The lyre was one of the most popular instruments in ancient Greece. Famously, the first lyre was supposed to have been made by Hermes, who then gave it as a gift to Apollo. The lyre was played in many different settings. It can be seen in scenes of symposia, religious sacrifice, and certain gods are sometimes depicted playing it too.
Making the lyre
Hermes was the first to make a lyre, according to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, possibly written (or composed) around the end of the 7th century BCE, maybe later. The god, who had just been born that morning, at midday:
took up the tortoise in both hands and went back into the house carrying his charming toy. Then he cut off its limbs and scooped out the marrow of the mountain-tortoise with a scoop of grey iron. As a swift thought darts through the heart of a man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when he had made it he proved each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvelously; and, as he tried it, the god sang sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals.
While this is a mythologised account of how the first ever chelys-lyre was created, it contains some interesting details. The central focus of the instrument is the tortoise who sacrifices his shell (with no say in the matter) to Hermes so that he can make the lyre. Reeds are used, ox hide, horns, sheep-cut too. it is an instrument created from nature.
Nevertheless, this is Hermes’ godly lyre, and while some chelys-lyres were likely made with horn, examples show that the arms of the lyre were made from wood. The ‘Elgin lyre’ in the British Museum, preserves arms and yoke made from sycamore wood.
Nevertheless, various other authors provide intriguing, if rather briefly details about aspects of chelys production, for example, Pausanias, writing in the 2nd century CE, wrote that:
Mount Parthenius rears also tortoises most suitable for the making of lyres; but the men on the mountain are always afraid to capture them, and will not allow strangers to do so either, thinking them to be sacred to Pan.
Clearly then, the customs and skills of making a chelys must have been relatively well known, even if no surviving works discuss them in too much detail.
To find out more about how lyres might have been made in ancient Greece, I recommend the article below, written by Helen Roberts in 1981:
Reconstructing the Greek Tortoise-Shell Lyre
Playing the lyre
There were many ways to play a lyre. This description describes what was probably the most common method, starting with how the instrument was held.
The chelys was normally played by placing one arm through a loop of cloth which was attached to the main body of the instrument. The loop helped the musician to support the instrument against one arm, which meant that she was free to use both hands to play the instrument (in principal, similar to the way that modern guitar players use a guitar strap to help them play). The hand of the arm which supported the chelys was used to ‘stop’ the various strings of the lyre, changing the chords that sounded when the chelys was strummed by the other hand. often with a plectrum.
The other hand often plucked the strings of the lyre with a plectrum. Many examples of plectra can be seen on vase paintings, and they are often attached to the instrument with cloth.
While strumming the instrument to sound chords was probably a popular method, individual strings could be plucked with the plectrum, or by the fingers of both hands, to sound out melodies.