Ritual Music and Deified Instruments in the Bronze Age Near East

The cognitive interface between musician and god, instrument and player

Kinyras, in Greco-Roman sources, is the central culture-hero of early Cyprus: legendary king, metallurge, Agamemnon’s (faithless) ally, Aphrodite’s priest, father of Myrrha and Adonis, rival of Apollo, ancestor of the Paphian priest-kings (and much more). Kinyras increased in depth and complexity with the demonstration in 1968 that Kinnaru—the divinized temple-lyre—was venerated at Ugarit, an important Late Bronze Age city just opposite Cyprus on the Syrian coast. In his forthcoming book, Kinyras: the Divine Lyre, John Curtis Franklin seeks to harmonize Kinyras as a mythological symbol of pre-Greek Cyprus with what is known of ritual music and deified instruments in the Bronze Age Near East, using evidence going back to early Mesopotamia. Franklin addresses issues of ethnicity and identity; migration and colonization, especially the Aegean diaspora to Cyprus, Cilicia, and Philistia in the Early Iron Age; cultural interface of Hellenic, Eteocypriot, and Levantine groups on Cyprus; early Greek poetics, epic memory, and myth-making; performance traditions and music archaeology; royal ideology and ritual poetics; and a host of specific philological and historical issues arising from the collation of classical and Near Eastern sources. Kinyras includes a vital background study of divinized balang-harps in Mesopotamia by Wolfgang Heimpel. Glynnis Fawkes provides illustrations and artwork.
John recently answered a few questions about his book.
Q. Which came first, Kinnaru or Kinyras?
cover of John Franklin's Kinyras the Divine Lyre
It depends on how you look at it. Ultimately, I argue, Kinyras originates in the practice of divinizing musical instruments,especially those in sacred service. Such cults flourished especially in the Bronze Age, and are well attested especially for Mesopotamia, but also the Hurrian and Hittite worlds, and at the Syrian site of Ugarit (destroyed ca. 1200). There the kinnāru, a kind of lyre widely-dispersed in Syria and the Levant, and best known from the kinnōr of King David, is explicitly divinized in the so-called “pantheon texts.” Yet Kinnaru of Ugarit was probably not a direct, or the only, ancestor of Kinyras, the phonology of whose name (“Kinyras”) indicates connections rather in Canaan. As it happens, Kinyras, despite his dominant associations with Cyprus, is traced to an earlier home at Byblos by an important subset of our sources. “Kinyr-as” per se of course has undergone secondary shaping in Greek; and yet this very form is already found as a personal name at Mycenaean Pylos, thus roughly contemporary with the evidence from Ugarit. These sources indicate that we are glimpsing a relatively late stage in the lifecycle of Kinnaru/Kinyras. But this is not so surprising when one considers that the best evidence for other divinized instruments comes especially from the Early and Middle Bronze Ages (late third and early second millennium BCE).
Q. I’ve never heard of the deification of musical instruments. Could you tell me a little bit about it?
There are good parallels in the ethnomusicological literature, especially for Africa—though my impression is that much work remains to be done there, and I hope that my study of the ANE material will be illuminating for those who pursue it. The essential ideas are that an instrument permits communication with the gods, and indeed that its sound is itself a divine voice, its music a divine message. This raises interesting questions about the cognitive interface between instrument and player, musician and god, with cult-musicians enacting or instantiating the divinity of the instrument they themselves play. The Mesopotamian sources especially provide key evidence on this front. There divinized instruments were a subset of divinized cult-objects; the creation of all such items was governed by complex rituals of construction, naming, and divine investment (all of these phases are well-paralleled in Africa). Once created, they were treated like any other god: they were given offerings, anointed with oil, sworn by, and so on. They were conceived as servant-deities to and familiars of master-gods; all the major Mesopotamian gods are known to have had one or more divinized balang-harps in their service (every temple had to be properly equipped). Divinized objects, including instruments,
could even appear in mythological narratives. This is a key point for explaining how Kinyras, if he is indeed rooted in the Divine Lyre, could develop such a rich myth-cycle.
Q. Kinyras seems to pop up everywhere, across thousands of years and thousands of miles. Why do you think he was so compelling? Is there any other figure who can match his versatility?
King David is probably the most illuminating parallel. Kinyras and David were both remembered as kings and founders of royal dynasties; both were remembered as virtuous monarchs who presided over a Golden Age, and both are credited with many more abilities than music alone. Yet musical activity—specifically expertise on kindred lyres (the cognates kinýra and kinnōr)—is at the heart of each figure. It is through the kinnōr that David first comes to prominence at Saul’s court; with it he leads the Ark-procession which consolidates his kingdom and makes it “like other nations.” I argue that Cypriot kings of the Late Bronze Age, predicted David in presenting themselves as the ‘lyre-player’ in connection with an “Ishtarization” of the Cypriot goddess. Whereas David is a (fundamentally) historical figure dressed in legendary garb, Kinyras is a legend that clothes one or more historical figures now lost to the record. The historical and the ideal are bridged by the Divine Lyre itself, which was simultaneously material and mythogenic, especially in ritual performance. Like David, and across roughly the same period (early first millennium), Kinyras became a magnet for all sorts of legends and cultural associations, in his case mostly (but not exclusively) Cypriot.
Q. Describe your process in working with Glynnis, your wife and illustrator.
I am very fortunate to be married to one of the field’s very best archaeological illustrators. She has always been very generous in supplying me promptly with drawings; she loves doing them, because she comes to know each object intimately, and this provides her with rich material for her own art and comics. Some of this you can see in the book’s section headers, which contain original Kinyras-themed drawings, as well as the luscious cover, which shows the ruins of Alassa—an important LBA Cypriot site, which Glynnis first painted for her wonderful Archaeology Lives in Cyprus (Nicosia, 2001), and generously agreed to deface with a figure of Kinyras on a bronze ingot.
Q. Is there a reason that Kinyras didn’t join the Greeks in the Trojan War? Was he just not “Greek” enough?
This is a deep puzzle. That Kinyras could be approached for ships at all might suggest that he had been one of Helen’s suitors. As it happens, Lucian’s True History presents a certain Kinyras who, as a good-looking Cypriot sailor, is reminiscent of the legendary Cypriot king. This Kinyras plays a Paris-like role in abducting Helen from the side of Menelaus in the underworld. Besides this, we have the reports of two Medieval travelers to Cyprus, who were told that the Greek fleet gathered not at Aulis, but at Paphos, as it was from here that Helen was abducted. It is not clear how these pieces fit together, but Cyprus was evidently home to parallel epic realities. In any case, Kinyras’ treachery to the Greek cause caused Agamemnon to curse him (Eustathios), and this is no doubt related to a Cypriot tradition collected in the fourth century BCE by Theopompos, who reported that Kinyras was driven from power by “the men with Agamemnon.” This is one of several examples of Kinyras mythologically expressing the cultural encounter between Greeks and pre-Greeks that transpired especially in the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE with intensive Aegean immigration to the island.


John Curtis Franklin, a professor of Classics at the University of Vermont, was a Fellow at the Center in 2005–2006. His book explores the legends, literature, and visual art surrounding the mythological Cypriot figure Kinyras. Kinyras the Divine Lyre is being published by the Center for Hellenic Studies. The book will be available in print and online at chs. harvard.edu.