Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Lyre

Urania's Mirror 1825

Mercury found the body of a tortoise cast up by the Nile, and discovered that by striking the sinews after the flesh was consumed a musical note was obtained. He made a lyre of similar shape, having three strings, and gave it to Orpheus, the son of Calliope, who by its music enchanted the beasts, birds and rocks. After Orpheus was slain by the Thracian women, Jupiter placed the lyre in heaven at the request of Apollo and the Muses. This constellation was often called Vultur Cadens, or the Falling Grype by the ancients. [Fixed Stars and Constellations in Astrology, Vivian E. Robson, 1923, p.50.]

 This musical instrument, the Lyre of Orpheus, is a testimony to the love and longing felt by Orpheus for his wife Eurydice who died from the bite of a poisonous snake. Overcome by grief he started singing the lyrics of mourning songs to the music of his lyre, causing all who heard him to weep, including the gods.

Orpheus was determined to get Eurydice back. He descended into the Underworld and used his lyre and voice to charm his way to the realm of Hades wife Persephone to petition them to let his wife return with him to earth. She was allowed to follow him. However, he forgot the one condition imposed on him, not to look back at her until they both reached the upper world. "He had stepped out joyfully into the daylight. Then he turned to her. It was too soon; she was still in the cavern. He saw her in the dim light, and he held out his arms to clasp her; but on the instant she was gone. She had slipped back into the darkness. All he heard was one faint word, 'Farewell'" [The story of Orpheus and Eurydice].

Following his failure to rescue Eurydice from Hades, Orpheus wandered through the wild solitudes of Thrace, always playing with his lyre. 

The New Patterns in the Sky, Julius D.W. Staal, p.185

Lyra represents the lyre, an ancient stringed musical instrument. Lyra has titles identifying it with a variety of stringed instruments and some of these names might be due to a lack of knowledge of what a lyre was. That there was a difference between the lyre and the cithara is certain. Hermes invented the lyre, and Apollo invented the cithara (the zither and guitar are related to this word). "The lyre and chelys on the one hand, and the cithara and phorminx on the other, were similar or nearly identical" [1]. Aratos called Lyra Khelus olige, the Little Tortoise or Shell; Greek Khelus is equivalent to the Latin word Chelys (olige from Greek oligos, meaning 'little'). The chelys or lyre is a stringed musical instrument which had a vaulted back of tortoise-shell, or of wood shaped like that shell. The word cizelys was used in allusion to the oldest lyre of the Greeks which was said to have been invented by Hermes. According to tradition he was attracted by sounds of music while walking on the banks of the Nile, and found they proceeded from the shell of a tortoise across which were stretched tendons which the wind had set in vibration (Homeric Hymn to Hermes, 475 I) [2]. Pausanias says that it was in Khelydorea ('rich in Tortoises') adjoining Mount Kyllene, in Arcadia, that Hermes is said to have found a tortoise and made the lyre [3].

All living turtles belong to the crown group Chelonia, this generic name was derived from Greek Khelus (tortoise), Latin Chelys:

"When the wedding of Zeus and Hera took place, Hermes invited not only the gods, but also all the humans and even the animals to attend. Chelone was the only person who stayed at home. Hermes noticed that she was not there; he came down to earth, took hold of the house with the girl inside it and cast them both into a river. Chelone was changed into a tortoise which, like her, is inseparable from its house" [Grimal].

Another version:

"Zeus asked the tortoise (Khelone) her reason for not having come to the feast. The tortoise said, 'Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.' Zeus got angry at the tortoise and ordered her to carry her house with her wherever she went" [Aesop, Fables 4]

The word chelone, is a siege performed with shields united so as to resemble the shell of a tortoise; the same as Latin testudo, from Greek kelone, 'tortoise', from Greek kelus, 'tortoise', literally 'the yellow animal', related to Greek khloos 'greenish-yellow color', and cognate with Old Slavonic zely, from Indo-European base *ghel- 'yellow' [Klein]. Derivatives of *ghel-2: yellow, green, chloro-, chlorite¹, chlorine, chlorophyll, gall, cholesterol, chole- (bile), melancholy. [Pokorny 1. ghel- 429. Watkins] and the yolk of an egg is also a cognate.

