“The perfect harmonics produced by a plucked harp string

create a waveshape that is the sound equivalent of white light.”

-Sarajane Williams, The Mythic Harp -

The word “harp” means to pull or pluck. Harps are among the most ancient instruments in the world.Much of what we know about ancient harps comes from paintings and carvings from those days. Most early harps were bow shaped without the front column (pillar or post) that harps have now, leading most people to believe that the first harps were probably formed from a hunter’s bow, inspired by the twang of the string when the arrow was shot.   

Paintings and carvings from around 2000 BCE show some harps with an angular shape. Sometime between ancient and medieval times (maybe in the 14th or 15th century CE), a third section (the column or post) was added to the harp, creating the well-known triangle shape. Over the years, strings have been made of twisted hide, fiber, animal tendon, horsehair, or gut.  

Ancient people treated harps with great respect and even awe. As a symbol, the harp has often represented the unifying of earth and heaven as well as the link between inner spirituality and outer physicality. It was not unusual for ancient people to consider harps as mystical doors or ladders into realms of the “other-world.” That’s why angels and other messengers of gods were often pictured carrying a harp. As a result, the harp is often seen as representing communication with the divine.

Harps from Many Times and Places  

Ur (around 2700 BCE):

In the Royal Tombs of Ur, explorers discovered four lyres and harps. A golden bull’s head was carved atop one of the large lyres. A bull was also an ancient symbol of communicating with the divine.

Ancient Jews:

In the Bible, two different words are translated as harp:  kinnor and nevel or nebel. These seem to be two different kinds of stringed instruments. Many people believe the kinnor was a lyre and the nevel was a harp. Jubal, an early descendent of Adam, is said to have invented the harp.

David (around 1000 BCE) was a famous harper, though he may have actually played a lyre. The two
instruments are similar. He wrote many psalms (songs). As a young man, he was summoned to court to play his harp for King Saul for the purpose of calming the king and soothing his spirit.  Eventually David became king.  He used harps in celebration and requested singers and instruments, including lyres and harps, to be used in worship (1 Chronicles 15:16). 

The Psalms often call for the harp to be played during praise and worship.  Harps were also used to accompany prophesying, which was probably a lot like preaching and/or “thanking and praising” God (1 Chronicles 25:1-3).  But harps were often played at secular banquets as well (Isaiah 5:12).


The first ‘divine’ ruler, Fu-Hsi is said to have invented music and the ch’in, which was a type of harp. Only the best religious scholars were allowed to play the ch’in.



The Hindu god Brahma’s wife, Sarasvati, was goddess of waters, wisdom, knowledge, speech and music and is often shown dressed in white,riding on a swan as she plays a vina, a category of stringed instrument that includes harps.

It was said that the harp (or vina) was first invented by Nareda Rishi, an immortal wise man who studied the stars.  He was called the god of music and taught music to both gods and mortals. Only a few mortals were considered worthy enough to play the vina.


One of the seven deities of luck, the goddess Benzaiten is often shown holding a harp-like instrument.  She represents grace & beauty.


One myth says Apollo, the god of light, prophecy, music, and poetry,  created the harp when he discovered that the sound of his bowstring would heal physical wounds and soothe souls.

Another myth says Apollo found a turtle shell lying on the ground.  When he touched it, he heard the vibration of the tendons in the shell. From there, different versions of the story are told:

  1. 1. He took the shell as a gift to Zeus, and it became the first lyre. 

  2. 2. He strung the shell with nine linen cords to honor the nine Muses.


In pictures, Apollo is shown with a bow representing physical power or a lyre, representing wisdom.  (Other Greek myths about the harp are described briefly in the section below on “Harp Stories.”)

Pythagoras of Samos (580-511 BC) was a Greek mathematician and philosopher who recommended music to bring health to the soul. His preferred instrument was the lyre, because it had seven strings. He believed each string produced a different note that echoed one of the heavenly stars. The lyre frame became a symbol of the physical body of humans, the strings stood for the nerves, and the actual music represented the human spirit. So it was thought that harmony of the spirit was created as the ‘nerves’ were played.


    According to Egyptian myth, the god Thoth plucked the dried tendons of the tortoise shell, and that was the first harp, a tale that sounds like one of the Greek legends of Apollo. Many ancient Egyptian paintings show people playing the harp. It seems that harps were played when someone was dying, especially a king, probably as a way to usher that person into a happy afterlife.

Central Africa:

The kissar was a lyre made out of a human skull and gazelle horns.  Some tribes believed that the soul of a person was held inside the bones, so a harp made of bone would reveal truth.


The bones of a fish were formed into a harp by the god Wainamoinen.  His divine music, played on this harp, gave him control over the universe. 


