Greek Esoteric Music Theory

The Four-String Lyre of Hermes

Element Humor Quality Season Moon
6 e
Fire Yellow Bile
Warm Summer to Full
8 b
Air Blood
Moist Spring to 1st Q
9 a
Water Phlegm
Cool Winter to New
12 E
Earth Black Bile
Dry Autumn to 3rd Q

  1. Henricus Glareanus (1547) says that the original Lyre of Hermes had three strings, corresponding the three original Seasons of ancient Greece (Summer, Spring, Winter, from high to low). He says that Orpheus added the fourth string, corresponding to Autumn, when that Season was adopted from the East. Most sources, however, attribute the Four-String Lyre to Hermes. (Godwin HS 198)

  2. It is generally believed that the Homeric Phorminx (Lyre) had three or four strings. Some believe that they were tuned to the Musical Tetractys E-a-b-e as given here; others believe they were tuned to A-B-C-E or to the Elemental Tetrachord A-B-C-D (Anderson 47, 63, 199; Godwin HS 194, 451n16). This chart accepts the Tetractys tuning (6:8:9:12), because of its esoteric importance.

  3. Thus the Four Strings of the Musical Tetractys define the Fixed Notes of the Greater Perfect System of tuning. They are the stable harmonic structure (Eabe) that defines the Disjoint Tetrachords of the Planetary Heptachord (E[FG]ab[cd]e).

  4. All the most ancient Greek musical instruments seem to be based on Four Notes.

  5. Plato's Phaedrus (108d4) alludes to the Art of Glaucus (Glaukou Tekhnê): The Pythagorean Hippasus made four metal disks whose thicknesses were the Musical Tetractys and Glaucus discovered how to play them. (Barker I.30-1)

  6. The Aulos (a reed instrument) often has four finger holes (Barker I.15; Anderson 141). Normally the Greeks played Double Auloi, each having four holes, perhaps corresponding to the two disjoint Tetrachords of the octave. Likewise some early Lyres have eight strings in two groups of four. See The Planetary Heptachord on the two Tetrachords in the Octave.

  7. The Musical Tetractys defines the ratios of the fundamental intervals of Pythagorean Harmony: 6:12 = the Octave (1:2), 6:9 = 8:12 = the Fifth (2:3), 6:8 = 9:12 = the Fourth (3:4), and 8:9 = the whole tone. The structure is two interlocking Fifths (6:9, 8:12), which are equivalent to two Fourths (6:8, 9:12) and the Tone of Disjunction (8:9) between them (as in the Greater Perfect System and the Planetary Heptachord). (Increasing numbers correspond to lower pitches because the numbers represent lengths.)

  8. According to the Ikhwan al-Safa' (Brethren of Purity, 9th or 10th c. CE) and Athanasius Kircher (c.1601-1680), the ratios of Earthly Harmony are embodied in the Cube, the Platonic Solid corresponding to the Element Earth, because the Cube has:

    24right angles
    8solid angles

    Thus, 24:12 gives the Octave, 12:8 the Fifth, and 8:6 the Fourth. (Godwin HS 115, 269, 439)

  9. The correspondences between the Strings, Elements, Humors and Qualities are given by Hunayn (c.803-873 CE), the Ikhwan al-Safa' (Brethren of Purity) and Isaac ben Haim (c.1467-after 1518). (Godwin HS 97, 113-4, 154)

  10. The two interlocking Fifths correspond to the Opposed Elements: Fire/Water and Air/Earth.

  11. According to Hunayn and Isaac ben Haim, some feelings and character traits associated with the Humors are:

    FeelingCharacter Traits
    Yellow Bile couragesovereignty, generosity, kindness
    Blood joy, pleasurejustice, graciousness, love
    Phlegm fearrighteousness, cowardice, vileness
    Black Bile sorrow, anguishforegiveness, impassiveness

    Notice how opposing Humors (Yellow Bile vs. Phlegm, Blood vs. Black Bile, corresponding to opposed Elements) are associated with opposing feelings and traits.

  12. The correspondences between the Qualities and the Seasons and Moon Phases are the usual ones in the Greek Tradition (e.g. Ptolemy Tetrabib. I.5, 8).

  13. See The Elemental Tetrachord and The Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements for additional Elemental correspondences to their explanation.

  14. See The Elemental Tetrachord for the use and significance of the Plektrum (Pick).

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Last updated: Sun May 9 22:55:29 EDT 1999