The Lyre

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE LYRE


 Number, fitting all things into the soul through sense-perception, makes them recognizable and comparable with one another. . . . You may see the nature of Number and its power at work not only in supernatural and divine existences but also in all human activities and words everywhere, both throughout all technical production and also in music.

Philolaus Of Tarentum

 Their paths converging at the entrance to a gently sloping ravine, two men together began the descent to the undulating plain below. Their strides were steady and they moved abreast and behind one another as the rocky terrain would allow. There seemed to be an urgency in their steps answering to something which drew them forward, which even now could be heard floating up the sides of the hills. "Friend," the elder addressed the younger, "my soul's own melody bids my feet to fly into its presence, and I can see by the rapture stamped upon thy face that thou art likewise called." "Yes," answered the other, "I too hear this divine strain. Its first notes reached my ears up yonder in the olive grove, erasing from my mind all thoughts of why I was there and filling me with the desire to find its sweet source." The older man noted the youth's intent expression with sympathy and urged that they should press on until they located the fount from which such celestial song had sprung. "It is not many who hear the music of the spheres, whose ears are thus blest and whose hearts are filled with the promise of encountering a divine presence. Let us hurry to what must be a veritable god of melody that we may resonate more closely with the strings of his heavenly lyre."

 The two men emerged from the ravine onto a curving meadow festooned with a line of aged oak trees and became witnesses of an extraordinary scene. Upon a granite outcrop surrounded by a sea of waving grass sat a man so beautiful of mind and so gracefully postured that in his shape the sculptured lines of Nature's growth seemed to exult. Cradled in his perfectly formed arms, a lyre bowed and scintillated as he lightly strummed its silver strings. His voice rose with sweetly mournful power, perfectly tuned to the instrument's pristine tones and cadence. It filled the dancing meadow and coaxed the very trees into swaying and dipping their ancient boughs in empathetic rhythm. The men stood rooted to the spot at the edge of the meadow where they had paused, their souls suffused with the divine melody. That they were in the presence of Orpheus, son of Apollo, they knew, for no other being, god or mortal, could wield such musical magic as that which they saw enacted before them. So poignantly vibrated the strains of his melody, and his face seemed to register all the wild beauty of love barely shadowed by its not quite apprehended loss, that the older and more learned of the two men marked this near-tragic expression and was moved to tell his companion of its cause.

  In seasons previous, it seemed, this fair son of the muse Calliope and the great god Apollo had wooed and won the lovely dryad Eurydice by the charm of his heavenly lyre. As fate would have it, the new bride, wandering in a meadow, was killed by the bite of a poisonous serpent. The bard wept forth his lament to the breezes of the upper world and dared to descend to the cave at Taenaron, where the river Styx marks the passage into the underworld. In search of his beloved, he ventured past ghostly throngs of the dead and approached Persephone and her lord where they ruled their shadowed realm. Before them he bowed and, plucking his melodious lyre, made his impassioned plea. His eloquent words floated about them in purest tones. Even the shades quivered with their power and the bloodless spirits wept. The cheeks of the Eumenides were moist with tears as they were overcome by his song, and Hades himself could not refuse his pleas. "Then it was", the story-teller continued, his tone deepening with feeling, "that the tragedy occurred. Orpheus was given permission to lead Eurydice out of the underworld to a new life but was warned not to look back at her before they were both safely in the upper world." The old man sadly shook his head. "It was love that turned his head when she stumbled along the path and love that looked upon her face as she was drawn inexorably back into the realm of death. He heard her utter a farewell as she disappeared, leaving him stunned with grief and stricken dumb for days. Then he began to roam the mountains and valleys of our Thracian countryside, wailing his wild songs of love and shunning all women attracted by the irresistible strains. It is thus, my friend, that we are privileged to hear his music now."

  After the tale had been told, the two men stood in reverential silence, listening and feeling themselves transported to a realm of immortal longing and beauty. It was only gradually that they became aware of the encroachment upon this idyllic scene of a band of rough-clothed women brandishing their sense of rebuffed passion for the glorious bard in the form of menacing gestures and snarling epithets. With disgust and dread, the onlookers watched while the wild-haired band approached the musician and began to hurl stones and branches and rough implements of the field. At first the hurtled weapons were overcome by the magical harmony of his lyre and voice. They fell at his feet like suppliants begging for forgiveness. But the clamour grew, the shrieks, the horns and drums and hateful chanting of the angry maenads drowned out the sound of Orpheus' lyre, and the stones and other weapons, unhearing, grew red with the poet's blood. The men, who moments before had basked in the enchantment of his song, now watched in horror as he was pounded and torn apart. They saw his lyre fall away from his crippled grasp, as his soul streamed forth to meet the winds on the breath of his silenced voice.

