Lyra the Lyre
 In Greek mythology, the lyre was created when the young Hermes (Mercury) found an empty tortoise shell one day and had an idea.  His older half-brother Apollo came across Hermes playing beautiful music upon the new instrument and exchanged the lyre for the caduceus, a staff made of three shoots, two of them twining around the middle shoot near the top of the staff. This staff was supposed to give the owner wealth, prosperity and the ability to fly.  So in return for teaching Apollo to play the lyre Apollo gave his brother the caduceus and ever since Hermes has been depicted flying with his winged sandals and the caduceus in his hand. 

Later, Apollo gave the lyre to his son Orpheus, who also was one of the Argonauts.  When Orpheus lost his newly wed wife Eurydice to a snake bite he was inconsolable and went down into the underworld to plead with Hades (Pluto) for the return of his wife.  Hades eventually relented, but told Orpheus that if he looked back at his wife for even an instant before they both reached the surface she would be lost to him forever.  The journey back was long and Orpheus was nervous that Eurydice wasn't really there so as the sunlight from the world of living began to show at the tunnel entrance and Orpheus could see once more,  he could wait no longer and turned to see if she was there.  Unfortunately that glance was too long and Eurydice was reclaimed by Hades and lost to Orpheus. 

Orpheus was grief stricken and wandered the woods and hills playing his lyre.  Anyone who heard was enchanted and both animals and people came to listen.  The young maidens who came tried to win his heart but it was already lost.  In a rage they swore revenge and threw knives and arrows at him but the enchanted lyre protected Orpheus from harm.  Eventually the maidens discordant wails of frustration overcame the sweet tones of the lyre and the missiles killed Orpheus.  (There are other versions of his death, but they were all caused by women spurned by the grieving Orpheus.)  The lyre was thrown in a river and it was from here that Zeus (Jupiter) sent an eagle to pluck the lyre from the waters (of the Milky Way) and place it in the sky.

An excerpt from Johan van Keulen's Boeck zee-kaardt, 1709.
In the old atlases Lyra was usually shown with the eagle (Vega) 
that plucked the lyre from the river.

Vega, the brightest star in the constellation, means "the Plunging One" and represents the eagle that swooped down and lifted the lyre into the sky.  Sometimes it Vega is depicted as a vulture, which originates from Ancient Egypt where it was called the Vulture Star.  It is interesting to note that this name originates from when Vega was the pole star 14,400 years ago!  (I would speculate this came about as Vega never came closer then 40 to the pole and so would have seemed to be endlessly circling the same spot in the sky, like a vulture that has spotted a meal.)  Vega may look like it is a long way from ever being the pole star again but in 11500 years time the precession of the poles will once more point the north axis of the Earth towards this star.  It is an A class star, very similar to Sirius, and is sometimes described as being pale blue or "pale sapphire".  It's magnitude is given in modern times as 0.03 but it was once considered to be 0.0 and the benchmark of brightness for all other stars.  It is also the brightest star near the area in the sky that our solar system is traveling towards within our galaxy.

This article is ©2001 Stargazers Astronomy Shop

Return to Star Lore Index