The harp has occupied a place in myth, legend, and lore for as long as it has been around as an instrument. Perhaps because of it’s powerful effect upon the body and the senses, including it’s ability, when properly played, to transport the listener to an elevated state of consciousness. It is not surprising that the harp appears as an important symbol in several cultures. Because of its association with the divine and ethereal, many mythical creatures are often depicted playing harps, including angels, mermaids, sirens, gods, elves, and so on.
Ancient Greek Mythology
Ancient Greek mythology credits Apollo with the discovery of the lyre, a precursor of the harp. “According to myth, Apollo brushed against a turtle shell on the ground and heard the sinews …. vibrate. He presented this new discovery, the lyre, to Zeus as an apology for stealing his cows…Apollo was usually depicted with a bos, sympolizing his power as a destroyer, or a lyre, symbolizing wisdom. The lyre also represented moderation and the job of communion with other Olympian gods through music, dance and poetry” ( pp. 2-3). Legend also tells the tale of Orpheus, the son of Apollo, whose “rich clear words and the silvery notes from his harp were so enchanting that they … had a magical effect on everything around him. His songs could charm even rocks and rivers as well as humans and animals. Once when Orpheus was playing his splendid music in the forest, the oak trees pulled up their roots. They followed him down the mountainside and planted themselves by the seashore where Orpheus ended his song”.
Mermaids, water nymphs, and sea sirens are known to lure hapless watery travellers to their doom by virtue of their enchanting singing and, often, playing upon the harp.
In Irish mythology, Canola was the mythical inventor of the harp. After having an argument with her lover, she left his bed in the middle of the night to take a walk. She heard beautiful music and sat down, soon falling asleep. When she woke up the next morning, Canola realized the wind had created the music by blowing through partially rotted sinew still attached to a whale skeleton. She designed the harp based on this”. “The harp has a significant place in Irish Mythology. It is depicted as a powerful manipulator of emotions and bodily states, endowed with the ability to make those who hear it laugh or cry uncontrollably, and it also has the power to induce sleep”. The Dagda, a mythological Irish chieftain, was renowned for his beautiful harp, which was said to come to him when he called. The magic qualities of the harp inspired warriors as they went into battle, and soothed them when they returned. One class of druids played the harp and recited poetry. Later, these itinerant druidic bards became known as “hedge priests” because it was believed that they were able to traverse the threshold (hedge) between worlds.
- Early Scandinavian Sources to Harps and Harp Playing
- Harps in Mythology
- Irish Harp Mythology
- The Harp as a Cosmic Symbol
Note about this category article. Some of this content has been copy-pasted from Peggy Coates' website dorveille.com The website has disappeared, but the content remains on the internet archives. Attempts have been made to get in touch with the original author, but have been unfruitful. Should Peggy come across this content, please get in touch with @harpwiki!
Read Some Harp Legends and Stories
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