Page images




Traditional Origin of the Lyre-The Tortoise in Asia and America -The Search for Osiris-Transferred to Orpheus-Same Myth in Mexico and Peru-The Lyre in South and West Africa-The Bent Bow the Precursor of the Harp-Egyptian and Assyrian Harps-Old Irish Harp-Semitic Lyre-The Lyre of Apollo-The Shell of the Tortoise imitated in Gourds

The Plectrum in the East-The Vina, or Bina-Strings of the Lyre vary in Number-Pythagorean Lyre-The Three Measures-The Story of Orpheus-Introduced into Britain by the Romans-Tesselated Pavements-Diodorus Siculus and Stonehenge-Sun Dances-Merlin and Amphion-Aldhelm and his Harp-Nero-Troubadours.

"Now strike the golden lyre again,

A louder yet, and yet a louder strain;
Break his bands of sleep asunder,

And rouse him like a rattling peal of thunder."

IN these lines Dryden commemorates the effect of the music of Timotheus upon Alexander the Great, as recounted by Dion Chrysostom, Plutarch, and others; for that monarch seems to have been peculiarly susceptible to the charms of music; and Rollin relates that "Antigenides the flutenist, at a banquet, fired that prince in such a manner, that, rising from the table like one out of his senses, he catched up his arms, and clashing them to the sound of the flute, was almost ready to charge the guests." But Timotheus, the great poet and musician of the court of Philip of Macedon, could hardly have influenced Alexander, since he died

about the time of the birth of that monarch; he was, however, celebrated as the perfecter of the lyre, to which he added four strings.

The mythical history of this instrument, and the power attributed to it, is both curious and interesting. We are told that Hermes, the Prime Minister of Osiris, walking on the banks of the Nile after the inundation, struck his foot against a dead tortoise, dessicated by the sun, and retaining only the sinews and cartilages, which, braced and contracted by the heat, became sonorous, and emitted a musical sound when struck, suggesting to him the idea of forming a musical instrument of the same materials. This legend, somewhat altered, appears in the tale of Homer, the invention being assigned by him to the Greek Mercury; who, having stolen some bulls from Apollo, and hidden them in a cave, and having there found a tortoise and perhaps eaten it, amused himself by stretching across the shell thongs from the hides of the bulls he had stolen, and having thus discovered the musical properties of cords thus stretched over a resonant shell, improved the instrument by adding to it the horns of the bulls, and afterwards presented the lyre thus formed to Apollo, as a peace-offering and indemnification for the theft he had committed.

The early lyre certainly consisted of the shell of a tortoise, and the twisted horns of an antelope, with a piece of wood inserted between them, to which the strings were fastened; and so much importance was attached to the use of the tortoise-shell, that when wood was substituted for it, the wood was carved to represent the shell. This use of the shell of the tortoise is significant, for the tortoise is a sacred animal, both in the Eastern and Western hemispheres; and is not only connected with the flood legends of America, but Tezcatlipoca, the Mexican god of music, who ranked next to the Supreme Deity, is said to have brought music from heaven on a bridge of whales and turtles; and although this could scarcely have had any reference to the lyre, which was apparently unknown in Mexico,

the myth is peculiarly interesting from the traces which are found, both there and in Peru, of that widely-spread legend concerning the search for the body of Osiris, which in Greece was transferred to Orpheus, and which is thus alluded to by Milton

"What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself, for her enchanting son,
Whom universal Nature did lament,

When by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His gory visage down the stream was sent,

Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?"1

In Mexico, the search was for the body of Quetzalcoatl; in Peru, for one of the Incas; but the myth is evidently the same in origin, and like the various Deluge legends must have been derived from some common source.

Doubtless stringed instruments may have been invented in many different places independently; and in fact there are many known, which would seem to have no connection with the traditional lyre. The most simple of these is one found in South and West Africa, which consists of a bow, tightly strung with a sinew from the back of some wild animal of the goat or deer kind, to one end of which is tied a hollow gourd, which acts as a sounding-board. On the West Coast of Africa the gourd is sometimes replaced by a human skull, doubtless the ghastly record of some slaughtered enemy. This rude instrument would seem to be the precursor of the harp, which, perhaps of all musical instruments, is that which has passed through the greatest variety of form, as may be seen by a reference to the Egyptian and Assyrian sculptures and paintings. In most of these, especially in Egypt, the form of the bent bow is distinctly traceable, and it is a curious fact that in very many of them a human head adorns one of the ends, which ornament was also conspicuous on the old Irish harp, being probably a survival from a time when the harp was simply a strung bow with the skull of a slaughtered enemy as a sounding-board, like that of West Africa.

