The Early Lyre in Scandinavia. A Survey
Vaitekunas, V. (red.):
Tiltai/Bridges (ISSN 1392-3137)
2000, 3 (12), pp. 19–25.
University of Klaipéda
In this paper I will introduce material about the early historical lyre in Scandinavia. The main object is to list
and survey the finds, an approach I consider to be important. Especially within the field of early music history
and music archaeology, but also on a more general level, documentation and collecting of material is an
important task which provides a basis for further research.
The term lyre denotes a stringed instrument consisting of a soundbox (corpus) which is connected to a
crossbar (yoke) with two arms. The crossbar holds the strings. The earliest lyres are recorded from the 3rd
millennium BC in Mesopotamia, and their existence is well known from the antiquity of Egypt, Greece and
Rome. The connection between the antique lyres and the earliest medieval examples in Europe, is not clear.
Their existence in Scandinavia may be accounted for through archaeological, iconographical and written
sources. The written sources are scarce, and it is often difficult to know which instruments the texts refer to.
This survey is based predominantly on iconographical and archaeological material.
An engraving on a Swedish picture-stone from Lärbro Källstede, Gotland, is the earliest indication of the lyre
in Scandinavia. The motive is thought to be a lyre (Henschen-Nyman 1980, Lund 1981:255). The stone is
dated to ca. A.D. 500 (Fig. 1).
The bridge is one part of the lyre which from time to time turns up in excavations. From the period before
1100, three bridges for lyres have come to light in Sweden. One is made of amber, excavated at Broa in Halla
parish, Gotland, and dated to 8th–9th century (Lund, loc.cit., Reimers 1980). It has notches for six strings
(Fig. 2). Another bridge, from the famous viking locality Birka in Uppland, is made of antler, and has place
to carry seven strings (Fig. 3). It is dated to the viking age (Lund, loc.cit.). The last one is also a viking age
find (Fig. 4). It was found at Gerete in Fardhem parish, Gotland (information supplied by Gotlands Fornsal,
Visby). It is made of bronze, and has the unusual feature of an extra bar at the top, allowing the strings to
cross in the space between the bar and the notches. Apart from this feature, the bridge has a similar design to
the antler-bridge from Birka.
It is common to these bridges that it is difficult to determine how many strings they have supported. The
reason for this is that the notches furthest to the sides look different, suggesting the possibility that they have
not served as notches for strings. This also concerns the question of the function of the “towers” on each side
of the notches. Are they there to prevent the strings slipping off, or are they merely a decorative element?
Hence, the bridge from Broa, Halla may have supported either four or six strings, the Birka bridge may have
supported five or seven strings, and the Gerete, Fardhem one have had six or eight strings. To get answers to
these questions, it is necessary to perform analyses.
The hard materials of these bridges are probably not ideal from an acoustical point of view, but they
correspond with the practice elsewhere in Europe (Crane 1972:10ff, Homo-Lechner 1996:85).
From this early, pre-Christian period one more archaeological fragment of a lyre is known. It is part of
a crossbar from the 10th or 11th century (Fig. 5), found at Hedeby, now part of Germany (Kristensen
1994:164). Hedeby was an important port of trade for the Scandinavian and Baltic region from the 7th
century. The crossbar has six holes for tuning pegs.
These finds should be parallelled to finds in other western European countries, where bridges and other parts
of lyres have come to light, and where the finds are accompanied by iconographical sources. The examples
have been found to date from around the 6th to the 11th century, and the most usual number of strings was
probably six. The remains of the lyres from Obeflacht, Cologne and Sutton Hoo are among the most wellknown
examples from this period (Fig. 6).
From the 11th century and onwards the bow spread in Europe (Bachmann 1969). Different stringed
instruments started to be played with the bow, whereas instruments specially made for bowing probably
appeared later. The lyre was one of the instruments which became popular to play with the bow. Depictions
of bowed versions of the lyre are found quite frequently from this time and onwards. The opposite is the case
with the plucked version, which probably lost its popularity. Scandinavia, particularily Norway, was however
an exception to this, as the plucked lyre probably survived into the 14th century. The evidence to support this
is the following:
On the portals from Hylestad and Austad stave churches the story about Gunnar i ormegården (Gunnar in
the Snake Pit) is carved as a series of scenes. Both date to around 1200 (Lawson 1978:141). In one scene,
Gunnar is pictured playing the lyre (Figs. 7 & 8). The instruments are rounded, and have ornaments at the top
of their arched crossbars, creating a “royal” impression. They are depicted with a lot of strings, apparently
10–12 (Hylestad) and approximately 15 (Austad).
