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Harps and Lyres

Few instruments have survived the ravages of time from the Viking period. The most famous of these is the Sutton Hoo lyre. Although unfortunately smashed by other items in the ship burial, there were enough fragments for it to be reasonably reassembled.[1] Its shape is consistent with the illustrations of lyres from England and continental Europe of the same time period. It is most likely that this is the instrument referred to by Earl Rognvald.

Beyond the Sutton Hoo lyre, there have been many finds of parts of stringed instruments with insufficient information for accurate assessment, but which are consistent with having come from a lyre. A seventh century barrow in Taplow, Buckinghamshire revealed ornamental fittings and wood fragments that closely match those of the Sutton Hoo, two amber bridges were found at Elisenhof, Schleswig (1969), and just recently there has been a find at the Danish National Museum’s Tissø dig of “an exquisite carved bone tuning peg for a string instrument — dating back to the 8th century.”[2] In their article “The Sutton Hoo Lyre, ‘Beowulf’ and the Origins of the Frame Harp”, Rupert and Myrtle Bruce-Mitford not that at that point (1979), no fewer than 15 lyres are known from pre tenth century. This includes 2 graphic representations, one on a bronze bowl from 6th century Kent and another carved into a Gotland standing stone (also 6th century).[3]  Also, although its provenance is somewhat suspect, I have even come across an online artefact merchant selling a bronze lyre tuning key which was identified as being 6th-10th century Anglo-Saxon.[4]

Nils Grinde in A history of Norwegian Music argues the lyre was strictly used as a solo instrument:

“...nowhere in Old Norse literature is it said that it was used as an accompanying instrument. This point needs to be stressed, for there is reason to believe that the southern Teutonic peoples used it for accompaniment. Although it has been a popular belief that the Viking skalds also performed their songs with harp accompaniment, it is extremely doubtful, for neither literary nor other sources support such a conclusion. So far as is known, the skalds sang — or more accurately, recited — their lays without instrumental accompaniment.”[5]

Modern reproduction of a lyre

However, this argument is not universally accepted. At the 40th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2005 there was a performance of Beowulf done by John Bollard of Harvard University accompanied by a hearpe (lyre) built and played by Lloyd Craighill.[6]  One key point that was illustrated in this demonstration was that the lyre filled in the rhythm and smoothed out the flow of the text.[7]

It is uncertain at what point harps appeared among the Norse as well as the lyre. Certainly there was plenty of interaction between the Norse and other areas where the harp was popular. In Scotland, Pictish carved stones from the 8th to 10th centuries illustrate triangular floor mount harps[8] while in Ireland smaller, quadrangular instruments are depicted.

There are very few examples in Norse literature where it is clear that it is a harp and not a lyre being discussed. In the Saga “Bosi and Herraud”, written around 1300 AD, Bosi infiltrates a wedding feast as a master musician with a large harp: “Then ‘Sigurd’ opened the harp. It was heavily inlaid with gold, and so big that a man could stand upright inside it.”[9]  Later in the tale the size of the harp is confirmed when it is used to confine and kidnap the bride.

