According to Greek mythology, Orpheus was such a talented musician, that when he sang and played the lyre, even the trees, birds, and stones would come near him to listen to his music.
Orpheus is identified as the son of Calliope, who was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne. However, there's a lack of consensus over the identity of his father. There are some literary works where he is referred to as the son of Oeagrus (King of Thrace), while other works refer to Apollo being his father. In some literary works, there's a mention of Orpheus being a devotee of Dionysus, a god whose worship is closely connected with Thrace.
One of the most popular myths associated with him is that of his journey to the underworld. The creation of the Lyra constellation is closely related to this mythological tale. This constellation is represented by the celestial lyre that was given to Orpheus by Apollo as a gift. In some old maps, this constellation is shown as an eagle carrying a lyre.
The Myth of Lyra Constellation
The following sections will elaborate on the myth associated with Lyra, and explain the connection between the lyre and the Lyra constellation.
Creation of the Lyre
As per the mythological tale, musical sounds attracted the attention of the Olympian god, Hermes (the son of Zeus and the Pleiad Maia), while he was walking on the banks of Nile. He found that the sounds were emanating from the shell of a tortoise. He created a lyre by cleaning out the shell, piercing the rim, and tying strings of cow gut across it. He presented this instrument to Apollo, who gave it to Orpheus.
Orpheus quickly mastered the art of playing the lyre. He played it so beautifully that the music would leave both animate and inanimate objects mesmerized.
Orpheus and Eurydice
As per the myth, Orpheus fell deeply in love with a nymph named Eurydice. They were inseparable. Orpheus often played the lyre and sang love songs to his bride. However, his happiness didn't last for long. Eurydice died after being bitten by a snake. This broke Orpheus' heart. Overwhelmed by sadness and loneliness, Orpheus decided to bring Eurydice back from the underworld.
Orpheus' Journey to the Underworld
He decided to use his music to coax Hades, the god of underworld, to return his bride. Orpheus began to play the lyre, as he descended to the world of the dead. With his melodious music, he managed to please Charon, the ferryman who brought the souls of the dead across the river Styx. Even Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the underworld, let him pass. He approached Hades and Persephone, who were also mesmerized by his music. When Orpheus suddenly stopped playing his lyre, Hades asked him to continue playing love songs on his lyre. Orpheus agreed to play, if Hades would release his beloved wife. Hades agreed to the proposal on one condition. Hades asked Orpheus to trust him, and return without looking back to see if Eurydice was following him. He told Orpheus that if he looked back, it would show his lack of trust in Hades, who would then take Eurydice back into the underworld. Orpheus began his journey while playing his lyre. He was happy, as he could hear the footsteps of Eurydice. However, on reaching the upper world, he had to pass through a pine grove.
Unable to hear the footsteps of his wife, Orpheus could not resist the urge, and he glanced over his shoulder. He just caught a glimpse of his wife, who was then taken by Hades back to the underworld.
Devastated on losing his wife for the second time, Orpheus became nonchalant. His songs became too sad, and his music only reflected his agony. He abstained from coming in contact with other women. He was killed a group of angry women, who resented him for rejecting them. These women cut his body into pieces and threw them and his lyre into a river. He was finally reunited with Eurydice, as his soul descended to the underworld.
Creation of the Lyra Constellation
After Orpheus' death, Zeus sent an eagle to fetch the lyre from the river. He turned the lyre into a constellation to honor Orpheus' music and the love that he had for Eurydice. The eagle became the Aquila constellation. The constellation is sometimes depicted as an eagle or a vulture carrying a lyre. It was once known as Aquila Cadens ('falling eagle') or Vultur Cadens ('falling vulture').
Urcuchillay and Lyra
Sometimes, the Lyra constellation is associated with Urcuchillay, a god worshiped by Incas herders to promote the well-being of their animals. The devotees believed that Urcuchillay would take the form of a multicolored llama and watched over animals.
While the myths associated with the Lyra constellation are really interesting, the constellation is also of great interest to astronomers due to the Lyrid meteor showers that occur in April every year. Despite its small size, the Lyra constellation can be spotted due to the Vega star, which stands at the fifth position, losing only to Sirius A, Canopus, Alpha Centauri, and Arcturus, in terms of brightness in the night sky. Moreover, Lyra is also home to the Ring Nebula.