 For you, O Orpheus, for you the trees let fall their leaves and shorn of foliage made lament. They say, too, that rivers swelled with their own tears, and the Naiads and Dryads changed their robes to black and wore their hair dishevelled. His limbs He scattered in various places; his head and lyre you got, O river Hebrus; and - O wonder - while they floated in midstream, the lyre made some plaintive lamentation, I know not what; the lifeless tongue murmured laments too, and the banks lamented in reply. And they left his native Thracian river and were carried out to sea. , . . The shade of Orpheus went down below the earth and recognized all the places he had seen before; he looked amidst the fields of the pious and found Eurydice, and clasped her in his eager arms.

Ovid

  The magical power of Orpheus' instrument was shared by other members of the Hellenic theogony. It was considered an attribute of Apollo, Erato, Aeolus and Harmonia, and believed to have been invented by Apollo's enigmatic and divinely creative brother, Hermes, who was inspired with the idea one day as he happened upon an obliging tortoise. Using the willing animal's carapace, Hermes ingeniously stretched across its underside the hide of an ox, and fixed to its sides two horns that curved upward to support a bridge from which seven strings were stretched. When struck, the lyre produced the sweetest of tones, delighting its creator and making him loath to hand it over to Apollo under the instructions of their father, Zeus. But Hermes had mischievously stolen his brother's cows and was forced by a powerfully ruling parent to compensate with the gift of his heavenly creation. Apollo made the lyre his own. He mastered it and made it his attribute. Through it he expressed all the powers of divine reason and the rhythm of discipline of instinctual animal life.

 Apollo's lyre, so majestically immortalized in marble by Praxiteles, had seven strings, each tuned separately upon its own roller. On each roller a small peg projected, around which the string was looped. By turning the roller, one could raise the pitch, and it was fixed by slipping the end of the notched roller onto a fastened piece of wood of corresponding shape. This represented certain sophistications over the creation of Hermes, but even later designs continued to suggest the shape of a tortoise's carapace. Choric song, so prominently discussed by Plato in Laws, required an instrument with stronger tonal carrying power, encouraging the adoption of the kithara form of lyre, said to have been introduced by Terpander, a seventh-century poet from Lesbos. Though of Oriental origin, the kithara, as well as Hermes' lyre, was firmly fixed in Apollo's province, unlike the four-stringed Asiatic phorminx referred to by Homer, or the barbitos associated with Dionysus. In general, the Oriental influence emphasized unreason and ecstasy, and the aulos (or flute) came to be regarded as its chief musical expression. Thus, in its pristine usage, the lyre was seen as an instrument of refinement, intellectual triumph and harmonic purity.

  The lyre is the symbol par excellence of the harmonious union of cosmic forces. It represents, with its basic seven strings, an underlying numerical harmony of the universe echoed by the seven planetary spheres. Pythagoras taught that at the centre of all Unity was the source of harmony, the Logos which is no number. But the world was called forth by sound or harmony and constructed according to musical proportion. He believed that the distance between the moon and the earth was one tone; between the moon and Mercury, one-half tone; thence to Venus, one-half tone; Venus to the sun, one and one-half tones; the sun to Mars, one tone; thence to Jupiter, one-half tone; Jupiter to Saturn, one-half tone; and thence one tone to the zodiac. Philolaus of Tarentum, speaking of this later, pointed out the evidence for these harmonic relationships in what the soul could recognize through the senses in human activities, technical productions and especially through music.

 Both cosmic and microcosmic aspects of harmony are suggested by the etymological roots of the word. According to the oldest evidence in Greek, ή άρμουία (harmonia) referred to a joining, a fastening together (of a ship's planks, for instance), a covenant, agreement, settled governmental order or, simply, a concord of sounds. Originally, it is said, Harmonia was a mythical personage. According to Boeotian tradition, she was the daughter of Ares (War) and Aphrodite (Love), a duality which could be said to be blended in harmony. From her lineage sprang the royal founders of the city of Thebes, whose walls were built with stones moved by the magical harmony of Amphion's lyre. That harmonic order could be supremely demonstrated with the lyre was a very old belief among the peoples of the Mediterranean world. In teaching of cosmogony and cosmology based upon harmonic relationships, Pythagoras used the lyre. If numbers were the constituents of reality, then string lengths arranged in a pattern of twelve, nine, eight and six gave the intervals of the fourth, fifth and octave, with consonants as the framework of scale derived from arithmetic and harmonic means between two quantities in the ratio of two to one. The strings of the lyre were thus the audible and visible manifestation of numbers as lengths as well as differences in tension and so forth. Tone or pitch was thus an expression of number, and consonance of multiple and super-particular ratios, all of which were related to and demonstrated by the tuning and playing of the lyre. Such abstract and fundamental concepts of harmonia lent themselves well to cosmic as well as political and musical interpretations. The idea of a certain order expressive of the correct harmonia was discussed by Plato (Laws) in terms of cultic song as well as political order, both of which he referred to as nomos. Governance believed to reflect a higher divine order had been symbolized by the mastery of the lyre among the Sumerians, who placed the instrument in the tombs of their kings long before the time of Pythagoras and Plato. But it was the Greeks who gave the idea the most explicit philosophical expression and raised the lyre to the level of divine symbolism.