1 Lycidas.

The variety of size and form of Egyptian stringed instruments is surprising; harps, lutes, lyres, tambouras resembling guitars, instruments triangular, oblong and square, with or without stands, but all apparently played with the hand only. Mr. Rowbotham says the number of strings on the great Egyptian harps ranged from ten to eighteen, and on the smaller harps from four to twenty-one, whilst the lute had three or four strings, and the lyre from four to twenty-two. Perhaps the number of strings may not be very accurately delineated, but on many of the instruments they are very numerous. The full Egyptian orchestra, we are told, consisted of twenty harps, eight lutes, five or six lyres, six or seven double pipes, five or six flutes, one or two pipes, two or three tambourines; whilst Athenæus says, that of the six hundred performers composing the royal orchestra of Ptolemy Philadelphus, half were players of stringed instruments, thirty being harpers. It will be noticed that in this enumeration of the instruments of the Egyptian orchestra, the drum is omitted, and the same may be remarked of the Hebrew instruments in the days of David; and indeed we do not remember that the drum is even mentioned in the Bible, but it was certainly used in Egypt and Assyria.

Mr. Rowbotham believes that the lyre was of Semitic invention, and was introduced into Egypt by the Semitic shepherds. He says "A son of Chunmpotep, an Egyptian grandee, had need of some paint to paint his eyes with, which was only to be obtained in a certain region of Palestine, and a family of Semites set off with a supply of the paint, and one of them being a musician, brought his instrument with him, and the Egyptians, who knew only harps and lutes, were for the first time gratified with the sight of a real lyre. This Semitic lyre was merely a battered old square board, of which the top part was hollowed out into a kind of gibbous frame, on which seven strings were strung."


We do not know where Mr. Rowbotham found this 1 Rowbotham's Hist. of Music.

story, but there is a figure on a tomb at Beni-Hassan generally supposed to represent a Hebrew, and possibly one of the sons of Jacob, holding a rude lyre, which may perhaps be the one referred to by Mr. Rowbotham, who adds" By the time of the departure of the Shepherds, i. e. at the beginning of the 18th Dynasty, this lyre had become a recognized component of the Egyptian orchestra, although much improved, with ten to twenty-two strings." It is certain that the Egyptians had a great many lyres, and one of them may certainly have been copied from that in the hand of the Semite on the tomb of Beni-Hassan; but we doubt whether this was the earliest known in Egypt, especially when we remember the legend which assigns its invention to Hermes, the Prime Minister of Osiris, respecting which there is an amusing note in Burney's History of Music"The bestowing these inventions upon their divinities by the Pagans is abundantly sufficient, says the Bishop of Gloucester, to prove their high antiquity; for the ancients gave nothing to the gods of whose origin they had any record; but where the memory of the invention was lost, as of seed-corn, wine, writing, music, &c.; then the gods seized the property by that kind of right which gives strays to the lord of the manor." 1

The well-known form of the lyre of Apollo does not appear to have been that of the Egyptian lyre, although some of those depicted have horns attached; but a memory of the original legend seems to linger in Tigré, where the people say they used to procure tortoise-shells from the Red Sea for their lyres, until driven from the coast, and they now supply the place of the shell with a particular kind of gourd, very hard and thin in the bark, which they still carve with a knife into squares and compartments representing the shell of the tortoise. And Bruce tells

1 Burney's Hist. of Music, p. 354, note.

2 I have heard of a peculiar stringed instrument formed of a long, bottle-shaped gourd, to which four strings were attached; this instrument belonged to a Koranna Hottentot woman at the Cape, and was played lying flat across her knees with the hand, but whence she obtained it is not known. The lady, my informant, who saw and heard it, says the owner was very reluctant to show

« PreviousContinue »