Shaft from a Pictish Cross
Monifieth 800-100 AD
Museum of Scotland
This is undoubtedly a gross exaggeration (the whole story is somewhat ridiculous), but some early medieval harps were designed to open and be used for storage. More famous is the story of Gunnar who is bound and tossed into a snake pit where he plays the harp with his toes in a vain attempt to calm the snakes: “The heart of Högni was cut out, and Gunnar was cast into a pen of serpents. He struck his harp and lulled the serpents, but an adder stung him in the liver.”[10] This scene is depicted on the portal of the 13th century Hylestad stave church in Hylestad, Setesdal, Norway. In the image, the instrument depicted is fairly unique and probably stylized, but it is closer to a lyre than a true harp. However, when this same scene was carved on the Uvdal stave church in Numedal, Norway in the late 12th century, it is a three cornered harp that is depicted.[11] Portal
Church portal, Hylestad stave church in Hylestad, Setesdal, Norway. 13th century
The other stringed instrument that appears in Norway is a type of zither called a Langeleik. The langeleik had one melody string and 3 to 7 drone strings. Physically it differs little from zithers found elsewhere, but the alternating between striking and plucking the melody string with the left hand between rhythmic strokes of the right give it a unique sound.[12] The langeleik was apparently well established in Norway by the 1600s, but its origins are unclear. The oldest langeleik known in Norway was found at Vardalsåsen near Gjøvik, in the Oppland district, and is inscribed with the year 1524.[13] Langeleik
Modern Langeleik Photo: Hans Bøvre
In Finland, the national instrument for centuries has been the Kantele. The kantele is a multi-stringed instrument which is played on the lap by fingers from both hands. Its earliest and simplest form had 5 strings, but it can have 9-10 strings or even over 30 strings. The early kanteles were hollowed out from a single piece of wood and strung with horsehair. Later, copper and steel strings were used. In the Kalevala, the kantele plays a central role in several of the myths. In one, Vainamoinen, the eternal singer, fashions an instrument from the jaw of a giant pike. Kantele player
Kantele player Teppana Jänis. (Photo: Kalevalaseura 1916)

Bowed Instruments

Although there is a rich heritage of bowed instruments in Scandinavia today, there is little evidence to suggest that these instruments were in use prior to the Middle Ages. The Hardingfele or Hardanger fiddle, for example, is unique to the north with its use of sympathetic strings that run under the fingerboard.  However, the earliest example known is dated 1651. Karl Seglem in his article for FolknettNorway claims: “ In the ancient Norse literature of the years 800 to 1350, an instrument called the fidla is referred to. This name is probably a variant of the European fidel, a flat-bottomed string instrument with three to five strings, one or two of which functioned as drone strings.”[14]  The Didrik saga for example speaks of both the fiddle and the gige being bowed.  However, there are no existing examples prior to the Middle Ages.

The rabab or rebec, which is a bowed pear-shaped instrument, appears in the Middle East as early at the 9th century. However, it isn’t until the 11th century that it makes its way to Spain and Byzantium, and eventually the rest of Europe. It is quite possible, even probable, that the well-traveled Norse had been introduced to the rebec, but there is no evidence that it was incorporated into their popular culture.[15]

Stone sculpture on the Nidaros cathedral in Trondheim, Norway.

This is also the case with the Finnish jouhikko. The jouhikko somewhat resembles a bowed kantele, but with a large hole near the top of the instrument which provides a handle. By grasping the instrument through the gap, the melodic string can be “fingered” by the player stopping the string with his knuckles. Again, it is uncertain how old the instrument is, but according to Dr. Hannu Saha, the director of the Folk Music Institute in Kaustinena, the jouhikko or jouhikantele came to Finland from Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.[16] 12th century sculpture on the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway seems to depict a musician playing an instrument that resembles a jouhikko. Even if this was just the work of a foreign sculptor rather than an indication of an instrument that had been brought in, this does suggest that bowed instruments were well established by this point.[17]

