The Lyre

Lyra represents the lyre played by Orpheus, musician of the Argonauts and son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. Apollo gave his son the lyre as a gift, and Orpheus played it so well that even the wild beasts, the rocks, and the trees were charmed by his music. He fell deeply in love with the nymph Eurydice, and the two were married. Their wedded bliss did not last for very long, however. Eurydice was wandering in the fields with some other nymphs when she was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus. Aristaeus was struck by her beauty and pursued her; as she fled, she was bitten by a snake in the grass and died of the serpent's poison.

Orpheus was devastated. He decided to seek out his wife in the underworld, and gained an audience with Pluto and Persephone. The king and queen of the underworld, like all others, were charmed by his music and granted him permission to take Eurydice back to the land of the living with him:

They called Eurydice. She was among the ghosts who had but newly come, and walked slowly because of her injury. Thracian Orpheus received her, but on condition that he must not look back until he had emerged from the valleys of Avernus or else the gift he had been given would be taken from him.

Up the sloping path, through the mute silence they made their way, up the steep dark track, wrapped in impenetrable gloom, till they had almost reached the surface of the earth. Here, anxious in case his wife's strength be failing and eager to see her, the lover looked behind him, and straightaway Eurydice slipped back into the depths. Orpheus stretched out his arms, straining to clasp her and be clasped; but the hapless man touched nothing but yielding air. Eurydice, dying now a second time, uttered no complaint against her husband. What was there to complain of, that she had been loved? With a last farewell which scarcely reached his ears, she fell back again into the same place from which she had come (Metamorphoses X 47-63).

According to Ovid, Orpheus was so heartbroken from having lost his love not once, but twice, that he rejected the company of women in favor of that of small boys. The women of Thrace were infuriated and, while maddened during Bacchic rites, hurled rocks at the bard. The rocks, tamed by the sound of Orpheus's lyre, at first fell harmlessly at his feet, but the shrieks of the infuriated women soon drowned out the music. The women dismembered Orpheus, throwing his lyre and his head into the river Hebrus. The Muses gathered up his limbs and buried them, and Orpheus went to the underworld to spend eternity with Eurydice. Jupiter himself cast the bard's lyre into the sky.

Lyra may be easily picked out in the sky because it contains Vega, at zero magnitude the second brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. Vega is also part of the summer triangle, formed with Deneb and Altair.

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These pages are the work of Cathy Bell
cmbell (at) comfychair (dot) org
originally for the Princeton University course CLA 212.