The cithara or kithara (Greek: κιθάρα, romanized: kithāra, 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 kithara was a professional version of the four-stringed lyre. As opposed to the simpler lyre, which was a folk-instrument, the kithara was primarily used by professional musicians, called kitharodes. The kithara's origins are likely Anatolian.[2] The barbiton was a bass version of the kithara[3] popular in the eastern Aegean and ancient Anatolia.

In the Middle Ages, cythara was also used generically for stringed instruments including lyres, but also including lute-like instruments.[4][5] The use of the name throughout the Middle Ages looked back to the original Greek kithara, and its abilities to sway people's emotions.[4]


The kithara 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 end of the strings was secured to a tail-piece after passing over a flat bridge, or the tail-piece and bridge were combined. Most vase paintings show kitharas with seven strings, in agreement with ancient authors, but these also mention that occasionally a skillful kitharode would use more than the conventional seven strings.

It was played with a rigid plectrum held in the right hand, with elbow outstretched and palm bent inwards, while the strings with undesired notes were damped with the straightened fingers of the left hand.


The kithara was the virtuoso's instrument, generally known as requiring a great deal of skill.[6]

The kithara 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. The music from this instrument was said to be the lyre for drinking parties and is considered an invention of Terpander. Aristotle said that these string instruments were not for educational purposes but for pleasure only.

Apollo as a kitharode

The cithara is said to have been the invention of Apollo, the god of music.[7] Apollo is often seen playing a cithara instead of a lyre. 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 a statue or other image of Apollo with a cithara. Among the best-known examples is the Apollo Citharoedus of the Vatican Museums, a 2nd-century AD colossal marble statue by an unknown Roman sculptor.

Sappho as a kitharode

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

A Greek mythology story 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 skilful music. The sacred nymphs danced while she stroked the strings with much talent to bring forth sweet musical melodies from the resonant kithara.[8]

Biblical references

The cithara is mentioned a number of times in the Bible. Psalm 42 in the Latin Vulgate (Psalm 43 in other versions), says, "Confitebor tibi in cithara, Deus, Deus meus,"[9] which is translated in the Douay-Rheims version as "To thee, O God my God, I will give praise upon the harp."[10] The King James version renders this verse as "Yea, upon the harp will I praise thee, O God my God."[11] The cithara is also mentioned in other places in the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, including Genesis 4:21, 1Kings(1Samuel)16:16, 1Paralipomenon(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.[12]

Two sketches of string instrument players (citharas, lyres or rottas?) from the Utrecht Psalter, drawn by an Anglo-Saxon artist in Reims, c.850 AD

See also


  1. "guitar". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  2. Maas & Snyder (1989), p. 185.
  3. West, M.L. (1992). Ancient Greek Music. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-814975-1.
  4. Segerman, Ephraim (April 1999). "A Short History of the Cittern". The Galpin Society Journal. 52: 78–79. doi:10.2307/842519. JSTOR 842519. 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 kithara (with a similar large plectrum) had a reputation of doing to the ancient Greeks.
  5. Francesco Ciabattoni. "Dante's Journey to Polyphony". 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 ...
  6. Aristotle calls it an organon technikon Politics (1341a)
  7. Pausanias, Description of Ancient Greece 5.14.8
  8. W. D. Anderson (1994). Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3083-6.
  9. "Latin Vulgate Bible, Psalms Chapter 42".
  10. "Douay-Rheims Bible, Psalms Chapter 42".
  12. "Latin Vulgate Bible, Biblia Sacra Vulgata".


  • Maas, Martha; Snyder, Jane McIntosh (1989). Stringed Instruments of Ancient Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Further reading

  • Peter Pringle demonstrates how a kithara worked
  • "Ensemble Kérylos". a music group directed by scholar Annie Bélis, dedicated to the recreation of ancient Greek and Roman music and playing instruments rebuilt on archaeological reference. In its recording D'Euripide aux premiers chretiens : musique de l'antiquité grecque et romaine, the band plays both Roman and Greek Kitharas. Pictures of its instruments can be seen on their website: Ensemble Kérylos. "Photos"..
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