Orphic Egg

Note the cognate of chelone, the yolk of an egg. "The Orphic Egg, an egg with a snake wound around it from bottom to top, is the ancient and foremost symbol of the Orphic Mysteries which were named after Orpheus, a legendary singer in Greek myth..." [Orphic Egg]. The word 'egg' may be Aquila and the various components of this mysterious 'egg' and snake would involve a number of constellations.

Melancholy is described as "black bile," a term that could describe Orpheus' grief and sadness over the death of Eurydice.


Testudo, a shell, tortoise. As covered (testa) with a shell. Also, a shell, crust, covering. A lyre, for the first lyre was said to have been made by straining strings over the shell of a tortoise. The Greeks use khelus in the same way. Testudo is said also, of the shields of soldiers held so as to form a shell or covering in making an attack, like Greek khelone. Also, like khelone, a machine used in sieges to cover soldiers while sapping or making breaches. Also, an arched or vaulted roof, as resembling a shell. [An etymological dictionary of the Latin language, Valpy, 1828, p.472]

The Lyre has architectural associations in mythology; in the hands of Amphion the city of Thebes was built with the music of his lyre. "The tones of Amphion's lyre built the walls of Thebes" [6]. "The magic of his music caused the stones to move into place on their own accord" [7]. The Testudines, or chelonians, carry their homes on their back; architectural skills are needed to build homes. According to the Aberdeen Bestiary "the tortoise, testudo, is so called because it is covered by the vault of its shell, in the manner of an arched roof".

The lyre was also used to lull to sleep. Orpheus used his lyre to lull Cerberus to sleep, and Hermes used his lyre to lull Argus to sleep. The lyre was used in the sense of lull, to produce calm intervals. When Orpheus strummed his lyre on a visit to the Underworld there was a lull in normal activities there as they listened to the music, everyone stopped their jobs; Cerberus stopped growling, Sisyphus sat upon his stone instead of continually rolling it up a hill, Ixion's wheel stopped, and Tantalus ignored the receding wave. Related words: lullaby, loll (to lounge idly), lollop (to move with a bobbing motion), Lollard (Lollardy were religious reformers in England, followers of John Wycliffe in the 14th and 15th centuries.) The girl's names Lalage and Eulalia of Greek origin, from Gk lalage, (babble, prattle).

Plutarch would be referring to what we call the lullaby here when he says:

"like the notes of the lyre which the Pythagoreans used before sleep, to charm and heal the emotive and irrational part of the soul"

The word lyre, from Greek lura, is etymologically related to the word lyric, from Greek lurikos, 'pertaining to, or singing to, the lyre'. Erato is the Muse of lyric poetry and mime. Nature might provide an understanding of this connection between mime, mimic, lyric and lyre.

The Lyrebird of the Australian bush has a tail shaped like a lyre, they are ground-dwelling Australian birds most notable for their extraordinary ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment  — chainsaws, car engines, alarms, rifle-shots, camera shutters, barking dogs and crying babies... Lyrebirds are shy birds and a constant stream of bird calls coming from one place is often the only way of identifying them and their presence.

John Gould's early 1800s painting of a Superb Lyrebird specimen at the British Museum. [Wikipedia]

David Attenborough explains in this YouTube video that not only has the lyrebird got a tail shaped like a lyre "but it is a liar in the sense that it mimics everything around them. You think you can hear a kookaburra, or all kinds of wrens... But it is actually that one lyrebirds that's doing it". The word lie comes from the Indo-European root *leugh- To tell a lie. Derivatives: warlock, from Old English leogan, to lie, from Germanic *leugan; belie, from Old English beleogan, to deceive (be-, about; see ambhi) from Germanic *leugan. lie2, from Old English lyge, a lie, falsehood, from Germanic *lugiz. (Pokorny 1. leugh- 686.)

“The lyre (lyra) is so called from the word lerein (i.e. 'speak frivolously'), that is, from 'variety of voices,' because it renders diverse sounds. They say that the lyre was first invented by Mercury in the following way. When the Nile was receding into its channels, it left behind various animals on the plains, and a tortoise was one that was stranded. When it decomposed, and its tendons remained stretched out in the shell, it made a sound when Mercury plucked it. Mercury made a lyre of this shape and handed it over to Orpheus, who was by far its most zealous student. Whence it is thought that by his art he controlled not only wild beasts but also the rocks and the woods by the modulation of his song. On account of his love of musical pursuits and praise of song, musicians have imagined, in the fictions of their tales, his lyre as being located among the stars” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.98.]

