Building a Lyre and Playing Sappho

My name is Mary McLoughlin, and I am the creator of the Playing Sappho project (and of many lyres). Playing Sappho is both the name of my project, and my website where I have a blog and YouTube page dedicated to helping people re-create the music of Sappho, through How-To guides on building lyres, and signing in Ancient Greek, as well as some overall background for Sappho and her context.

I designed this project in fulfillment of my Senior Independent Study at the College of Wooster. I deeply love Sappho’s work, but I did not feel like I could add anything significant to the current scholarly debate surrounding her. So, I thought it would be worthwhile to design a project of public history and accessibility. One of the problems with classics, and the study of Sappho, is that it happens almost exclusively at a level of academic discourse (which is what makes websites like Sententiae Antiquae so cool!).

I wanted to make Sappho’s music more accessible, in its entirety. Which meant also helping people build lyres on the cheap, and figuring out how to sing in ancient Greek. I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to do this work, and post-graduation intend to keep the project going (and building better lyres). It’s important to understand my re-creation of Sappho’s performance is far from ‘accurate’. Today, not much is known about what her performance would have looked like (though I do agree with scholarship suggesting it was public and choral).

I do the best I can, but I am just one person, now in quarantine, as we all are. When I sing in ancient Greek I am trying to make it sound good to a modern ear, Sappho probably would have thought it sounded ridiculous. This project is a love letter to Sappho, and in a lot of ways I feel as though I’m a little kid putting on a grown woman’s appearance and mimicking her work. I am ‘playing’ at Sappho. I believe the beauty of her work is enough; and I hope to share it with others and encourage them to re-create it themselves.

All that being said, I made my fair share of mistakes. I had a ton of issues making different lyres. Bending wood/ other materials was a consistent problem for me in lyre building, as was my final design shape (my final lyre looks more like a lyra than a barbitos). I had issues sourcing materials, and had to compromise on my final lyre by using a turtle shell, rather than a tortoise shell. This lead to its own issues and challenges. I am by no means a skilled craftsman, and my inexperience lead to a lot of mistakes. I am very lucky I still have all my fingers after building several prototypes and my final lyre. I’m also not a great videographer, which is clear from my many videos of my project and process.

My biggest issue in this whole project is that I would often not refer back to my source material as often as I should have – which resulted in my final lyre being the wrong shape, and essentially looking like a different type of instrument (a good way to conceptualize this is that it’s as if I was trying to build a bass guitar, and I have an instrument that sounds like a bass guitar, but looks more like a really big guitar, rather than a bass one). I made the errors of someone unfamiliar with this sort of research and execution, which I am. Though I am fortune in that I did succeed, I have a final lyre which looks cool, and a functional website to showcase my platform.

I also want to make it clear that whatever success I did have is due to the tremendously skilled people that helped me throughout this entire process. I was really lucky to have amazing people help me (Such as Stefan Hagel, Michael Girbal, the creators of Lyreavlos, Sententiae Antiquae, my advisors, my parents, different technology experts and the wood shop technician at my college, to say nothing of all my friends and family who encouraged me). Overall, I was challenged by my absolute lack of knowledge and experience but I never let that hold me back. That doesn’t mean that I was successful or courageous, I just had a good idea which I felt could back up my lack of know-how. How well I executed that is up to debate, but I’m proud of the work I did. I truly hope other people can enjoy it.8D7E63DA-DC37-448C-BBD6-7DBEEEBB7949

If You Feel Rage Coming On, Sing Yourself a Song!

Aelian, Varia Historia 14.23 Achilles plays the Lyre to Calm his Rage

“Kleinias was serious in his manner and he was a Pythagorean in his philosophical training. If he was ever driven towards rage or had a sense of getting hot-headed, immediately before he became too overwhlemed with anger and before it was clear it was coming, he picked up the lyre and began to play. In response to people asking what the reason for this was, he responded melodiously, “I am calming myself”. Achilles in the Iliad seems to me to put his rage sleep when he sings along to a lyre and brings reminds himself of the famous tales of former men through his song. For, since he was a musical man, he chose the lyre first out of all the spoils.”

Κλεινίας ἀνὴρ ἦν σπουδαῖος τὸν τρόπον, Πυθαγόρειος δὲ τὴν σοφίαν. οὗτος εἴ ποτε ἐς ὀργὴν προήχθη καὶ εἶχεν αἰσθητικῶς ἑαυτοῦ ἐς θυμὸν ἐξαγομένου, παραχρῆμα πρὶν ἢ ἀνάπλεως αὐτῷ ἡ ὀργὴ καὶ ἐπίδηλος γένηται ὅπως διάκειται, τὴν λύραν ἁρμοσάμενος ἐκιθάριζε. πρὸς δὲ τοὺς πυνθανομένους τὴν αἰτίαν ἀπεκρίνετο ἐμμελῶς ὅτι ‘πραΰνομαι.’ δοκεῖ δέ μοι καὶ ὁ ἐν ᾿Ιλιάδι ᾿Αχιλλεύς, ὁ τῇ κιθάρᾳ προσᾴδων καὶ τὰ κλέα τῶν προτέρων διὰ τοῦ μέλους ἐς μνήμην ἑαυτῷ ἄγων, τὴν μῆνιν κατευνάζειν• μουσικὸς γὰρ ὢν τὴν κιθάραν πρώτην ἐκ τῶν λαφύρων ἔλαβε.

