The lyre [in Greek: λύρα, lýra] is a string instrument known for its use in Greek classical antiquity and later periods. The lyre is similar in appearance to a small harp but with distinct differences. In organology, lyres are defined as “yoke lutes”; being lutes whose strings are attached to a yoke.

The concept of the design lies in body aligned to the frame built from two extending shafts held together by a bar on the same planar angle as the yoke [body].  Such instruments are found throughout Kenya [Nyatiti], Ethiopia [krar], Somalia, Sudan in the middle east including the Bedouin.

In Ancient Greece, recitations of lyric poetry were accompanied by lyre playing. The earliest picture of a lyre with seven strings appears in the famous sarcophagus of Hagia Triada [a Minoan settlement in Crete]. The sarcophagus was used during the Mycenaean occupation of Crete [c. 1400 BC].

The lyre of classical antiquity was ordinarily played by being strummed with a plectrum [pick], like a guitar or a zither, rather than being plucked with the fingers as with a harp. The fingers of the free hand silenced the unwanted strings in the chord. Later instruments, also called lyres, were played with a bow in Europe and parts of the Middle East, namely the Byzantine lyra and its descendants.

Begena, Ethiopia @ Horniman Museum London, UK.

Etymology: The earliest reference to the word is the Mycenaean Greek ru-ra-ta-e, meaning lyrists and written in the Linear B script. In classical Greek, the word lyre could either refer specifically to an amateur instrument, which is a smaller version of the professional cithara and eastern-Aegean barbiton, or lyre can refer generally to all three instruments as a family.

The English word comes via Latin from the Greek. The term is also used metaphorically to refer to the work or skill of a poet, as in Shelley’s “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is” or Byron’s “I wish to tune my quivering lyre, / To deeds of fame, and notes of fire”.

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