"The tortoise (testudo) is so called because its back is covered over with a shell (testa) in the manner of a vaulted roof. There are four kinds of tortoise: land turtles; sea turtles; mud turtles, that is, those living in mud and swamps; the fourth kind are the river turtles, which live in fresh water. Some people say - and this is unbelievable - that ships go more slowly when they carry the right foot of a turtle." [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.262.]

"A 'tortoise-shell vault' (testudo, lit. 'tortoise shell') is a transverse vault of a temple, for the ancients would make the roofs of their temples in the shape of a tortoise shell. These would be made thus to duplicate the image of the sky, which is evidently convex." [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.312.]

This constellation was often called Vultur Cadens, or the Falling Grype by the ancients. On star-maps an eagle and vulture are often depicted together with the lyre in front of the vulture. I think the vulture might just represent the the plectrum, the plucker, of the lyre-strings. The English word vulture comes from the Latin vultur, which in turn may be derived from vellere, which means to pluck or tear, describing how these birds remove bits of flesh from carrion.

Another moving love story associated with this constellation tells how Zeus went on to the house of Periphas and came upon him when he was making love to his wife, Phene. He pressed both hands on him and turned him into a bird, an eagle (Aquila). His wife asked Zeus to turn her into a bird too so that she would be a companion for Periphas. So he turned her into a vulture. Zeus made Periphas king of all birds. To the wife of Periphas, whom he had turned into a vulture, he granted the privilege of being a sign of good omen in all the affairs of mankind." The bird Periphas received a place amongst the stars as the constellation Aquila. Its consort was Lyra, the heavenly vulture [http://www.theoi.com/Ther/AetosDios.html].

Manilius giving the astrological influences of the constellation Lyra:

"... and one may see among the stars the Lyre, its arms spread apart in heaven, with which in time gone by Orpheus charmed all that his music reached, making his way even to the ghosts of the dead and causing the decrees of hell to yield to his song. Wherefore it has honour in heaven and power to match its origin: then it drew in its train forests and rocks; now it leads the stars after it and makes off with the vast orb of the revolving sky". [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 1, p.30]

"Next, with the rising of the Lyre, there floats forth from Ocean the shape of the tortoise-shell (testudinis), which under the fingers of its heir (Mercury) gave forth sound only after death; once with it did Orpheus, Oeagrus' son, impart sleep to waves, feeling to rocks, hearing to trees, tears to Pluto, and finally a limit to death. Hence will come endowments of song and tuneful strings, hence pipes of different shapes which prattle melodiously, and whatever is moved to utterance by touch of hand or force of breath. The child of the Lyre will sing beguiling songs at the banquet, his voice adding mellowness to the wine and holding the night in thrall. Indeed, even when harassed by cares, he will rehearse some secret strain, tuning his voice to a stealthy hum and, left to himself, he will ever burst into song which can charm no ears but his own. Such are the ordinances of the Lyre, which at the rising of Libra's twenty-sixth degree will direct its prongs to the stars". [Manilius, book 5, Astronomica, 1st century AD, p.327].

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Lyra
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
Vega alpha 13CAP55 15CAP19 278 48 41 +38 44 09 +61 44 07 0.03 A1
zeta 16CAP44 18CAP07 280 45 43 +37 33 06 +60 20 54 4.29 A9
epsilon 17CAP15 18CAP38 280 40 14 +39 37 00 +62 23 59 6.00 A4
Sheliak beta 17CAP30 18CAP53 282 03 30 +33 18 12 +55 59 24 3.50 var B2
delta 20CAP01 21CAP24 282 59 41 +36 54 29 +59 25 24 5.51 B3
Sulaphat gamma 20CAP32 21CAP55 284 16 04 +32 37 11 +55 01 07 3.30 B9

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Ariones harpe fyn.

— Chaucer's Hous of Fame.

Lyra, the Lyre or Harp, is the Leier of Germany, Lira of Italy, and Lyre of France, and anciently represented the fabled instrument invented by Hermes and given to his half-brother Apollo, who in turn transferred it to his son Orpheus, the musician of the Argonauts, of whom Shakespeare wrote:

{Page 281} Everything that heard him play,

Even the billows of the sea,

Hung their heads, and then lay by.

While Manilius said that its service in its last owner's hands, in the release of Eurydice from Hades,

Gained it Heaven, and still its force appears,

As then the Rocks it now draws on the Stars.

