A compact but prominent constellation, marked by the fifth-brightest star in the sky, Vega. Mythologically, Lyra was the lyre of the great musician Orpheus, whose venture into the Underworld is one of the most famous of Greek stories. It was the first lyre ever made, having been invented by Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia (one of the Pleiades). Hermes fashioned the lyre from the shell of a tortoise that he found browsing outside his cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. Hermes cleaned out the shell, pierced its rim and tied across it seven strings of cow gut, the same as the number of the Pleiades. He also invented the plectrum with which to play the instrument.
Lyra was frequently visualized as an eagle or vulture as well as a lyre; both are shown on this engraving from the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801). Near the tip of the vulture’s beak is the bright star Vega, here spelt Wega; Bode also gave it the alternative name Testa in reference to the tortoise shell from which the lyre was supposedly made by Hermes.
The lyre got Hermes out of trouble after a youthful exploit in which he stole some of Apollo’s cattle. Apollo angrily came to demand their return, but when he heard the beautiful music of the lyre he let Hermes keep the cattle and took the lyre in exchange. Eratosthenes says that Apollo later gave the lyre to Orpheus to accompany his songs.
Orpheus was the greatest musician of his age, able to charm rocks and streams with the magic of his songs. He was even reputed to have attracted rows of oak trees down to the coast of Thrace with the music of his lyre. Orpheus joined the expedition of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the golden fleece. When the Argonauts heard the tempting song of the Sirens, sea nymphs who had lured generations of sailors to destruction, Orpheus sang a counter melody that drowned the Sirens’ voices.
Orpheus and Eurydice
Later, Orpheus married the nymph Eurydice. One day, Eurydice was spied by Aristaeus, a son of Apollo, who attacked her in a fit of passion. Fleeing from him, she stepped on a snake and died from its poisonous bite. Orpheus was heartbroken; unable to live without his young wife, Orpheus descended into the Underworld to plead for her release. Such a request was unprecedented. But the sound of his music charmed even the cold heart of Hades, god of the Underworld, who finally agreed to let Eurydice accompany Orpheus back to the land of the living on one solemn condition: Orpheus must not at any stage look behind him until the couple were safely back in daylight.
Orpheus readily accepted, and led Eurydice through the dark passage that led to the upper world, strumming his lyre to guide her. It was an unnerving feeling to be followed by a ghost. He could never be quite sure that his beloved was following, but he dared not look back. Eventually, as they approached the surface, his nerve gave out. He turned around to confirm that Eurydice was still there – and at that moment she slipped back into the depths of the Underworld, out of his grasp for ever.
Orpheus was inconsolable. He wandered the countryside, plaintively playing his lyre. Many women offered themselves to the great musician in marriage, but he preferred the company of young boys.
The death of Orpheus
There are two accounts of the death of Orpheus. One version, told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, says that the local women, offended at being rejected by Orpheus, ganged up on him as he sat singing one day. They began to throw rocks and spears at him. At first his music charmed the weapons so that they fell harmlessly at his feet, but the women raised such a din that they eventually drowned the magic music and the missiles found their mark.
Eratosthenes, on the other hand, says that Orpheus incurred the wrath of the god Dionysus by not making sacrifices to him. Orpheus regarded Apollo, the Sun god, as the supreme deity and would often sit on the summit of Mount Pangaeum awaiting dawn so that he could be the first to salute the Sun with his melodies. In retribution for this snub, Dionysus sent his manic followers to tear Orpheus limb from limb. Either way, Orpheus finally joined his beloved Eurydice in the Underworld, while the muses put the lyre among the stars with the approval of Zeus, their father.
Vega and other stars
Ptolemy knew the constellation’s brightest star simply as Lyra (Λύρα), the same name as the constellation. The name we use for this star today, Vega, comes from the Arabic words al-nasr al-waqi’ that can mean either ‘the swooping eagle’ or ‘vulture’, for the Arabs saw both an eagle and a vulture here. The constellation was often depicted on star maps as a bird positioned behind a lyre, as on the illustration above. It seems that the Arabs visualized Vega and its two nearby stars Epsilon and Zeta Lyrae as an eagle with folded wings, swooping down in its prey, whereas in the nearby constellation Aquila the star Altair and its two attendant stars gave the impression of a flying eagle with wings outstretched.
Beta Lyrae is called Sheliak, a name that comes from the Arabic for ‘harp’, in reference to the constellation as a whole. Beta Lyrae is a celebrated variable star. Gamma Lyrae is called Sulafat, from the Arabic meaning ‘the tortoise’, after the animal from whose shell Hermes made the lyre. Between Beta and Gamma Lyrae lies the Ring Nebula, often pictured in astronomy books; it is a shell of gas thrown off by a dying star.
Vega and the adjacent stars Epsilon and Zeta Lyrae were known in ancient China as Zhinü, the weaving girl. In a popular Chinese folk tale the weaving girl was said to be a granddaughter of the celestial emperor. She made beautiful silks for the gods and goddesses, but she fell in love with a lowly cowherd, represented by the star Altair in Aquila. After they married and started a family, both began to neglect their duties. To prevent further interruption to their work the celestial emperor harshly separated them, placing them on opposite sides of the Milky Way. Cowherd was left to bring up their two sons, represented by the stars either side of Altair. Thereafter, the couple were allowed to meet on only one night each summer, when magpies bridged the Milky Way with their wings.
The four stars Beta, Gamma, Delta and Iota Lyrae formed Jiantai, a place like a bureau of standards for calibrating water clocks (clepsydras) and sundials and for tuning musical instruments. An older interpretation of this constellation says that it originally represented the loom used by the weaving girl Zhinü (Vega).
A line of five stars from R Lyrae via Eta and Theta and on into Cygnus formed Niandao, a route followed by the Emperor when travelling between palaces.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved