of Orpheus
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Mario Friscia

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Lyra constellation: history of a musical instrument in the sky

If you are passionate about astronomy or astrology, you have surely heard and tried to recognize some of the most important constellations that animate the night sky such as the Big Dipper and the Orion Belt.

But have you ever wondered if there are constellations that depict musical instruments in the sky?

And if the answer is yes, have you ever thought about why a musical instrument can be considered by a given culture so important as to represent a constellation?

Well, today I want to surprise you by deepening in detail what we can define as the only example of a musical constellation.

I am referring to the constellation Lyra which is found in the northern sky and is one of the 48 constellations listed by Ptolemy, a 2nd century astronomer.

Lyra constellation
Photo by Alessandro Sandrucci CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What does Lyra Constellation represent? What is its history?

The constellation of Lyra gets its name from Lyre, a stringed musical instrument that enjoyed considerable diffusion in ancient Greece.

The Lyre is associated with the myth of Orpheus, a Greek poet and musician.

In this article I will explain the relationship between the constellation of Lyra, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the importance of the Lyre in Greek culture.

And not only that: you will find a whole series of interesting facts concerning this small but bright musical constellation.

Are you ready for this adventure?

Let’s start!


Orpheus’ lyre

According to one version of the myth, Orpheus was born in Thrace and was the son of Apollo, the god of the sun and the muse Calliope.

Apollo gave his son the lyre as a gift and taught him how to play it, while Calliope trained him in the art of poetry.

The lyre was built and given to Apollo by Hermes, who used a turtle carapace and seven strings of sheep’s gut, the same number as the Pleiades, namely the seven daughters of Atlas, immortalized in the sky by Zeus for their wisdom and to save them from the snares of the hunter Orion.

This photo will help you understand how the lyre is made:

Orpheus' lyre
Photo by Egisto Sani CC BY 2.0

It is believed that Hermes’ Lyre was the first to have been produced.

But why did Hermes give his Lyre to Apollo as a gift?

According to Greek mythology, Hermes gave the musical instrument to Apollo because he had stolen part of his cattle.

Apollo, angry and embittered by the incident, goes to Hermes with the intention of recovering what had been taken from him.

But as soon as he heard the enchanting sound of the lyre, he proposed the following deal: Hermes could keep the cattle for himself but had to give Apollo the instrument in exchange.

So in turn, Apollo, the Sun god, donated the lyre to Orpheus, who played it to accompany his songs.


The lyre and its magical powers

The music that flowed from Orpheus’ lyre was so beautiful that it was able to enchant every person and every inanimate thing.

It is said that the sound of his lyre, combined with the vocals of Orpheus, had the power of calming the ferocious animals, moving the stones, making the trees sway and also pacifying the tormented soul of men.

The myth of the constellation Lyra and Orpheus' lyre
Photo by Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0

The lyre of Orpheus, however, was not the only one to have “magical powers”.

There are also parallels with the lyre of Amphion which, according to the Greek myth, was also able to appease ferocious beasts and interact with objects.

In fact, thanks to the lyre, Amphion was able to drag the stones effortlessly from Mount Citrone and build the walls of Thebes.

To learn more about this myth, take a look at the dedicated article: “Amphion’s lyre: myth and musical iconography”.


The myth of Orpheus and the Argonauts

A further confirmation of the rebalancing power of Orpheus’ lyre can be found in the story of the expedition of the Argonauts.

Orpheus, on this occasion, gave numerous proofs of the invincible strength of his art by saving his companions on several occasions.

During the navigation, in fact, they heard the irresistible and bewitching chant of the Sirens and he managed to save the Argonauts by overpowering the Sirens’ singing with the sweet melodies produced by his instrument.

All this makes us reflect on the beauty of the sound of the lyre, but not only.

It makes us understand even better how the lyre was for the Greeks a symbol of balance, elevation of the soul and a luminous force capable of guiding man in his daily struggle against the dark forces and the chaos of nature.


What is the myth behind Constellation Lyra?

As I mentioned earlier, the myth behind the constellation of Lyra is connected to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.

According to the myth, Orpheus fell in love with the nymph Eurydice and asked her to marry him.

But their marriage was shrouded in tragedy, as on their wedding day the shepherd Aristeo decided to chase Eurydice to declare his love for her.

Eurydice, frightened and incredulous, did not waste a moment and fled, but in terror she did not realize that she had put her foot on a snake that killed her.

Orpheus, tormented by pain, began to play the lyre to move the gods, who suggested him to travel to the underworld and bring Eurydice back to life.

