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Star Lore of the Constellations: Lyra the Lyre, by Deborah Houlding

Notable stars in Lyra: Epoch 2000
Longitude Name Nature Mag. Position Lat. Dec.
15 Cap 19 Wega (or Vega) Venus Mercury 0.03 Top of Harp 62N 39N

Lyre, lies on the western edge of the Milky Way next to Hercules, one story being that it was placed there to soothe his endless toils. Aratus called the constellation 'the tiny Tortoise', because according to myth the instrument was invented by the infant god Hermes who found a washed up tortoise shell and added dried tendons for strings, later offering this as a gift to Apollo, who in turn gave it to his son Orpheus.

Yonder too, is the tiny Tortoise, which, while still beside his cradle, Hermes pierced for strings and bade it be called the Lyre: and he brought it into Heaven and set it in front of the unknown Phantom. [1]

This was also described in verse by the 19th century American poet, JR. Lowell:

So there it lay, through wet and dry
As empty as the last new sonnet,
Till by and by came Mercury,
And, having mused upon it,
'Why, here,' cried he, 'the thing of things
In shape, material, and dimension!
Give it but strings, and, lo, it sings,
A wonderful invention!' [2]

Ptolemy lists its stars as of the nature of Venus and a Mercury[3] while Manilius also dwells upon its mythological origin and describes its influence as bestowing the gift of song, music, artistry and the ability to soothe:

Next, with the rising of the Lyre, there floats forth from Ocean the shape of the tortoise shell, which under the fingers of its heir gave forth sound only after death; once with it did Orpheus impart sleep to waves, feeling to rocks, hearing to trees, waves to Pluto, and finally a limit to death. Hence will come endowments of song and tuneful strings, hence pipes of different shapes which prattle melodiously, and whatever is moved to utterance by touch of hand or force of breath. The child of the Lyre will sing beguiling songs at the banquet, his voice adding mellowness to the wine and holding night in thrall. [4]

In ancient India and Egypt the constellation was for millennia represented by an eagle or vulture,[5] hence frequently the lyre is depicted as enclosed within the wings of a bird. The myth of Orpheus also brings connections between an eagle and the harp however - he was so grief-stricken at the death of his wife that he vowed to never fall in love again. A group of Thracian women became so upset with his rejection, that they killed him and threw his Lyre into the river. Zeus ordered an eagle to retrieve the Lyre: the two then being placed into the heavens as a tribute to Orpheus's eternal love. The constellation is frequently referred to as Aquila Cadens or vultur cadens, the falling eagle or vulture. Lilly refers to the constellation as both 'Lyra', and 'cadent vulture' and notes that when afflicted it portends a violent death. [6]

Wega, (or Vega) the main star of the group is one of the brightest stars in the sky, and played an important role in the calendar of the Romans because the beginning of their autumn was indicated by its morning setting. It's a brilliant pale sapphire colour and easily observed when it culminates in mid-August. Pliny called it the Harp star; the Babylonians called it 'The Star of the Queen of Life'.[7] Generally it is noted for bestowing artistic talent and when favourably placed upon the angles it is said to promise great success, wealth and fame. It's Venusian inclination for good living, however, can often sink to debauchery and wasted energies when afflicted. Lilly warns that the star inclines to gravity and sobriety "yet but with outward appearances, for usually the person is lascive".[8] Robson follows Lilly quite closely in concluding of the star:

It gives beneficence, ideality, hopefulness, refinement and changeability, and makes its natives grave, sober, outwardly pretentious and usually lascivious.[9]

Although Lyra is only a small constellation, Wega is one of the brightest stars in the northern heavens and so easily identifiable. With a latitude of 62N it rises high in the eastern sky, and is one of the best landmarks in the Autumn night sky. Together with the bright stars Deneb (from Cygnus the Swan) and Altair (Aquila the Eagle) it forms 'the summer triangle'. Wega rises first and lies on the western point, separated from Deneb by about 23 degrees, and with Altair to the south.

Vega can also be found on a line with Arcturus passing through Alphecca and extending about 40 degrees beyond.

The Sun crosses Wega around 5th January each year.

Notes & References:
  1 ] Aratus, Phainomena II, (1st cent. BC), v.270. Translated by A.W. Mair and G.R. Mair in Callimachus, Aratus, Lycophron: Hymns, Epigrams. Phaenomena. Alexandra, (Harvard University Press, 1921).

'The unknown Phantom' was a reference to Hercules, of whom Aratus writes:

Of it no one can clearly speak, Nor to what toil he is attached; but simply Kneeler they call him. Labouring on his knees, Like one who sinks he seems.

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  2 ] James Russell Lowell, 'The Finding Of The Lyre' from Under the Willows and Other Poems, (Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1868).
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  3 ] Tetrabiblos, 1.9
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  4 ] Manilius, 5.324ff. Translated by G.P. Goold.
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  5 ] Though often shown with a lyre within its beak.
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  6 ] Christian Astrology, p.649. Ramesey also refers to the star Wega as both 'the Shining Harp' and 'The Falling Vulture': Astrology Restored p.103.
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  7 ] Ebertin & Hoffman, Fixed Stars and their Interpretation, p.75
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  8 ] CA., p.537
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  9 ] The Fixed Stars and Constellations in Astrology, 1923; p.216
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© Deborah Houlding. First published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 17; September 1998. Published online December 2005.

Stars & Constellations