Whistles and Flutes

At the Jorvik dig, wooden panpipes and a whistle made from a bird’s leg were found. Both are very simple instruments to make, but they are found in so many cultures that it is impossible to say whether these traditions were Norse, indigenous or imported in origin. For example, the Museum of Scotland has in its display an antler whistle from Berie dating from 200 BC - 400 AD and the Museum of London has a bone whistle very similar to the Jorvik whistle that was found in the Thames River and is labeled as Roman. whistle
Antler whistle from Berie, 200 BC - 400 AD Museum of Scotland
The Jorvik panpipes or syrinx may have been taken from the Romans as well, but although it is almost as simple an instrument as can be created, great care was made in its construction. It may be a board with holes, but the rare boxwood was obvious carefully chosen, smoothed and tapered and the 5 remaining holes even before conservation still played a scale from A to a high E. Although only half of the 5th note remains, it has been suggested that a sixth and seventh hole had existed. This would balance the panpipes so the string hole at the bottom would be centered as evidenced by the more complete 8 note panpipes found in a well at Mount-Auxois in Alésia, France or that of the styrinx in the Rijksdienst voor Odheidkundig Bodemonderzoek (National Service for Archaeological Heritage), Netherlands. This assumption is borne by a cross that was neatly incised over the side hole on the Jorvik syrinx but which disappears off the broken edge. If the instrument would have had 7 or 8 notes this would be centered. Also supporting this is the grain of the boxwood. Extrapolation of the grain indicates the styrinx was built from roundwood that had a minimum diameter of 17cm and the existing instrument is only half the size that the board could have been. Panpipes
Panpipes from Jorvik, York 10th century
Panpipes from Rijksdienst voor Odheidkundig Bodemonderzoek (National Service for Archaeological Heritage), Netherlands
The bone flute is a very ancient instrument. In fact, the oldest preserved musical instruments are two bone flutes made from the lower wing-bones of swans. Found in a cave near Blaubeuren, Germany, they are estimated to be 35000 years old. Evidence of bone flutes during the Bronze Age exists across Europe.[18] The 3 holes of the Jorvik bone whistle is typical of this type of instrument due to the limitations of the medium (birds’ legs are only so long). However, the Museum of London also has in their Roman instrument collection sections of bone tubes that when connected with bronze tubes allowed for longer lengths needed for forming a “tibiae”-- Roman musical pipes which were often played in pairs.[19] whistle
Bone Whistle, Yorvik

The Oseberg dig turned up 2 whistles. These had no finger holes and are capable of playing only 2 notes which makes them more signaling devices than musical instruments. Upon first seeing my reproductions of these tapered wooden whistles I have had several people remark that they resemble belaying pins. Having been found on a sailing ship this has spawned speculation that they could have either been stored in the holes with the belaying pins as an emergency whistle or could have begun life as a belaying pin before being set to by a bored sailor with a knife.

Both in Norway and Finland, seljefloyte or willow flutes are a traditional shepherd’s instrument made in the spring. Carved from the bark of green shoots in the Spring, these whistles can be as long as 60 centimeters, but only last for a few weeks before they dry out and crack.

Reproductions of the Oseberg whistles


In Norse mythology, the bridge to Valhalla was guarded by Heimdallur, the God of Music, who wielded Gjallarhorn -- the “high sounding horn”. Horns have a long tradition in Scandinavia and the British Isles, and have been found in a number of styles and made from a variety of materials. Among the most famous are the huge “S” curved Bronze Age “lurs”. There have been a large number of bronze examples found as well as two made of gold. In Ireland, there are two traditions of clay cast bronze horns. South-west Ireland produced end-blown horns which are thought to have been played like the Australian didgeridoo,[20] but Ireland also produced horns with the blow hole on the side of the horn.[21] Later in the Celtic Iron Age, curved trumpets of sheet bronze were constructed decorated with large repousse flanges.[22] In Scotland a bronze horn known as a Carnyx with its distinctive animal head shaped bell played in important ceremonial and military role at the turn of the millennium: “Romans, who faced the carnyx in battle, found it so distinctive and strange that they made it an emblem of their opponents.”[23] Lur
Side blown bronze lur, 1000-800 BC
Dunmanway, County Cork, Ireland
British Museum

However, while these firmly establish the use of horns, they are not the instruments referred to as lurs in the Voluspaa and other sagas. The true Norse lurs as described by Saxo Grammaticus and the sagas are wooden constructs which were used as herding and signaling devices rather than in ceremonial processions. In fact, these rustic instruments were used by herdsmen until the late 19th century. These simple trumpets are found in three major forms.

The earliest form was the bukkehorn which was made from animal horn. A bukkehorn is simply an animal horn that has had its tip hollowed out and fingering holes added.

