Cithara is one of the most common musical instruments in Ancient Greece used by bards

ancient greek instrument used by bards
ancient greek instrument used by bards

Cithara is rightfully considered one of the first musical instruments, written records of which have survived to our time. Images of musicians with a cithara in their hands are found on ancient coins, clay amphoras, frescoes and paintings. So how did this string instrument come about?

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Legend of the origin of the cithara

One of the ancient Greek legends says that Hermes once made a lyre out of a tortoise shell and thin strips of bovine skin, which he used instead of strings. At the same time, in order to get the skin, Hermes did not find anything better than to steal a bull from his brother, Apollo. By the way, the ancient Greeks often attributed such habits to Hermes, which is why he was considered the patron saint of not only merchants, but also thieves and petty crooks.

Apollo went to Zeus to resolve the issue of stealing the bull, but Hermes made him laugh with his jokes and songs so much that a decision was made to settle the dispute peacefully. So deception and deception led to the emergence of a beautiful instrument, a harbinger of modern guitar.

Derivatives from the word “kifara” spread far beyond the borders of Greece: in Persia it was called chartar, in India – catur or sitara, in Rome – citara, in medieval Europe – kityra, in England – guitar and zither, in France – guitar, in Spain – guitar, in Italy – chitarra, in Sweden – guitar.

What did the ancient Greek cithara look like?

ancient greek instrument used by bards 2
ancient greek instrument used by bards 2

Kifara is a direct descendant of the lyre, and differs from it in structure and number of strings. The cithara has seven strings of equal length attached to a flat solid wood base. The strings of the instrument were made from trimmed tendons or intestines of livestock, and were stretched from the base using two vertical arcs that looked like a bow without a string.

A musician playing the cithara produced sounds from it with the help of a stone device – a plectron, tied to the base of the instrument. They played the cithara with the right hand, and with the left, if necessary, they damped the vibrations of the strings. During the performance, the instrument was placed on the musician’s shoulder and was supported by a garter made of fabric or leather tied around the left wrist. The performer could adjust the sound not only by controlling the force applied to the strings, but also quickly change their tension, getting high or low notes. They played the cithara mostly while standing, although there are several frescoes and images on dishes where the musician is sitting with the instrument.

By the end of the 7th century BC, the cithara had become the main musical instrument used in various performances. Although by that time a lot of similar instruments appeared, kifara was rightfully considered the lot of professionals. The musicians playing it were welcome guests at concerts, public appearances and various competitions.

Unfortunately, we know very little about the exact sounding of the ancient Greek cithara. Some of the information was obtained from literary descriptions, and another part – as a result of modern reconstructions of the instrument.

Evolution of instrument and music

ancient greek instrument used by bards 3
ancient greek instrument used by bards 3

When the kifara first appeared, it had only four strings, which fully satisfied the needs of the musicians – the works of that time were quite simple and unpretentious.

Terpander, a bard from Sparta, known for calming a street riot with the power of singing, introduced an innovation – he increased the number of strings on a cithara from four to seven. The musician Frinis from Mytilene went even further, adding two more strings, which later became the standard for all of Ancient Greece.

Some sources claim that the cithara family – the harp and lyre – was created by the Egyptians long before the Greeks. This is confirmed by wall paintings found in ancient Egyptian temples and places of mass gatherings of people. They depict musicians playing stringed instruments, which later became the prototypes of harps, lyres and cithar.

It’s hard to imagine a specific historical era without knowing what kind of music people liked at that time. Approximate information about ancient Greek musical directions can be obtained from the surviving descriptions. In particular, from Plutarch we have received records of such works as “Hymn to Apollo”, “Hymn to the Muse”, “Hymn to Nemesis”, and a small “Epitaph of Seyklos”. It is possible to restore the sound of these works due to the fact that the letter designations of the notes to them, which the ancient Greeks used to record music, have been preserved. Unfortunately, experienced musicians considered it unworthy to fix their songs on papyrus or any other medium, keeping them in memory and passing them on to each other orally. This explains such a small number of ancient sounds that have come down to us.

Comparatively more data have survived on ancient Greek musical theory. It often used complex sequences of sounds, smooth or abrupt transitions. Researchers identify three main types of ancient Greek music:

ancient greek instrument used by bards 4
ancient greek instrument used by bards 4
  • Dorian (strict);
  • Phrygian (frantic);
  • Lydian (soft).

Each of them, in turn, is based on a sequence of sounds of four adjacent tones – tetrachords, which were used in the cults of Apollo and Dionysus. Supporters of Dionysus used the simplest instrument, the aulos, which was a reed flute. Avlos could be made independently, and you could start playing on it almost immediately, without much effort, which very well characterizes the features of the cult of Dionysus – ecstasy, passion, relaxedness and physical licentiousness.

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Apollo’s supporters preferred a more refined instrument – the cithara, because to make it, it took a long time, accuracy and attention to detail. Playing the cithara was considered a high art, and not everyone could master it. To do this, one had to possess not only an innate talent, but also an excellent memory, dexterity of fingers and strength.

ancient greek instrument used by bards 5
ancient greek instrument used by bards 5
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