 Grant me, sound of body and of mind, to pass an old age lacking neither honour nor the lyre.

Horus, Odes

 The kitharodos or lyre player took his or her inspiration from the example of Apollo. The frenzied music and dance of the orgiastic Mysteries associated with the flute of Asia (Thrace and Phrygia) contrasted dramatically with the calmness and control of the musical expression of the lyre. The paean associated with Apollo was based upon decorous stamping of feet and measured chants and exclamations. It was exemplified in the dignified seated position of the kitharodos or the slow, symmetrical and militaristic dance of the ancient Dorians. Dionysian music was dithyrambic, expressed most usually by the aulos in a Phrygian mode calculated to inspire powerful emotions and trance states. Comparing the two instruments, one notices that, while the lyre's tones cannot project the melody with great carrying power, those of the aulos can. The notes of the lyre are individually distinct, offering a precise rhythmic punctuation of poetic metre or dance, while those of the aulos are necessarily slurred. The instrument can merely accompany rhythm, not dictate it. It is this distinction which caused the Greeks to value the lyre rather than the aulos in a paedeutic role. In the Republic, Plato advocated the banning of the aulos from Kallipolis. He wished (especially in Laws) to make music wholly hieratic, utilizing the lyre, and, like other serious thinkers, found any theory of modality dependent upon the aulos to be suspect. They believed that true learning depended upon freeing oneself of moral and conceptual slurring, and grasping instead the underlying mathematics of reality through the pure and distinct notes of reason.

It is idle to play the lyre for an ass.

Greek Proverb

 Up to the fifth century, Greek music embraced many styles differing markedly in emotional character. The notes required for each necessitated a harmonia, or tuning of the lyre. These diverse modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Aeolian, etc.) expressed not merely a particular scale pattern but a distinctive musical idiom or dialect, similar to the ragas of Indian music. It could be said that each tribe had evolved a characteristic harmonia which expressed its cultural values, its sense of reality. Rhythm, playing a role in this expression, was seen by Pythagoras, Plato and others as a refinement of innate impulses appearing in bodily movements, cultivated movements revealing the character of individuals separately and collectively. Tropos (manner expressed through mode) dealt with vertical relationships of pitch between successive notes, while rhythm was seen to express horizontal relationships over time. Members of various tribes then, as of various cultures now, shared thus a complex, subtle and highly developed ethos which they brought to bear in an evaluation of the ethical worthiness of a musical piece. To people of such highly integrated musical awareness, aesthetic or ethical blunders committed by a player would be immediately apparent.

 The development and refinement of this awareness was closely related to the usages of the spoken word in magic, religion, poetry and song. It is of great significance that words cannot be chanted or sung while playing the aulos. Language represents a conscious expression of cosmic and human numerical relationships. Uttered in the proper pitch and rhythm, it was believed to have immense potential occult power. In its original forms, Greek poetry was musical and always sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. The oracles at Delphi were sung in hexametric form to the lyre's clear note and beat. These songs were called θεσπαοίδη (thespaoide), related to θέσπις (thespis, thespian), meaning to have words from or be inspired by God. Thus, though the lyre was less able to project a powerful melody than was the aulos, it was more valued because it could accompany with precision a usage of sound deemed to be of higher spiritual value than melodic strain. The harmonia expressed by the lyre had its direct root in the mathematical precision of universal order rather than in a secondary or tertiary expression of it.

 When the Ideal Forms spoken of by Plato became aesthetic, they rendered Truth, Beauty and Virtue perceptible to embodied consciousness. When music thus became perceptible, it became ethical through rhythm. The rhythm of language, metre, tempo, mode and dance expressed by the lyre delivered all these qualities to the threshold of a conscious human order based upon a perceived order in Nature. Natural philosophy could not alone contain this expression, and it was inevitable that it would flow into every aspect of society and art among the Hellenes, just as it had done in more ancient cultures. In bringing these ideals into the human sphere, a reciprocal exchange took place in human consciousness infusing ethical, religious and aesthetic values into Nature which sometimes reflected faithfully a deeper truth, but at other times coloured the manifest world in highly emotional hues.

