The kithara was an ancient Greek musical instrument in the lyre family. In Latin it is spelled cithara, and in modern Greek the word kithara has come to mean guitar.
The kithara was a professional version of the seven-stringed lyra (lyre). As opposed to the simpler lyra, which was a folk-instrument, the kithara was primarily used by professional musicians (see kitharode, citharoedus). (The barbitos was a bass version of the kithara popular in the eastern Aegean and ancient Asia Minor.)
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 transverse tuning bar (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 played primarily to accompany dances and epic recitations, rhapsodies, odes, and lyric songs. 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.
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 wondered through the laurel grove and came upon the cave of Apollo, where she bathed in the Castalian Spring and took Phoebus' plectrum to play skillful music. The sacred nymphs danced while she stroked the strings with much talent to bring forth sweet musical melodies from the resonant kithara.
Giovanni Boccaccio compiled images of women notable and famous throughout history. One of his images was Sappho playing a kithara.