Three more depictions of lyres in connection with the story of Gunnar are known. In Norum church,
Bohuslän, Sweden, there is a font with Gunnar and his lyre engraved on the stone, which is dated to the 12th
century (Lawson, loc.cit.) (Fig. 9). A Norwegian wooden bench from Hove in Lisleherad, Telemark, has the
same motive (Fig. 10). This bench is believed to date from 1250 or later (Hohler 1998:156, Lawson, loc.
cit.). Finally, a 14th century drinking vessel from Mo, also Telemark, shows the same (Aksdal & Hagland
1987:106f.). (Fig. 11).
The story of Gunnar is part of a large cyclus of stories, found in Germanic countries. The motive with Gunnar
in the snake-pit fighting the snakes is also found in a wide area, but the musical scene is probably added in
Scandinavia. In some pictures, Gunnar plays a triangular harp, an instrument known in Scandinavia from
approximately the 13th century.
Another lyre-player who is a somewhat parallel figure to Gunnar, is King David. The depictions of David
with his lyre are often stylized, and do not always give information about local musical instruments and
traditions. The artists who imaged the stories of Gunnar, on the other hand, are more likely to have been
inspired by actual musical instruments. One indication of the view that Gunnar’s lyres are not borrowed
motives, is a remarkable find of the material remains of a lyre. It comes from the farm Kravik in Numedal,
Norway (Fig. 12).
The Kravik-lyre should not be regarded as an archaeological find. It was probably kept at the farm during
centuries as a kind of jewel. It is made of one piece of pine. The soundboard is missing, as well as parts of
the resonator. Before it arrived at the Historical Museum in Oslo in 1864, one piece of the crossbar was also
missing. The museum replaced it with a piece of wood, and during this operation they probably made an
extra hole for the tuning pegs, so that the instrument now has eight holes, whereas the original number was
seven (Emsheimer 1980). The dating of this specimen is difficult, as there are few clues. The literature often
describes it as 14th century. This is in accordance with its similarity to the depictions from Lisleherad and
Mo, which are given a later date than the Setesdal-portals.
Further, an interesting archaeological find is a bridge from Gamlebyen (the old town) in Oslo (Fig. 13)
(Kolltveit 1997). The bridge is found in layers dating from the middle or third quarter of the 13th century.
It is made from pine, and presumably had notches for seven strings. It does not resemble the bridges from
the earlier periods, which are usually made of hard materials such as amber, antler and bronze, and it is not
as thoroughly made. It is formed like the bridges of bowed instruments, but since it is not curved, it is most
probably a bridge for a plucked lyre. (As far as we know, lutes or other plucked instruments were not in use
in Scandinavia at this time.)
A late romanesque wall painting from Aal, Jutland, Denmark, shows a musical instrument which has been
interpreted as a lyre (Haastrup & Egevang 1987:114) (Fig. 14). It is somewhat restored, but it is possible
to date it to 1200–1225. King David is depicted with a book in one hand and the lyre in the other. The
instrument appears less stylized than usual in such David-pictures. Its shape is of a continental kind, but it
is difficult to draw conclusions about the details of it. This lyre, with rounded contours, is an example of
the type sometimes called round-lyre. However, not only lyres with such clear rounded form are referred
to as round-lyres. Hortense Panum (1915:80) used this term for the medieval European lyres in general, as
opposed to the lyres of the antiquity.
We do not know what the medieval lyre-players called their instruments, but it is unlikely that they regarded
them as lyres. The word lyre does not appear in the written sources. Some researchers mean that rotte refers
to lyre. However, this name is only rarely found in medieval Scandinavia. But in the early texts, we more
frequently find the term harpe. When the sources speak about harp, they probably meant both triangular
harp and lyre. Moreover, there is also a possibility that this name has covered all stringed instruments, as
suggested by several writers.