 Harmony in human affairs, based upon a knowledge of the true nature of things rather than upon feelings of like and dislike, was believed by Plato to be of primary importance in education. He taught that fundamental notions of justice and moral action could be developed through musical instruction on the lyre because the harmony of the soul was capable of being awakened through the ear, and the properties of the human body could be likened to the lyre, which does not itself furnish the elements of harmony but can express them. The body could be brought, he asserted, into harmony with the soul by fine tuning its strings and learning the correct modes and rhythms suited to its bonding.

 In singing and playing the lyre, a boy ought properly to reveal not only courage and moderation but also justice.

Damon of Athens

 Education in ancient Greece revolved around aristocratic values and courtly accomplishments, and included training in song and dance and lyre playing as prominent features. As with other ancient peoples, models of greatness were enshrined in song, and the chief mark of a cultivated man was his ability to transmit them with grace and precision. Plato advised that a compulsory education of both boys and girls be universal and include three years of lyre study begun at age thirteen. In Laws he said that for the sake of good melodic mimesis (representative of the soul of a good man under the stress of events), the lyre must be used so that its notes will be clear. Playing it in unison with the voice, no heterophony or ornamentation should be encouraged, nor should closely spaced notes contrasted with wide, or fast tempos with slow, or high range with low, be permitted. The stately and clear expression of one note only for each single word was the ancient ideal. In one of his parodies, Aristophanes even criticized Euripides for setting a word to more than one note in his lyric dramatic choruses. Aristophanes contrasted him with Aeschylus, whom he acknowledged as making a deliberate effort to represent the older order when the tragic poet was poietes, 'maker', never borrowing from other nomes but remaining faithful to the one-word / one-note standard. When Plato proposed to achieve his paedeutic ideal by chants which would have the power to 'en-chant', he fully realized that all music enchants. Because of this, he urged that the rhythms and modes played on the lyre should be subordinate to the words of the text in order to observe their rightful place. He believed that musical material ought to be used no longer than necessary, for the object of its instruction was not to achieve virtuosity on the lyre, but to recognize moral excellence in melody and rhythm. To Pythagoras, Plato and other upholders of the ancient standard, the virtuoso was merely a workman who sold his art, not to be compared with the free citizen using it as a means to rise above the pleasures of the senses to a higher moral bliss.

 Numerous tales in Greek literature attest to the belief in the irresistible moral powers of music. Empedocles is said to have prevented a murder by his lyre-playing, and Homer recorded the manner in which such music could calm the most tortured heart. This sort of inspirational effect shades almost imperceptibly into the enchanting potentials of the lyre as a magical instrument, as demonstrated by Orpheus and Amphion. But this was quite distinct and immeasurably more lofty an art than that which had begun to develop in Plato's day. The great philosopher believed that a poet-singer could be a useful member of a community by performing appropriate social and political activity. He did not, however, envision that this would include virtuosi skilled mainly in self-aggrandizement. When freeborn amateur lyre players began to be replaced with professionals pandering to mass tastes with stock devices and calculated gimmicks, he must have been deeply saddened. For thus his standards of self-education in order to harmonize the lower nature with the soul were inverted and transformed into external standards dictated by crowds. The two Platonic goals of music - "to take pleasure rightly and to discern what is excellent" - were thus stood on their heads, with the result that a slave mentality increasingly replaced the liberated self-determination of the true autodidact.

 Plato claimed that musical consciousness was a gift from the Muses as well as from Apollo and Dionysus. That he included Dionysus, yet advised exclusion of the aulos from Kallipolis, does not necessarily represent a contradiction. In sifting through his dialogues one comes to the conclusion that the Orphic influence is very strong in Platonic thought, as it had been in the Pythagorean school, an influence profoundly stamped with both Dionysian and Apollonian characteristics. In Laches, Plato showed that the true musician is in tune with a higher harmony than that capable of production on the lyre itself, for he has arranged in his life a harmony of words and deeds. This would reflect a harmony between the tripartite aspects of the soul, adjusted in such a way as to produce a perfect harmony between it and the perfectly tuned vehicles. The correct mode, rhythm, pitch and tropos would be unique to each individual and reflect in distinctively varying balances the soaring potentials of mystical ecstasy associated with the Asian god and the clear powers of pure reason and illumination related to Apollo. That the instrument of that former deity could be used for less than worthy purposes has been shown. It is not the instrument itself which is immune to corruption, no more than the human body. Rather, it is a question of the potential production of the spiritually unadulterated sound which does not ensnare the listener in lower psychic realms. One could readily imagine that a Krishna in the Hindu tradition breathed the pure breath of God into his flute and enchanted many on behalf of the spiritual emancipation of mankind. But on the lips of the satyr, the wandering shepherd of the hill or the frenzied Bacchae, the flute could easily slur the sensibilities into a non-discriminative dream of sensual beauty and psychic escape. The clear intervals of silence, so critical to understanding sounds, ideas and the order of manifestation and so wonderfully producible upon the lyre, are missing.

 It is, therefore, significant that Orpheus, who charmed and enchanted even while addressing the soul, should have played the lyre. In his profoundly mysterious magic, words played a major part. He moved the lords of the underworld with his words as well as with the intonation and rhythm of his accompanying instrument. In sixth century B.C. Greece, the Orphic religious movement paid allegiance to Dionysus but also incorporated the Apollonian cult, especially at Delphi. Thus the mystical emphasis on purification through ecstasy was wedded to clear perception and a knowledge of Platonic Ideas. Orpheus, its prophet, was, after all, considered to have been at once a mortal spiritual teacher and the son of Apollo. As the movement spread, doctrine was added to ritual and mythical thought moved closer to philosophy. What had been a Dionysian cult was thus elaborated into a monastic code of life. The science of harmonics took precedence over the wild outpouring of emotion which had so dismayed Pythagoras as a young boy growing up in Samos. His teachings as well as Plato's were strongly influenced by Orphic concepts, blending ritual purification and catharsis with the affirmation of the immortality of the soul and providing a disciplined control over the ecstatic passion of the Mysteries.

 The very sorts of contraries which, when 'fitted together', 'adjusted' and brought into a new 'order', produce a harmony were blended in the Orphic movement. Just as Harmonia had been the daughter of the seemingly opposing forces of War (Ares) and Love (Aphrodite), so too the new philosophical Mysteries were the progeny of reason and vision, a transcendental blend of the mind and the heart. The very concept of harmony rests upon the inevitability of a relation between opposites. It presumes a universe of constant flow and change, a process revolving around a balance of measure and proportion rooted in wholeness, which is the central connection between permanence and change. If the Logos is the source of harmony, harmony itself is the child of arcane duality. The contraries over which she, as the goddess Harmonia, reigns are both her cause and her effect. From the very beginning this idea was connected with music, for though the harmony for the world remains an abstraction that must be intuited, in the tuning of the lyre there was discerned a simultaneity of mutual adjustment which could be immediately heard and experienced in its playing. All the spatial, vertical and horizontal, sequential and simultaneous elements of karmic adjustment could be sensed by the awakening soul. This is why Plato so strongly advocated its use in education and why he was so concerned not to let the instrument become an end in itself. He understood that a polarity of spirit and matter, rooted in the Absolute, mixed and blended in human nature to produce good and evil qualities. He also fully realized that these contraries were necessary to embodied life and that they were mutually interdependent aspects of what could be potentially a harmonious whole. In the continual balancing of the contraries, "if one is arrested, the action of the other will become immediately self-destructive". A recapitulation of the cosmic War in Heaven takes place.

 Looked at in a more negative sense, karma can be said to be the effect of an act which cannot but be harmful to others because it is produced egotistically, whereas the law of harmony depends on altruism. Looked at in a broader way, karma is the eternal action itself. It creates nothing nor does it design anything, for it is man who creates and designs while karma simply adjusts the effects. It is universal harmony tending ever to resume its original order, its mode reflective of wholeness in the cosmic realm. Thus, the contraries of karmic law can be gathered in an adjusted harmony within the human heart and mind as upon the strings of the lyre. Eternal action, like sound, cannot cease nor can the effects of human ignorance disappear immediately from the realm of manifest existence. But an individual can learn to separate the pure notes of trust and love from the clutter of extraneous noises and embellishments. He or she can practice those notes upon the lyre strings of the inner being until one discovers gradually the correct mode, the timely intervals, the pitch, the rhythm and the overall melody of the soul. Finding thus the harmony within, one can bless with the uttered word, make of one's relations with others a song, and, like Orpheus with his golden lyre, move to sway in ecstasy the very rocks and trees. But one must learn the strength of reason and wed it to the heart so that the two in harmony walk as one, never doubting, never looking back, out of the jaws of death into immortal life.

Along the coasts of Arcady
Thy melody yet lingers,
Thy strings mount up into the clouds,
The winds caress thy fingers.
Thy chanting circles round the globe
Mournful yet endearing.
Each note a pluck upon my soul,
Each word a boon to hearing.