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Apollo kitharoidos (Apollo holding a cithara and wearing the customary kitharōdos’ robes) and musagetes (leading the Muses). Marble, Roman artwork, 2nd century AD
Woman with cithara (right) and sambuca (left). Roman fresco from Pompeii, 1st century AD (National Archaeological Museum, Naples).

The kithara (or Latinized cithara) (Greek: κιθάρα, romanizedkithāra, Latin: cithara) was an ancient Greek musical instrument in the yoke lutes family. In modern Greek the word kithara has come to mean "guitar", a word which etymologically stems from kithara.[1]

The cithara was a seven-stringed professional version of the lyre, which was regarded as a rustic, or folk instrument, appropriate for teaching music to beginners. As opposed to the simpler lyre, the cithara was primarily used by professional musicians, called kitharodes. The cithara's origins are likely Anatolian.[2]: 185 [3] popular in the eastern Aegean and ancient Anatolia.


Cithara on the reverse of a hemidrachm from Cragus (Lycian league).
A Roman representation of a woman playing the cithara (Villa Boscoreale, ca. 40-30 BC)

Whereas the basic lyra was widely used as a teaching instrument in boys’ schools, the cithara was a virtuoso's instrument, generally known as requiring a great deal of skill.[4]

The cithara was played primarily to accompany dance, epic recitations, rhapsodies, odes, and lyric songs.[3] It was also played solo at the receptions, banquets, national games, and trials of skill. Aristotle said that these string instruments were not for educational purposes but for pleasure only.[4]

It was played by strumming the strings with a stiff plectrum made of dried leather, held in the right hand with elbow outstretched and palm bent inwards. The strings with undesired notes were damped with the straightened fingers of the left hand.[3]


Muse tuning two phorminges. The phorminx was an intermediate stage, as the cithara developed from the lyre. Detail of the interior from an Attic white-ground cup from Eretria, c. 465 BC.
Greek vase drawing depicting a man playing a cithara with eight strings. Note the plectrum in his lowered right hand.

The cithara had a deep, wooden sounding box composed of two resonating tables, either flat or slightly arched, connected by ribs or sides of equal width. At the top, its strings were knotted around the crossbar or yoke (zugon) or to rings threaded over the bar, or wound around pegs. The other ends of the strings were secured to a tail-piece after passing over a flat bridge, or the tail-piece and bridge were combined.[3][2]

Most vase paintings show citharas with seven strings, in agreement with ancient authors, but those same authors also mention that occasionally an especially skillful kitharode would use more than the conventional seven strings.[3]

Apollo as a kitharode[edit]

Apollo Kitharoidos. Painted plaster, Roman artwork from the Augustan period

The cithara is said to have been the invention of Apollo, the god of music.[5] Apollo is often depicted playing a cithara instead of a lyre, often dressed in a kitharode’s formal robes. Kitharoidos, or Citharoedus is an epithet given to Apollo, which means "lyre-singer" or "one who sings to the lyre".

An Apollo Citharoedus or Apollo Citharede, is the term for a type of statue or other image of Apollo with a cithara. Among the best-known examples is the Apollo Citharoedus at the Vatican Museums, a 2nd century CE colossal marble statue by an unknown Roman sculptor.[3]

Sappho as a kitharode[edit]

Alcaeus of Mytilene playing a cithara while Sappho listens in Sappho and Alcaeus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1881; The Walters Art Museum).

Sappho is closely associated with music, especially string instruments like the cithara and the barbitos. She was a woman of high social standing and composed widely popular songs that focused on the emotions.

A story from Greek myth goes that she ascended the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus where she was welcomed by the Muses. She wandered through the laurel grove and came upon the cave of Apollo, where she bathed in the Castalian Spring and took Phoebus' (Apollo's) plectrum to play skillful music. The sacred nymphs danced while she stroked the strings with much talent to bring forth sweet musical melodies from the resonant cithara.[6]

Utrecht Psalter image of cithara or lyre
Rotta played differently
Two sketches of string instrument players (citharas, lyres or rottas?) from the Utrecht Psalter, drawn by an Anglo-Saxon artist in Reims, c. 850 CE.