Odin was a Norse god and a great musician. It was said that he spent his days in the tops of the highest trees and his nights deep in the oceans, where he played his harp.

Celtic Culture:

Dagda, chief of the fairies and the god of plenty, called forth the seasons on a harp that played itself.  Druid bards (ancient Celtic priests) played harps, and their songs passed on their lore.


The Welsh telyn was a triangular framed harp.  The laws of Wales (around 945 CE) said every gentleman should own a cloak, chessboard and telyn.


Many ancient Irish tunes are said to have come from fairies’ harp music overheard and copied by human harpers.  Because fairy mounds were considered to be doors into the “other-world,” their music also represented this portal.

Harps were carved from willow, which was believed to be a magic, sacred wood. Legend tells of a famous harper named Craftine, who lived around 540 BCE and played a willow-wood harp.  Its music would cause people to dance.

Warriors often carried harps into battle and used music to unite and inspire the troops to fight.


In early Christian times, harp music often accompanied telling, chanting or singing histories or hero tales. Harps were also used in the religious rites of both pagans and Christians. At the French abbey of Cluny in the 11th century CE, monks played harps as part of their rites to assist the dying.

England (10th century CE):

Saint Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, was accused of sorcery because of his harp. It sat where the wind could blow through the strings, and the resulting sound sounded like sighing or moaning. This is known as an aeolian harp. Its strings, usually tuned in unison, make harmonic sounds when the wind blows through them.  

Latin America (16th Century):

Spanish missionaries brought the harp to Latin America, where it became a religious symbol for some people. They thought the harp held magical healing properties and used it in sacred dances. Wood scraped from the harp and mixed in water was considered holy and was used to heal illness.


In Siberia, musicians played a nine-stringed harp carved in the shape of a swan, which was a symbol of divine healing and grace.  It was called a sciotang (meaning swan).

Harp Stories


David the Harper

Around 1040 BCE, King Saul’s attendants told him, “Let our lord command his servants here to
search for someone who can play the harp. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes upon you, and you will feel better.”  One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the harp.  He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man.  And the Lord is with him.” Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David.” So “Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.”  (1 Sam. 16:16-23)

Solomon’s Harps

King Solomon (around 950 BCE) used “almugwood to make supports for the temple of the Lord and for the royal palace, and to make harps and lyres for the musicians.”  (1 Kings 10:12)

Inspiration for a Prophet

The prophet Elisha called for a harpist (around 850 BCE). “While the harpist was playing, the hand of the Lord came upon Elisha” and he told the people how God would provide water for them.  (2 Kings 3:15)

Taught by the Muses

In Greek mythology, Orpheus, the son of a Muse named Calliope, was given a lyre from his father. The Muses taught him to play the lyre until he became so skillful he could charm animals, people, rocks and trees. Orpheus saved the Argonauts’ lives by playing his music so they wouldn’t be lured to their deaths by the songs of the Sirens.

The Constellation Lyra

According to a Greek tale, after Orpheus died, the Muses hung his lyre in the heavens, and it became the constellation Lyra.

The Harpies

The harpies were Greek goddesses who looked like birds. They played the lyre. After challenging the Muses to a musical contest, their wing feathers were plucked, and they were banished to the stone cliffs.

The Twa Sisters

A Scottish song tells of a harper who found the body of a young woman and made a harp from her bones, using her hair for its strings. When he played this harp at a wedding banquet, the harp told who had murdered the young woman: the bride of the young woman’s lover. Who happened to be her sister.

The Murderess

A myth from Scandinavia tells of a harper drowned by a murderess who used his hair for the strings of her harp and his finger bones for tuning pegs.  But the music she played on the harp killed her. 

A Harp Wind

In a Norwegian myth, a harper named Sigurd played at the wedding banquet of the king’s sister. One of his songs described a wind that could blow off head-dresses. As he sang, the head-dresses of all the ladies blew off and whirled up to the ceiling. 


In the days of King Arthur, a baby was born of a sorceress, who placed the child in a hide vessel and set him out to sea. Elphin, the son of a lord, found the basket and raised the boy, Taliesin. Magically gifted, Taliesin learned to play the harp. One day, Elphin was falsely accused and sent to prison. Taliesin went to the king’s court to try to free Elphin. At court, Taliesin played his harp. While he was playing, a storm blew in, shook the entire castle, broke open Elphin’s chains, and freed him.  


Harps & Harpists, Roslyn Rensch.  Indiana Univ. Press: Bloomington, In., 1989.


The Mythic Harp, Sarajane Williams, Bethlehem, PA: Silva Vocat Music, 2000. www.silvavocat.com

© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

spot photographs courtesy of www.morguefile.com

non-photographic spot art © 2011 Jupiter Images Corporation. Used by permission.