The bowed lyre
The evidence shows that the plucked lyre was known in the western part of Scandinavia until the 14th
century. But the popularity of the plucked lyre did not exclude the bowed version. I will introduce two
iconigraphical sources which indicate the existence of the bowed lyre in medieval Scandinavia.
A fragmented wall painting of a musical scene is preserved in Røldal stave church. (Lawson, 1978) (Fig.
15). It shows a person playing a lyre with something that may be a bow. Only this part of the scene has
survived, but it is possible to observe that the instrument is of the rounded version as on the Hylestad and
Austad church portals, but without their crowned arches of the crossbar. The painting is dated to ca. 1200
(information from Historical Museum, Bergen.).
Another source is a well-known stone sculpture from the Trondheim Cathedral, Norway, representing a figure
playing an instrument which is interpreted as a bowed lyre (Fig. 16). The sculpture, which is dated to the
second quarter of the 14th century, gives a rectangular impression of the instrument, but with few details.
Otto Anderson (1923, 1956, 1970) has compared this sculpture to the Finnish jouhikantele and the Estonian
Anderson, who was the most prominent researcher of the northern bowed lyre, discovered the ancient and
archaic tradition of this instrument on the Estonian islands with Swedish settlements, and he found parallels
in Scandinavia and areas with Scandinavian connections. In Sweden and Finland we have seen a revival
of the bowed lyre during the last decades, on the basis of Andersons work and on preserved instruments in
museums (Bergelt 1986, Larsson 1979).
Anderson’s view, at least in his latest works (Anderson 1970), was that the bowed lyre originated in Celtic
areas, thus the impulse was going from west to east. There may also be the possibility of a diffusion of the
bow as well as the bowed lyre from east, via the viking voyages through the Russian waterways (Bergelt,
ibid:232 ff), although the art of bowing spread slightly later than the viking period (Bachmann, ibid.).
Others, again, suggest a continental origin of the bowed lyre (Aksdal & Hagland 1987:110). Without making
judgments on these possibilities, it should be clear that Scandinavia was not isolated from the outside world
during these centuries. Hence, musical instruments should be viewed in a broad geographical context.
Another question arising along these lines, is the relation between the Scandinavian lyres and the stringed
instruments found in Poland (Emsheimer 1964, Homo-Lechner 1996:91) and Russia (Kolchin 1989:140ff),
sometimes termed lyres or bowed lyres, sometimes psalteries and sometimes gusle (Fig. 17). There has
obviously been connections across the Baltic sea. As regards Novgorod, the archaeologists have documented
close contact with Scandinavia, from the viking period and onwards, continuing into the high middle ages.
One problem is: Do these instruments represent a meeting between the lyre and the psaltery? We should also
ask if the hole in these instruments imply that they have been bowed.
One topic to be briefly mentioned is the social position of the lyres and their players. It is believed that
lyres belonged to the noble classes. The literary references speak about harps (i.e. also lyres) in connection
with kings and other people of high position. Some of the European finds are connected to the nobility of
warriors. Both in England and Germany lyres are excavated in graves of warriors, who were buried with their
instrument. It is likely that they functioned as story-tellers, and that they accompanied their own singing with
The bridges found in Sweden as well as the later medieval iconography in Scandinavia indicate instruments
of prominent appearance. It is most likely that these instrument were connected to high-ranking people and
circles. However, the bowed lyre seems to have been adopted by lower social groups, and this is probably
one reason for the survival of this instrument into our time.
There are indeed several interesting themes to discuss in relation to this material, for instance questions
concerning the musical practice or the cultural significance in a wider perspective. Here I will only outline
some possible themes, and suggest some answers.
1. What was the relation between the plucked lyres in Scandinavia and western Europe in the early period
(ca. 500–1100)? Are we speaking of the same types of instruments, and the same functions and uses?
It has been suggested that the Scandinavian lyres were imported from the Rhine-area (Emsheimer 1980).
Before we have more substantial evidence of the lyres in Scandinavia from this period, it is difficult to prove
anything regarding this. But I think we should not exclude the possibility that local musicians made their own
lyres, for instance at Gotland in the 6th century and onwards.