Reproduction bukkehorn

The more fragile barkhorn or barklur was fashioned from strips of alder, ash, willow or spruce that was wound in a spiral. Known as Touhitorvi in Finland, there is a rich tradition of these folk instruments across Scandinavia. As shown in the display at the University of Edinburgh, touhitorvi often were completed with a piece of horn at the end as a reminder of the roots of the instrument.

The third style of trumpet was the raklur, langlur or basu which was formed from two halves of a piece of wood that was hollowed out and then bound back together.[24]  The forerunners of the leather bound coronetti of the later Middle Ages, this style of horn is supported in the sagas as the word “lur” was also used to describe a coffin or a boat made of a hollowed log.[25]

Fortunately we are not required to rely on folk traditions alone as the Oseberg dig revealed an example dating from ca 850 AD. Stretching around a metre long with a hollowed wooden core bound with 5 bands of willow, this lur hardly differs at all from the more modern Finnish examples.

Touhitorvi from Finland, bark and horn
Museum of Instruments, University of Edinburgh

Reed Instruments

In the Sibelius Museum in Finland, the collection of folk instruments on display includes several horns of wound bark with double reeds instead of a trumpet mouthpiece and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians also mentions this a traditional folk instrument in Norway[26]. It’s always difficult to date folk instruments, but there are two indications that reed instruments were in use in the Norse period.

The first is a number of stone carvings from England, Scotland and Ireland showing musicians playing an instrument with three pipes. The detail of course isn’t good enough to show that they indeed have reed mouthpieces, but the instrument is unique enough that it could only be Launeddas or Sardinian Triplepipes.[27]  Made of cane with an integral reed, the triplepipe has been played on this Mediterranean island since the Bronze Age.

Lethendy stone, Perthshire, Scotland
10th century

Clonmacnois, Co. Offaly, Ireland
early 10th century
The second proof comes from a wooden pipe that was found in York and dates from the 10th century. Although the mouthpiece is lost, Simon Chadwick in his article Anglo‑Saxon Reed Instruments? makes a strong argument for this pipe being a reed instrument. Essentially he compares the York instrument against later examples of duct-flute recorders and reed shawms. From examining the tapered tenon and flared bell, Chadwick concludes that the York pipe was most likely a double reed instrument with a capsel fitted over the tapered tenon. The parallel bore precludes the York pipe from being a shawm as it is sometimes refered to.[28]

Percussion Instruments

Bells are the most common instruments found from this time period and are often closely linked with the early church. The most famous of these is the bell of St Patrick which has been venerated for centuries. It is thought that bells were mainly used as hand bells, as shown by the bell ringers in the Bayeux Tapestry.

The earliest bells were iron. A single sheet of iron was folded and riveted into shape and then was given a thin coat of bronze. Many surviving examples come from early Christian contexts such as the Scottish bells depicted above. Kevin Leahy suggests that, over the centuries that this style of bell was used, their main use was probably as cow bells. However he also proposes that their inclusion in several tool hordes, including the Tattershall Thorpe smith’s grave (7th c) and the Flixborough horde (8th-9th c) in Lincolnshire and the Mastermyr dig of Gotland, Sweden (10th-11th c), might indicate they were used to announce the arrival of itinerant craftsmen.[29] 

Large cast bronze bells are later. More exclusively used in the context of the Christian church, these appear in the 9th and 10th centuries.”[30]

Iron Bell, 650-900AD
Minchmoor and Burrian, Scotland
Museum of Scotland

Mastermyr bell, 10th-11thc
Gotland, Sweden

There is also a third category. Apart from iron bells found at Coppergate, a small 2 centimeter copper alloy bell was unearthed with a flared, hexagonal shape and scalloped edges. Dating to the 10th century, this delicate bell was probably worn on a necklace. Other examples of this style have been also found at Cottam in the Yorkshire Wolds, and in Freswick Links, Caithness.[31]

While the Norse certainly had contact with other cultures that made heavy use of drums, I have yet to find any concrete evidence of the use of drums in Norse culture. The western Greenland Inuit and the eastern Finnish Sammi have long traditions of hide covered frame drums. In both cases a short stick with a head bent at 90 degrees to the handle are used to strike the drumhead. I have found references by other researchers to the pre-norse “hylsung”, but nothing specific. Michael Carter for example argues that the hylsung was a wooden headed drum and makes vague references to burials with “boxes” found next to harps.[32] Unfortunately, Carter’s identification of this instrument is only conjectural and although his article cites “significant scholarship” and “reliable evidence”, no supporting evidence is provided beyond well-reasoned supposition.