Famous cithara players[edit]

  • Phrynis (Ancient Greek: Φρῦνις) of Lesbos. The Suda mentions that Phrynis was the first to play the cithara at Athens and won at the Panathenaea. By cithara is probably meant the new 12-stringed instrument invented by Melanippides of Melos.[7]

Other instruments called "cithara"[edit]

In the Middle Ages, cythara was also used generically for stringed instruments, including lyres, but also including lute-like instruments.[8][9][a][b] The use of the name throughout the Middle Ages looked back to the original Greek cithara, and its abilities to sway people's emotions.[9]

Biblical references[edit]

An instrument called the kinnor is mentioned a number of times in the Bible, generally translated into English as "harp" or "psaltery", but historically rendered as "cithara". Psalm 42 in the Latin Vulgate (Psalm 43 in other versions), says, "Confitebor tibi in cithara, Deus, Deus meus,"[10] which is translated in the Douay-Rheims version as "To thee, O God my God, I will give praise upon the harp."[11] The King James version renders this verse as "Yea, upon the harp will I praise thee, O God my God."[12] The cithara is also mentioned in other places in the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, including Genesis 4:21, 1 Kings (1 Samuel) 16:16, 1 Paralipomenon (1 Chronicles) 25:3, Job 30:31, Psalms 32:2, Psalms 56:9, Psalms 70:22, Psalms 80:3, Psalms 91:4, Psalms 97:5, Psalms 107:3, Psalms 146:7, Psalms 150:3, Isaiah 5:12, Isaiah 16:11, 1 Machabees 3:45, and 1 Corinthians 14:7.[13]

The kaithros mentioned in the Book of Daniel may have been the same instrument.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cythara ... was often used as a generic term for 'plucked string instrument' by writers discussing a variety of instruments in medieval and Renaissance times ... [a musician using the word about his personal instrument would be] making a claim that his instrument was the one that had the magic to magically manipulate the listener's emotional states as the original cithara (with a similar large plectrum) had a reputation of doing to the ancient Greeks.[9]
  2. ^ There is evidence of citharae shaped like a lute, that is with a neck and an elongated body, even before the 12th century: the Golden Psalter of St. Gall depicts King David wielding an instrument ... this instrument resembles a lute more than a cythara [lyre] ... Further evidence appears in the Stuttgart Psalter ... several images of an instrument ... in the text, next to all these miniatures, the instrument is called a cythara ... .[8]


  1. ^ "guitar". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  2. ^ a b Maas, Martha; Snyder, Jane McIntosh (1989-10-09). Stringed Instruments of Ancient Greece. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-030003686-2.
  3. ^ a b c d e f West, M.L. (1992). Ancient Greek Music. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-814975-1.
  4. ^ a b Aristotle. Politics. 1341a. Aristotle calls the cithara an organon technikon
  5. ^ Pausanias. Description of Ancient Greece. 5.14.8.
  6. ^ Anderson, W.D. (1994). Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3083-6.
  7. ^ Suda, phi.761
  8. ^ a b Francesco Ciabattoni (15 January 2015). Dante's Journey to Polyphony. ISBN 9781442620230.
  9. ^ a b c Segerman, Ephraim (April 1999). "A Short History of the Cittern". The Galpin Society Journal. 52: 78–79. doi:10.2307/842519. JSTOR 842519.
  10. ^ "Latin Vulgate Bible, Psalms Chapter 42".
  11. ^ "Douay-Rheims Bible, Psalms Chapter 42".
  12. ^ "Psalms Chapter 43 KJV".
  13. ^ "Latin Vulgate Bible, Biblia Sacra Vulgata".
  14. ^ "Kaithros". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press. 2001. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]