Aelian is referring to the following passage from Homer when the embassy from Agamemnon comes to treat with Achilles in book 9. Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix arrive and find Achilles singing.

Iliad, 9.185-191

“They came to the dwellings and the ships of the Myrmidons
And they found [Achilles] delighting his heart with the clear-voiced lyre,
A finely wrought one which was silver on the bridge,
The one he chose as a prize after sacking the city of Êetiôn.
He delighted his heart with that and sang the famous stories of men.
But Patroklos sat alone opposite him in silence,
Waiting for time when the grandson of Aiakos would stop his songs.”

Μυρμιδόνων δ’ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ’ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ’ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ’ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν ᾿Ηετίωνος ὀλέσσας•
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ’ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν.
Πάτροκλος δέ οἱ οἶος ἐναντίος ἧστο σιωπῇ,
δέγμενος Αἰακίδην ὁπότε λήξειεν ἀείδων,

Aelian’s interpretation is interesting in part because it makes sense—Achilles is often seen as resting, or taking up time with the singing. But modern interpretations put a lot more weight into Achilles’ words, and what exactly it means to sing the “famous stories of men”. In the same book, Phoenix chastises Achilles by saying: “This is not what we have heard before in the famous stories of men/ heroes, whenever a powerful anger overtook someone” (οὕτω καὶ τῶν πρόσθεν ἐπευθόμεθα κλέα ἀνδρῶν / ἡρώων, ὅτε κέν τιν’ ἐπιζάφελος χόλος ἵκοι, 9.524-5). And in the Odyssey, the same phrase is used to indicate Demodokos’ ability to sing songs from the Trojan War, right before he sings about the conflict between Odysseus and Achilles. (Μοῦσ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸν ἀνῆκεν ἀειδέμεναι κλέα ἀνδρῶν, 8.73)

So, the basic argument is that the phrase kléa andrôn is a metonym for tales from myth or epic and that Achilles is not merely entertaining himself but, just as Phoenix invites him to consider the lessons from “the famous stories of men” as precedents to help correct his behavior, Achilles is singing in order to figure out where his story fits in the pantheon of tales he knows. And, against Aelian’s interpretation, Achilles doesn’t seem to have overcome his anger for very long once Odysseus begins to speak…

Get Me Drunk and Turn me Into a Lyre: Drinking Songs for New Year’s Eve

Carm. Conv. 17

“I wish I could turn into an ivory lyre
And that beautiful children would carry me to the Dionysian dance.”

εἴθε λύρα καλὴ γενοίμην ἐλεφαντίνη
καί με καλοὶ παῖδες φέροιεν Διονύσιον ἐς χορόν.

Carm. Conv. 6

“What kind of man each person is
I wish I could know by opening his chest and then
Looking at his mind and after closing it again
To recognize a dear friend by his guileless thought”

εἴθ’ ἐξῆν ὁποῖός τις ἦν ἕκαστος
τὸ στῆθος διελόντ’, ἔπειτα τὸν νοῦν
ἐσιδόντα, κλείσαντα πάλιν,
ἄνδρα φίλον νομίζειν ἀδόλωι φρενί.


Anonymous Lyrics (Plutarch, Table Talk 1)

“I hate the drinking buddy who doesn’t forget.”

μισέω μνάμονα συμπόταν

Carmen Conviviaia 890

“The best thing for a mortal man is to be healthy
And second, to be pretty.
Third, is to be wealthy without deceit.
And, fourth, is to be young with friends.”

ὑγιαίνειν μὲν ἄριστον ἀνδρὶ θνητῷ,
δεύτερον δὲ φυὰν καλὸν γενέσθαι,
τὸ δὲ τρίτον πλουτεῖν ἀδόλως,
τέταρτον δὲ ἡβᾶν μετὰ τῶν φίλων.

This appears in the Scholia to Plato’s Gorgias where it is attributed to either Simonides or Epikharmos.

(1) τὸ σκολιὸν τοῦτο οἱ μὲν Σιμωνίδου (Scolia Anonyma 7 Diehl)
φασίν, οἱ δὲ ᾿Επιχάρμου (fr. 262 Kaibel). ἔστι δὲ τοιοῦτον•
ὑγιαίνειν μὲν ἄριστον ἀνδρὶ θνητῷ,
δεύτερον δὲ φυὰν καλὸν γενέσθαι,
τὸ δὲ τρίτον πλουτεῖν ἀδόλως,
τέταρτον δὲ ἡβᾶν μετὰ τῶν φίλων.
τοῦτο δὲ τὸ τελευταῖον παραλέλειπται ὡς μὴ πρὸς ὃ βούλεται Πλάτων
χρήσιμον ὄν.

Happy New Year to all of our friends!