| 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
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