2. What was the relation between the plucked lyres in Scandinavia and in Europe in the late period (ca. 1100–
1400)? Did the Scandinavian round-lyres represent a separate type, not only in art, but as real instruments?
I think that the round-lyres appearing in musical iconography in Southern Norway in the 12th and 13th
centuries, represented real instruments of a local tradition. The characteristic rounded shape of these
instruments with the “crowned” arches was apparently a development of a separate type. Judging from the
number of strings, and the form of the survived example from Kravik, I believe most of these instruments
were plucked, without excluding the possibility that some of them could be played with the bow. One
interesting aspect of this, is that these plucked lyres represent the last stage in the development of the plucked
lyre, if we exclude the African traditions.
3. What was the relation between the plucked and the bowed lyres? For instance: Could the same instruments
possibly be plucked and bowed?
The plucked and bowed lyre versions should be regarded as basically the same instrument, especially in the
beginning of the period of bowing. A lot of problems from this period are unsolved, and one should be careful
with conclusions about which instruments were bowed and plucked, and how the transition from plucked to
bowed took place.
Coda: Thoughts on tuning and playing
The tuning of the lyres and the way they were played is not the subject of this paper. However, I would like
to mention one interesting possibility regarding the playing of the plucked versions: On some iconographical
examples from England and the Continent, the player is sitting with the instrument on the left thigh (Lawson
1981: 241), and seemingly using both hands. Perhaps one way of playing was similar to kanteleplayers
today: using both hands, so that the strings are struck with the right hand, while they are stopped (muted) and
plucked with the left hand.
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Fig. 1. Picture stone, Lärbro Källstede, Gotland, 6th c. (Lund 1984: 23)
Fig. 2. Bridge made of amber, Broa, Halla, Gotland, late 8th–early 9th c. (Lund 1984:22)
Fig. 3. Bridge made of antler, Birka, Uppland, viking age (Lund 1984:22)
Fig. 4. Bridge made of bronze, Gerete, Fardhem, Gotland, viking age (Photo by Gotlands Fornsal, Visby)
Fig. 5. Crossbar of lyre, Hedeby, Schleswig, 10th–11th c. (Kristensen 1994:164)
Fig. 6. Reconstructed lyres from the ship-burial Sutton Hoo, East Anglia, England, 7th c; and St Severin
church, Cologne, Germany, 8th c. (Bruce-Mitford 1983:683,690)
Fig. 7. Motive from Hylestad stave church portal, ca. 1200 (Grinde 1991:9)
Fig. 8. Motive from Austad stave church portal, ca. 1200 (Panum 1915:86)
Fig. 9. Carved font, Norum church, Bohuslän, 12th c. (Panum 1915:88)
Fig. 10. Bench, Lisleherad, Telemark, 13th c. (Panum 1915:87)
Fig. 11. Drinking vessel, Mo, Telemark, 14th c. (Aksdal & Hagland 1987:108).
Fig. 12. Wooden remains of lyre, Kravik, Numedal, 14th c.? (Grinde 1991:11,12)
Fig. 13. Bridge from Gamlebyen, Oslo, 13th c. (Photo and drawing by author)
Fig. 14. Wall painting from Aal, Jutland, 1200–1225 (Haastrup & Egevang 1987:115)
Fig. 15. Wall painting, Røldal stave church, Hordaland, ca. 1200 (Photo by Historical Museum, Bergen)
Fig. 16. Stone sculpture, Trondheim Cathedral, 1325–1350 (Grinde 1991:14)
Fig. 17. Instruments excavated in Novgorod, 13th c. (left) and Gdansk, 1255–1275 (right) (Kolchin
1989:384, Emsheimer 1964:102)
Fig. 18. Outline of Scandinavian medieval lyres.
The article is a survey of early lyres in Scandinavia on basis of available sources, which are mainly
archaeological finds and depictions. It is a brief listing of material regarding the instrument in the period
c.500–1400, connected with some problems and questions.
The earliest find of the lyre in Scandinavia is a 8th–9th Century amber bridge found at Gotland, Sweden.
This and other finds should be parallelled by finds in different western European countries, where bridges and
other parts of lyres have come to light, and where the finds are accompagnied by iconographical sources.