“Buzz bones” are short bones, often pig’s knuckles, that have had a hole drilled through the center of their length. It has been proposed that these were strung on a chord and spun to produce a musical sound. I have a number of problems with this interpretation. Firstly, these strike me as far too common for them to be a child’s toy as every Norse museum I’ve been to seems to have a half a dozen in their collections. I would also expect a wear pattern to develop from the chord, but none of the bones that I’ve seen have shown any wear at all. The “buzz bone” interpretation is by no means universal and it is not unusual to find different labels even within the same museum collection. I have a much easier time believing that they were used as large toggles.

Decorated bell Cottam, Yorkshire Wolds

The Jew’s Harp or Jaw’s Harp is a cross between an aerophone and a percussion instrument which is placed against the mouth and plucked such that different notes are produced by changing the shape of the mouth. By the Middle Ages it was in wide use across Europe and Scandinavia and was known by many names:

  • mundharpe “mouth harp” (Denmark)
  • munnharpa, munnspill (Norway, Iceland)
  • mungiga “mouth fiddle” (Sweden)
  • munniharppu, turpajurra, huuliharppu “lip harp”, märistysrauta “trembling iron”,
  • mörinärauta “roaring iron”, huulipeli “lip-instrument”, suupeli “mouth-instrument”,
  • Taaventin harppu “David’s harp”, juutalaisharppu “jew’s harp” (Finland)[33]

Modern Jaw’s Harps made by Knut Tveit, Setesdal (front left), Bjørgulv Straume, Setesdal (front right), Jacob Lavoll, Hallingdal (rear in case). Photo: Hans Bøvre

Harno Miettinen notes that although the oldest of these instruments found in Finland date to the 15th century, there have been others from the 13th century found elsewhere in Scandinavia “but it’s obvious that the instrument was in use as early as in the Viking era”.[34]  Bill and Janet Gohring claim in their history that “there are large numbers excavated from earlier dates [in Europe], some Anglo-Saxon and some Carolingian”[35], but they don’t include any supporting research.

A final percussion instrument that others have identified was a series of linked iron rings that may have been used as a rattle. These have been found at several sites including Stövernhaugen, Norway (800-1000AD) and Akershus, Norway (800-900AD). The former is attached to a long stave and the latter designed to add musical accompaniment for a horse-drawn sleigh or sledge. This seems a flagrant use of iron and their purpose is open to interpretation. However, even if these were old norse sleigh-bells, while I’m sure they would have sounded great, I don’t feel they qualify as instruments.

Continue to next section

[1]The Sutton Hoo Lyre is a good example of how a poor reconstruction can dramatically affect understanding.  After excavators in the 1939 dig mistakenly identified parts of the instrument as being part of the roof, the result was a 1948 reconstruction that was completely flawed and resembled an ancient Egyptian harp with a large bottom sounding box and thin arms rising up from it like two sticks stuck in a shoe box.

[2]Follett, Christopher.  “Fascinating Glimpse of Viking’s Elite Lifestyle: Original seventh century Viking manor house building unearthed west of Copenhagen”.  The Copenhagen Post. January 24, 2003.

[3]Bruce-Mitford,  Rupert and Myrtle. “The Sutton Hoo Lyre, ‘Beowulf’ and the Origins of the Frame Harp”. Aspects of Anglo Saxon Archaeology. (Victor Gollanez: London, 1974). pp. 188-197.

