Friday, 20 September 2013

Is the guitar descended from the Ancient Greek kithara?

In my novel, The Boy with Two Heads, the hero, Themis, travels to
Olympia around the Peloponnese in a small cargo ship with his uncle Panainos and his personal slave, Frog. There is one other passenger, Molon. Journeys like this (see Map 2) were usually made by sailing during the day and camping on land at night. On the second evening of the four-day voyage, they sit round the camp fire as night comes down and the captain tells them a story. (Story-telling was, of course, a highly valued skill at the time.) Themis comes to sit by the fire ...

   ‘Arion overheard the sailors,’ Captain Stomio was saying. They had just broken into his travel trunk and found his hoard of gold. They were deciding when to throw him overboard.’ 
   ‘Not a good advertisement for your colleagues, dear Captain,’ said Panainos, one eyebrow raised.
   ‘They were Corinthians,’ said the captain. ‘What d’you expect?’ 
   Molon looked shocked, but Panainos and Frog laughed.
The captain went on. ‘Arion was a famous musician and had become rich from his profession. But there was little he could do. He offered to give them all his gold if they would spare his life. But the sailors just jeered at him. So he dressed himself in his richest performance robes and, standing on the bow of the ship, he played his best kithara and sang his favourite song as an offering to Poseidon.
   ‘The sailors enjoyed the song, but showed no mercy. So, rather than let them stab him with their daggers, Arion leapt off the ship into the sea, kithara and all.’
professional singer, ?450BC
   Captain Stomio stood up to kick the fire and drink some water. ‘Dolphins like music,’ he said, as he sat down again. ‘The ship sailed away, but a group of dolphins had gathered to listen to Arion’s song. They carried him with them on their backs for two or three days. They chattered and clicked at him to show they wanted him to play for them, and so he did, all the time hoping they would take him nearer to land. At last they understood he needed food and fresh water, and they brought him in to the west port at Tainaron still wearing his magnificent costume and carrying his kithara. He stood on the end of the quay and gave them one last song. Then, when he’d drunk and eaten, he set off for Corinth to find and punish his would-be murderers!’ 
   ‘And did he get his gold back?’ asked Panainos. 
silver two drachma coin, about 300 BC
   ‘Who knows?’ answered the captain. ‘But he may have, because he had a bronze statue of a man on a dolphin cast, and set it on the quay-side in Tainaron as a thank offering.’

Christina Katseli plays Cretan lyre, Angelos Kyriakos plays Steriano lute,
and Dimitris Zaharis plays bendir (hand drum)

I was reminded of the above story while on a flying trip to Athens last week. During a catch-up session with old friends, we remembered a wonderful musical evening we spent in the depths of winter in the cozy basement of a taverna, listening to traditional songs played on instruments which seemed to have changed little in thousands of years. 

There is an ongoing and intriguing academic argument about the origins of stringed musical instruments. One Greek myth records that the first stringed musical instrument with a soundbox was made by Apollo from the shell of a tortoise, with strings of cow hide stretched over a frame made from the cow's horns. The hypothesis goes that this original instrument (very similar to even older depictions of stringed instruments in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere) evolved in two different directions: one was the modern guitar and the other was lyres and lutes. The kithara as illustrated in the 5th century BC is neither of these. The main reason to believe that the modern guitar evolved from a kithara like Arion's seems to be the similarity in the name ...

Anyway, the instruments we listened to back in January on that Epiphany evening seemed to me to be almost the same as their ancient counterparts - but what do I know? The drum, at least, has changed not at all, though our modern musician was wearing a few more clothes than this ecstatic player ...

Whatever their origin, the instruments and music took us back to the days of bards singing while audiences ate and drank and joined in the choruses ... Christina and friends represent the many who still love and practice music played on lyres - it is very much alive and well, so we can still guess what Arion sounded like to his audience of dolphins.

The Boy with Two Heads is published by Trifolium Books UK, and is available from all good bookshops and on Amazon both as a traditional paperback and as an e-book.

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