The warm nights of August are filled with nature’s music: Crickets chirp, nighthawks shriek, and mosquitoes hum (yuck!). Perhaps these creatures are inspired by the sight of the lovely lyre of the heavens, the constellation Lyra. Lying high in the sky as darkness falls, Lyra is marked by six stars.
The lyre was a popular musical instrument among the peoples who lived around the Mediterranean Sea in ancient times. The Greeks saw it as a symbol of Apollo, the god of science and art. But Apollo did not invent the lyre himself; he got it from the playful god Hermes.
Hermes was the son and messenger of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. Hermes was an ingenious character. According to the legends, he invented the alphabet, weights and measures, and even astronomy. But he had a way of getting into mischief.
Once, while Hermes was still an infant, he sneaked away form his mother and went wandering. He came upon a herd of cattle belonging to Apollo. Hermes thought it would be fun to be a rancher and decided to take the herd for himself. To make sure he wasn’t followed, he tied bark and grass to the cows’ hooves to disguise their tracks.
The trick worked for a while. Apollo looked far and wide for the cattle, but with no tracks to follow, he couldn’t find them. One day, though, Apollo heard strange and wonderful new music coming from a cave. The god asked women standing nearby about the music. She said that her son Hermes had invented a musical toy made from a tortoise shell, with strings of cattle gut.
"And where did he get the cattle?" asked Apollo suspiciously. He had seen two cowhides on the cave walls and thought they looked familiar. Hermes’ mother resented Apollo’s suspicions. She pointed at Hermes (who was pretending to be asleep in his crib) and asked how such a small child could be responsible for cattle rustling. But Apollo angrily picked up the child and took him to Mount Olympus to be tried by Zeus.
Zeus didn’t want to believe that his son had taken the cattle, but Apollo had the hides as evidence. Eventually, Hermes admitted the theft and promised to return Apollo’s herd.
Apollo and Hermes set off for the place where the young god had hidden the cattle. It wasn’t a pleasant journey (Apollo was still fuming), so Hermes persuaded Apollo to stop briefly at the cave, where he picked up his new musical invention. As they continued on their way, Hermes began to play the lyre and sing flattering songs about Apollo.
Apollo was charmed both by the songs and by the beautiful sound of the instrument. Suddenly he cried, "How about a deal? You give me that wonderful instrument, and I’ll let you keep the cattle!"
That was just what Hermes was waiting for. He quickly agreed to the bargain, and the two gods returned to Olympus. When Zeus heard the story, he was impressed by Hermes’ persuasive powers and appointed the young god his messenger. Hermes was often called upon to settle disputes, and became the patron of ambassadors.
Hermes’ lyre now lies in the summer sky, a symbol of the soothing power of music. To modern eyes it may look like a harp, a more familiar stringed instrument.