[4]  December 7, 2003.

[5]Grinde, Nils.  A History of Norwegian Music.  University of Nebraska Press, 1991. pp. 10-11.

[6]"Playing Beowulf: The Sutton Hoo Hearpe and the Performance of Old English Poetry”. Saturday, May 7, 2005.

[7]My thanks to Karina Bates for her personal report from the conference.

[8]Sanger, Keith and Kinnaird, Alison. Tree of Strings: crann nan teud: A History of the Harp in Scotland. (Kinmor Music: Shillinghill Temple, Midlothian, Scotland, 1992). Pp. 15-17

[9] “Bosi and Herraud”.  Two Viking Romances.  Trans Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards. (Penguin Classics: NY, 1995). P. 32.

[10]"Drapa Niflunga (The Slaughter of the Niflungs)”. Poetic Edda. Trans Benjamin Thorpe.

[11]Grinde, Nils.  A History of Norwegian Music.  p. 8.

[12]"Norway”.  New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed Stanley Sadie. (London, 1980). p. 63.

[13]Gjetmundsen, Kjetil. "Langeleik and Harpe”. Norwegian Folk Music. 1997.

[14]Seglem, Karl. "Recordings of historical interest".  FolknettNorway: The Guide to Norweigian Folk Music.

[15]Butler, P. The Rebec Project. October 2003.

[16]Saha, Hannu. “The instruments of the Kalevala culture”. (Virtual Finland:1999).

[17]Grinde, Nils.  A History of Norwegian Music.  p. 14.

[18]Musica Romana:Instruments of Antiquity. Accessed October, 2004.

[19]From the display at the Museum of London.  The artefacts referenced are LCT<213> and RAG<89>

[20]Wallace, Patrick.  A Guide to the National Museum of Ireland. Town House and Country House: Dublin, 2000. Pp.25.

[21]The latter is illustrated by a bronze horn from Dunmanway, County Cork, Ireland, 1000-800BC on display in the British Museum, London.

[22]Wallace.  Pp. 28.

[23]From the display of the Deskford Carnyx (100-200 AD) display at the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

[24]"Lur”. New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. Vol 2. Ed. Stanley Sadie. (MacMillen Press: London, 1984). Pp. 548.

[25]"Bor’s sons killed the giant Ymir, and when he fell, so much blood poured from his wounds that they drowned the whole tribe of frost ogres with it — except for one who escaped with his household.... He climbed up on to his “lur”, and his wife with him, and there they were safe.... as it is said here;
Innumerable years ago,
before the earth was made,
was born the giant Bergelmir;
the first thing I remember
was when they laid
that wise one down on a “lur”.” Snorre Sturlasson, The Prose Edda. Trans Jean I. Young. University of California Press, London. Pp. 35.

[26]"Norway”.  New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed Stanley Sadie. (London, 1980). p. 62.

[27]Brown, Barnaby.  The Triplepipe.

[28]Chadwick, Simon. Anglo‑Saxon Reed Instruments? June 25, 2000.

[29] Leahy, Kevin. Anglo-Saxon Crafts. (Tempus Publishing: The Mill, Brimscombe Port, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2003) p. 133.

[30]National Museum of Ireland. Dublin, Ireland. (From exhibit notes, 2004).

[31] Mainman, A.J. and N.S.H. Rogers. Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: The Archeology of York: The Small Finds17/14. (York Archaeological Trust: York, 2000) p. 2599.

[32]Carter, Michael. “Some Background Regarding the Glastonbury Drum”.

[33]Miettinen, Jarno.  History of Jew’s Harp in Finland.

Pertout, Adrian. The Jew’s Harp: At the Dawn of the New’sHarp.htm

[34]Miettinen, Jarno.  History of Jew’s Harp in Finland. Pp. 2.

[35]Gohring, Bill and Janet. “History of the Jew’s Harp”. Pp. 1.

      Updated: 4 Dec, 2007
Text © Richard Schweitzer, 2007
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