The Northern Lyres and The case for a Viking Age origin to the Baltic psalteries

This article contains additional pictures and videos (used in the live presentation on 12th August 2022) to the official article, published as:

Mucenieks, Andris. Relationship and Exchange Between the Northern Elites in the Viking and Medieval Baltic Area: The case for the Baltic Psalteries’ Origins. In: Pre-print papers of The 18th International Saga Conference Sagas and the Circum-Baltic Arena. Helsinki and Tallinn, 7th–14th August 2022. Edited by Frog, Joonas Ahola, Jesse Barber and Karolina Kouvola. Helsinki: Folklore Studies, Department of Cultures, University of Helsinki, 2022. pp. 234-42.

When quoting, please use and cite the Saga Conference published version.

Ethnographic kokle from Alsunga, Kurzeme (Western Latvia). National History Museum of Latvia.
Figure 01 – Ethnographic kokle from Alsunga, Kurzeme (Western Latvia). National History Museum of Latvia.

Baltic psalteries are simple plucked musical instruments characterized by an asymmetrical trapezoidal shape. They are traditionally carved in a single piece of wood to which is attached a soundboard, or resonator. The strings are fastened to a rod in the narrowest end and held by wooden tuning pegs placed on the wider extremity without resting in a bridge over the soundboard. That makes the instrument acoustically inefficient but increases the harmonic resonances and the timbre richness.

They vary significantly in shape, size, ornamentation, devices to hold the string rod, tunings, and the number of strings. Ethnographic instruments usually range from 5 to 12 strings. (Muktupavels, 2013: 11)

The Baltic psalteries have strong symbolic importance to the Baltic peoples. The kanteles are national symbols to the Finnish people, the same manner as the kokles, kannels, and kankles are to the Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians. The spreading of the instruments surpasses the Baltic States and Finland, with the guslis being played in Northwest Russia, whilst the archaeological evidence may suggest its spread may have reached current Poland during the Middle Ages.

An impromptu on a Kokle. Kokles are the Baltic Psalteries from Latvia.

Many have been said as it comes to the origins of the instruments, and the different opinions on several occasions have been influenced by nationalistic bias and subjectivity, especially given the shared history of Finns and Balts during the 19th century under the rule of the Russian Empire and the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States after Second World War.

Recent trends in academy, cultural studies and society during the post-soviet times have emphasized the connections between the two margins of the Baltic and the shared historical heritage of the Baltic and Finnic Peoples with Western Civilisation.

These trends may have affected, to some degree, musicological studies as well. It is not surprising that scholars have prospected the possibility of connections between the Baltic psalteries and instruments from Northern Europe, particularly the Lyre.

This paper will briefly present some of these trends in organology, give context to the archaeological evidence, and explain it in light of the Scandinavian elite’s actuation in the Novgorodian Rus.

1. The available material evidence on the Baltic psalteries

There are plenty of ethnographic remains from the Baltic psalteries in the Baltic states, Finland, and Russia. With very few exceptions, the surviving material is dated from the 19th and 20th [p. 236] centuries.

During the Early Modern Ages and Modern ages, several written references may be found to the musical instruments (Muktupāvels, 2002: 23ff).

Rich immaterial heritage connected to the Baltic psalteries, such as repertoire, poetry, ancient symbolism and narratives preserved through oral tradition (including the Latvian dainas, epics like the Kalevala and the Kalevipoeg) were registered and collected mostly from the 19th century onwards in the current Baltic Countries, Finland, Karelia, and North-western Russia.

There are some iconographic depictions of musicians and musical instruments in Medieval Europe and the Kievan Rus, including two bracelets from the cities of Kyiv (12th century) and Old Ryazan (13th century) displaying musicians playing instruments in the shape of Baltic psalteries.

As in the case of other musical instruments in the world, the Baltic psalteries are made of wood, which only in exceptional conditions is preserved over the centuries in the archaeological evidence. The oldest surviving fragments of the instruments were excavated in the region of the Medieval Novgorod, then located in the kingdom of Rus’.

Remains of a similar instrument were found in the city of Gdańsk, nowadays northern Poland and fragments of possibly related instruments were discovered in Opole, southwest Poland. In addition, a burnt birch fragment
possibly belonging to a kokle dating from the 13th century was excavated at Tērvete, Latvia, but the evidence is inconclusive. (Priedīte, 2003: 138)

Gesle from Gdansk
Gesle from Gdańsk, Poland. In Simon, 1957.

