7 Aug 2010

The kithara

Let's talk some more about some wandering instrument terms in the Mediterranean. That of the kithara (ie. the classical lyre) is an interesting case.

In January, I explained my refined etymology for the mythic creature known to the Greeks as the Chimaira. I've been suggesting since then that it originally came from a Minoan compound *Ki-Amária meaning literally 'Three-Face' which subsequently, following the traditional etymology usually given, the name would have been corrupted by native Greek words χίμαρος 'he-goat' and χεῖμα 'winter' after being loaned from the Minoan language. The Chimaira afterall is a symbol of the seasons of the year, commonly three in number in Greek, Egyptian and (presumably) Minoan culture. This could confirm that *ki is the common Aegean word for 'three' since it's well attested in Etruscan as ci.

So am I pushing it too far to extend this further and suspect that the κιθάρα 'lyre' may likewise be a Minoan compound *ki-θiara meaning 'three-string'? This hypothesis has a clear precedent in the native name of the haunting Chinese lute, the san-xian (三弦), likewise meaning precisely 'three-string'.[1] The classical Mediterranean lyre came in different shapes, with different numbers of strings, but indeed including the 3-stringed variety.[2]

If we take my Minoan compound for granted for a second, it would also imply a word *θiara 'string', relating nicely to Egyptian *sīra 'hair, string, thread', written only as [sr] (> Sahidic Coptic sir 'hair, line, stripe'). The last thing for me to figure out however is whether [sr] is from earlier Old Egyptian *zīra /θiːrə/[3], matching the expected Minoan form best as well as suggesting a reasonably early entry point of the name for the lyre into the Aegean linguistic sphere.

[1] The Persian seh-tār (سه تار) is another example.
[2] Bamford, Homage to Pythagoras: Rediscovering sacred science (1994), p.251 (see link): "What is the historical position of the Greek cithara? The Greeks believed that the cithara had come into Greece as a three-stringed lyre in the ninth century and that it had been developed in Greece itself. This is one of the many fallacies that must be abandoned, because of the pictorial evidence the seven-stringed lyre can be traced back to Minoan Crete, c. 1450 BCE." However, in light of my Minoan musings above, I wonder if this classical Greek stance is possibly due merely to a faulty historical recollection of timeline sullying an otherwise fundamentally correct etymology.
[3] Woodard, The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Aksum (2008), p.164 (see link) confirms that the Egyptian z was a voiceless interdental fricative /θ/, merging with s at a quite early date.


  1. Excellent post. I went back and checked the exact image of the Hieroglyphic Minoan sign *57. It depicts a musical instrument and is believed to correspond to Lin AB *67 = KI by many scholars. Their shape, distribution and usage are all in a perfect match, I can confirm that.

    Though officially labelled as "sistrum" in the CHIC database, I cannot shake the feeling that this is in fact a kithara - an original primitive one. On a close examination, it turns out as possessing three horizontal cords. It also seem to lack a resonator box (if the relatively small handle is not a shell). Because of the large screw on its side that could be used to tighten the cords, I do not think that it is a sistrum. All in all, this instrument is quite unlike the classical kithara - a dwarf version of a lyre, but the match of the initial syllable is interesting.

    To back up my claims, I linked in an entry at the DBAS site, where you can check the shape of the Hiero KI sign. If you look at this image, you can see exactly three cords - an unexpected nice match with your proposal. The other image also presents the sign Hiero *92 corresponding to Linear AB *26 = RU. Officially a "pronged instrument" in CHIC, I believe that is an oversimplified image of a lyre. You can see it much better on a seal where the sign was drawn with more detail. The horns were bound together at their ends and equipped with vertical chords. The wide "handle" of the RU sign is in fact the resonator box - traditionally made from turtle-shells, as the legend of Hermes and Apollon tells us. Because of the horns, the instrument had a "swan-neck"-like curve in it.

    A sidenote: what do you think of the origins of other lyre-like instruments, like the Egyptian kissar or the Israelite kinnor?

  2. I have no facts to challenge a Minoan *lura 'lyre' as of yet and I think it's reasonable.

    As for the "kinnor" conundrum, I'm tentatively assuming Minoan *ki-nauro for now with the same element *ki 'three'. It's possible for multiple words to be used to refer to strings in instrument names. While in Chinese we speak of the san-xian 'three-string', there is also the er-hu 'two-string'.

    There is much evidence that kinnor is from some underlying Mediterranean substrate. Look at Puhvel, Hittite Etymological Dictionary: Words beginning with K (1997), p.182, under kinirtalla-, kinartalla-. The author gives plenty of reflexes of the word in various neighbouring languages, including Hittite.

  3. Hello Glenn, very interesting post!

    Does Greek "θριξ" (> τρίχα = hair) cognate with Lithuanian "drikta" = to break up (eg isdriekti = to stretch, trikti/krikti)? And if so, maybe there's some further connection with your *θiara? I'm not a specialist, so I bet probably not? :-)

  4. If you don't know why you related "breaking up" with "hair" then no one does. And one shouldn't need to be a specialist just to think.

  5. FYI, in Cuba there is a three stringed (actually three sets of two) instrument called a "tres," meaning three. In Venezuela there is a "cuatro" meaning "four," which has four strings. In Puerto Rico there is also a cuatro, but its four strings were doubled, then they added two more. It retained its old name, but has ten strings.