From its ownership by these divinities came various adjectival titles: Ermaie and Kullenaie, referring to Hermes and his birthplace (Mount Kyllini or Cyllenia); Cicero's Clara Fides Cyllenea and Mercurialis, that Varro also used; and the Cithara, or Lyra, Apollinis, Orphei, Orphica, and Mercurii. It also was Lyra Arionis and Amphionis, from those skilful players; but usually it was plain Lyra and, later on, Cithara; Fides, — the Fidis of Columella, who, with Pliny, also used Fidicula; Decachordum; and Tympanum. In this same connection we see Fidicen, the Lyrist; Deferens Psalterium; and Canticum, a Song.

The occasional early title Aquilaris was from the fact that the instrument was often shown hanging from the claws of the Eagle (Aquila) also imagined in its stars.

In Greece it was Kithara; the ancient phormigx, the first stringed instrument of the Greek bards; and Aura or Aure, and Aura katopheres, the Pendent Lyre.

Ovid mentioned its seven strings as equaling the number of the Pleiades; Longfellow confirming this number in his Occultation of Orion:

with its celestial keys,

Its chords of air, its frets of fire,

The Samian's great Aeolian Lyre,

Rising through all its sevenfold bars,

From earth unto the fixed stars.

Still it has been shown with but six, and a vacant space for the seventh, which Spence, in the Polymetis, referred to the Lost Pleiad.

Manilius seems to have made two distinct constellations of this, — Lyra and Fides, — although we do not know their boundaries, and the subject is somewhat confused in his allusions to it.

The Persian Hafiz called it the Lyre of Zurah, and his countrymen translated Kithara, by Sanj Rumi; the Arabians turning this into Al Sanj, from which Hyde and others derived Asange, Asenger, Asanges, Asangue, Sangue, and Mesanguo, all titles for Lyra in Europe centuries ago. But Assemani thought that tliese were from Schickard's Azzango, a Cymbal. The {Page 282} reproduced Alfonsine Tables of 1863-67 give Alsanja; while Sanj was again turned into Arnig and Aznig in the translation of Reduan's Commentary, and into the still more unlikely Brinek, as has been explained by Ideler.

In Bohemia our Lyra was Hauslicky na Nebi, the Fiddle in the Sky; but the Teutons knew it as Harapha, and the Anglo-Saxons as Hearpe, which Fortunatus of the 6th century, the poet-bishop of Poitiers, called the barbarians' Harpa. With the early Britons it was Talyn Arthur, that hero's Harp. Novidius said that it was King David’s Harp; but Julius Schiller, that it was the Manger of the Infant Saviour, Praesepe Salvatoris.

Jugum has been wrongly applied to it, from the Zugon (yoke) of Homer, but this was for the Yoke, or Cross-bar, of the instrument, with no reference to the constellation, which Homer probably did not know; still the equivalent Zugoma was in frequent use for it by Hipparchos.

Sundry other fancied figures have been current for these stars.

Acosta mentioned them as Urcuchillay, the parti-colored Ram in charge of the heavenly flocks of the ancient Peruvians; Albegala and Albegalo occur with Bayer and Riccioli, like the Arabic Al Baghl, a Mule, although their appropriateness is not obvious; and Nasr al Din wrote of alpha, epsilon, and zeta collectively as Dik Paye among the common people of Persia; this was the Khutro-pous, or Greek tripod, and the Uthfiyyah of the nomad Arabs.

Chirka, also attributed to Nasr al Din, was, by some scribe's error for Hazaf, figured in this location on the Dresden globe as a circular vessel with a flat bottom and two handles; but on the Borgian it is a Scroll, commonly known, according to Assemani, as Rabesco.

The association of Lyra's stars with a bird perhaps originated from a conception of the figure current for millenniums in ancient India, — that of an Eagle or Vulture; and, in Akkadia, of the great storm-bird Urakhga before this was there identified with Corvus. But the Arabs' title, Al Nasr al Waki’ — Chilmead's Alvaka, — referring to the swooping Stone Eagle of the Desert, generally has been attributed to the configuration of the group alpha, epsilon, zeta, which shows the bird with half-closed wings, in contrast to Al Nasr al Ta'ir, the Flying Eagle, our Aquila, whose smaller stars, beta and gamma, on either side of alpha, indicate the outspread wings. Scaliger cited the synonymous Al Nasr al Sakit, from which came the Nessrusakat of Bayer and Nessrusakito of Assemani.