With the help of his lyre and sublime melodies Orpheus succeeded in moving Hades and his wife Persephon, who accepted his request of releasing Eurydice but with one condition:

Eurydice would have abandoned the underworld and would have come back to life only, and only if, Orpheus had resisted the temptation of turning back to look at his dear wife until they reached the light of the outside world.

orpheus brings eurydice out of the underworld
Photo by Lluís Ribes Mateu CC BY-NC 2.0

Unfortunately, Orpheus failed to meet the agreed condition and, before Eurydice took the last step towards the higher world, he turned to look at her.

The unstoppable desire to meet the gaze of his beloved woman took over and he found himself experiencing an unprecedented pain: he lost her twice and this time forever.

Defeated and discouraged for not having succeeded in his intent, Orpheus spent the rest of his life playing the lyre wandering through the fields and, although he was much coveted by other women, he decided to refuse the marriage proposals that were advanced to him.


The death of Orpheus: two versions of the myth

At this point we are faced with two different versions of the end of this myth.

According to the first version, belonging to Eratosthenes, Orpheus had a significant consideration towards Apollo, god of the sun, and neglected to perform sacrifices in honor of Dionysus.

It is known that Orpheus considered Apollo a supreme divinity and that he often waited for the dawn on Mount Pangeo in order to be the first to greet the Sun with his songs and melodies.

Dionysus, annoyed by this, did not accept his indifference and decided to send his followers to Orpheus to kill him and tear him to pieces.

The second version of the myth, however, belonging to Ovid, tells that it was the women (the Bacchantes), who had been repeatedly rejected by Orpheus, to kill him by throwing stones at him.

Bacchantes myth orpheus death
Photo by Wolf G. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

He tried to use his music in order to charm them and make them stop, but their noise got the better of the melody produced by Orpheus’ lyre.

So he was killed and his lyre was thrown into a river with the rest of his body.


Who put the lyre in the sky and why the choice went for this particular instrument?

One of the versions of the myth tells us that Zeus put Orpheus’ Lyre in heaven.

Many people are curious to know the relationship between the Lyra constellation and the Eagle Story.

This correlation is given by the fact that Zeus sent an eagle to take the lyre thrown along the river and then decide to place them both in the sky.

Lyra Constellation, Eagle and Lyre
Photo by Chaouki CC BY-SA 2.0

The Muses, on the other hand, collected the remains of Orpheus’ body to bury them under Mount Olympus.

And that’s how a musical instrument was depicted in the sky!

All this highlights the importance of this instrument for the Greeks.

In Greece, in fact, the art of playing the lyre was practiced by the aristocrats and was considered the best way to educate to good citizenship, because it allowed to combine instrumental music with the singing of poetic texts.

But above all, because sung poetry had the power to enlighten human minds, in contrast to the music produced by flutes and drums which was considered “transgressive”, wild and associated with dark forces.

This is why, among all the instruments that could be placed in the sky, the Greeks chose the Lyre.

And, at this point, it will most likely no longer surprise you to know that the Lyra Constellation contains Vega, the 5th brightest star in the sky and the second brightest in the Northern Hemisphere.

Vega Star in the lyra constellation
Photo by Stephen Rahn Public Domain

Vega was defined by astronomers as the most important star after the Sun and in Arabic it means “Eagle attacking“.

In this way the Greeks almost certainly wanted to convey a very clear message:

Just as Vega kept their nights bright, similarly Lyra illuminated human minds.


Some interesting facts about the symbolic meaning of the Lyra constellation

Previously I told you about the relationship between the constellation Lyra and the story of the eagle.

However, I want to explain another important aspect to you:

The Lyra constellation was depicted as an eagle holding the lyre of Orpheus in its wings or beak.

It was often called “Cadens” or “Vultur Cadens“, which literally means “Falling Eagle“.

Moving to Wales, however, the constellation Lyra is known as the Harp of King Arthur while in other cultures is called the Harp of King David.

Among the most important stars of the Lyra constellation, in addition to Vega, we also find “Sheliak”, from the Arabic “harp”.

Although many call the Lyra constellation the harp constellation, the two instruments are different from one another.

Here is an image depicting a harp:

lyra constellation harp
Photo by Gioconda Beekman CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In this picture you can see that while the lyre is built, as we have already said, from a turtle carapace and two animal horns, the harp is formed from a single stem of wood.

Another star contained in the Lyra is “Sulafat” which in Arabic means tortoise whose shell was used as a Lyre soundbox.

That said, another question many people ask themselves is:

What does Lyra mean in Astrology?

According to Ptolemy, the constellation Lyra has some characteristics in common with Venus and Mercury:

mental refinement, kindness and intelligence.

We find other astrological qualities attributed to this constellation, such as a poetic, harmonious nature and a strong inclination towards music.

Coincidentally, all these virtues reflect the figure of Orpheus.

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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