Al Sufi, alone of extant Arabian authors, called it Al Iwazz, the Goose.

Chrysococca wrote of it as kathemenos, the Sitting Vulture, and it has been Aquila marina, the Osprey, and Falco sylvestris, the Wood Falcon.

{Page 283} Its common title two centuries ago was Aquila cadens, or Vultur cadens, the Swooping Vulture, popularly translated the Falling Grype, and figured with upturned head bearing a lyre in its beak. Bartsch's map has the outline of a lyre on the front of an eagle or vulture.

Aratos called it Khelus olige, the Little Tortoise or Shell, thus going back to the legendary origin of the instrument from the empty covering of the creature cast upon the shore with the dried tendons stretched across it. Lowell thus described its discovery and use by Hermes:

So there it lay through wet and dry,

As empty as the last new sonnet,

Till by and by came Mercury,

And, having mused upon it,

"Why, here," cried he, "the thing of things

In shape, material and dimension!

Give it but strings and, lo ! it sings -

A wonderful invention."

The equivalent Latin word Chelys does not seem to have been often applied to the constellation, but the occasional adjectival titles Lutaria, Mud-inhabiting, and Marina were, and are, appropriate, while Testudo has been known from classical times. Horace thus alluded to it:

Decus Phoebi, et dapibus supremi

Grata testudo Jovis; O laborum

Dulce lenimen;

the poet doubtless having in mind the current story that the Tortoise-Lyre was placed in the sky near Hercules for the alleviation of his toil. The Alfonsine illustration is of a Turtle, Galapago in the original Spanish, which Caesius turned into the indefinite Belua aquatica, and La Lande into Mus and Musculus, some marine creature, not the little rodent.

Other names were Testa, the creature's Upper Shell; and Pupilla, which, by a roundabout process of continued blundering explained by Ideler, was derived from Testa, or, as seems more likely, from Aquila. Bayer's Basanos is probably a mistranslation of Testa that also signified a Test.

Smyth said that another Testudo was at one time proposed as a constellation title for some of the outside stars of Cetus, between the latter's tail and the cord of Pisces.

When the influence of Greek astronomy made itself felt in Arabia, many of the foregoing designations, or adaptations thereof, became current; among them Nablon, from Nabla, or Nablium, the Phoenician Harp; Al Lura, which degenerated into Allore, Alloure, Alohore, Alchoro, etc., found {Page 284} in the Alfonsine Tables and other bygone lists; Shalyak and Sulahfat, words for the Tortoise (gamma Lyra is Sulaphat), Ulug Beg's translator having the former as Shelyak, which Piazzi repeated in his catalogue; Salibak, which heads Kazwini's chapter on the Lyre; — Ideler tracing these Arabic words to Khelus. They were turned into Azulafe and Zuliaca in the original Alfonsine Tables, and Schaliaf in Chilmead's Treatise. The Almagest of 1515 combines all these figures for Lyra's stars in its Allore.- et est Vultur cadens: et est Testudo; while that of 1551 says Lyrae Testudo.

But, notwithstanding the singularly diverse conceptions as to its character, the name generally has been Lyra, and the figure so shown. Roman coins still in existence bear it thus, as does one from Delos, Apollo's birthplace in the Cyclades; and Cilician money had this same design with the head of Aratos on the obverse. The Leyden Manuscript has the conventional instrument, with side bars of splendid horns issuing from the tortoise-shell base; the Venetian Hyginus of 1488, with a similar figure, calls it Lura as well as Lyra; but the drawing of Hevelius shows "an instrument which neither in ancient nor in modern times ever had existence." Durer's illustration, as well as others, places it with the base towards the north.

Lyra is on the western edge of the Milky Way, next to Hercules, with the neck of Cygnus on the east, and contains 48 stars according to Argelander, 69 according to Heis. Its location is noted as one of the various regions of concentration of stars with banded spectra, Secchi's 3d type, showing a stage of development probably in advance of that of our sun.

From near its kappa, 5° southwest of Wega (Vega), radiate the swiftly moving Lyraids, the meteors which are at their maximum of appearance on the 19th and 20th of April, but visible in lesser degree from the 5th of that month to the 10th of May. These have been identified as followers of the comet 1 of 1861.

. . . azure Lyra, like a woman's eye,

Burning with soft blue lustre.

— Willis' The Scholar of Thebit ten Khorat.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]