These places were marked by interculturality; in the area of Novgorod oldest inhabitants of Finno-Ugric and even Baltic origins were replaced by Eastern Slavs and Scandinavians, while the medieval Gdańsk, one of the most important trading ports in the Medieval Baltic area, was inhabited from the 10th to the 14th centuries mostly by Western Slavs, but frequented by Germans, Scandinavians, the Baltic Old Prussians, other Baltic Peoples and even traders from the Arabic world during the Viking and Middle Ages. (Śliwiński & Możejko, 2017: 17f)

1.1 The Novgorod guslis

The Medieval Novgorod preservation and recovery benefitted from specific local circumstances.

The medieval settlement was built in compact clay strata, which avoided infiltration and drainage of water from rain or flooding. The soil above the clay strata remained saturated with moisture. This circumstance preserved most of the organic material and prevented future inhabitants from digging deep foundations that would alter the subterranean content. Instead, the soil was paved with wood planks, decade after decade, as the city grew and previous human activity was deposited. (Yanin, 1990: 85)

Thus, unique geological conditions allowed the preservation of wooden artefacts such as musical instruments in the excavations of the town and region. In addition, the abundance of wooden buildings and artefacts made it possible to date precisely the several excavation layers after Kolchin adapted the dendrochronological method to the local species.

Fragments from ca. 10 guslis dating from the 11th to the 14th century were discovered in different excavations sites in the region of Novgorod over the decades:

Baltic Psalteries excavated in Novgorod from the end of the Viking Age to the 13th century
Figure 02 – Some of the Guslis excavated in the Novgorod region, according to Kolchin. Additional fragments were excavated after this drawing was published. In: Kolchin, 1978: 362.

1. A nine-stringed gusli from the Nerevsky Site, ca. 1250. Except for the window for the hand, this gusli resembles the ethnographic Baltic psalteries without a wing with a round tip from Western Latvia, Estonia and Karelia. It was excavated in 1957 on the site of Nerevsky, in a property which belonged to the boyar Misha. Despite its Slavic owner,
Haas (2001: 2019), following Tõnurist, emphasized the carved waterbird motif, found on an ethnographic Izhor kannel and typical to the Finno-Ugric imaginary and creation myths.

2. The “Slovisha” gusli. ca. 1050 – excavated in 1975 at the Troitsky II site, is one of the most significant instruments excavated due to a number of features. The five-stringed instrument has the top side asymmetrical as a Baltic psaltery but an opening window beneath the strings as a lyre. Oddly, its soundboard was made of oak, while the body was from yew. The Slavic word “Slovisha” was carved on its side.
[p. 237]

3, 4 & 6. Small guslis without an opening window, 14th century.

5. 6-stringed small gusli from Tikhvin with two windows, which possibly belonged to a child, 12th century.
Medieval Russian Heroic poetry – the byliny – often mention the gusli in connection to their heroes. Some of the songs, including “The Absence of Dobrynya” (Chadwick, 1964: 86), “Nightingale Budimirovich” (Chadwick, 1964: 118, 121), and “Stavr from Chernigov” (Chadwick, 1964: 131f), mention specifically guslis made of maple.

2. Main theories of origin

Stephen Reynolds organised the Baltic psalteries’ theories of origin into three main hypotheses in two articles published in 1973 and 1984. These three hypotheses, popularised by prominent scholars such as the Finnish-American Carl Rahkonen (1989), came to be known as the a) Slavic Theory – the Baltic psalteries originated from the Slavic People and were adopted by Balts and Finns; b) the Finnic theory – the Baltic psaltery was an invention from the Finnic people inhabiting North-Eastern Europe and c) the instruments had an Oriental or Asiatic provenance.

Baltic scholars proposed some ideas on the topic as well. Not surprisingly, Lithuanian scholars like Žilevičius and Slaviūnas (then known as Slavinskas) proposed in 1937 a Baltic, perhaps Lithuanian origin, to the instruments. Contemporary scholars, including the Lithuanian Romualdas Apanavičius, the Latvian Valdis Muktupāvels and the Estonian Igor Tõnurist (1947-2021), have adopted variations or mixed forms of the Finno-Ugric and Baltic hypothesis.
Apanavičius (1986: 18f) proposed the Baltic psalteries originated in the neolithic Narva Culture (ca. 6500-4600 B.P.), while Muktupāvels (2009; 2002: 45-8) published several articles stressing the mythical and symbolic aspects related to the kokles tradition.

Muktupāvels (2013: 12) defends the linguistic and etymologic analysis of the Finnish Nieminen from 1963. Nieminen argued that the original name of the Baltic and Finno-Ugric instruments had a Proto-baltic origin – kantlīs/kantlēs, which may, in turn, indicate a date of origin from millennia before the Middle Ages (Nieminen, 1963: 01-43). The etymology was recognised as valid by other contemporary scholars, even by some who disagreed with some of its implications, such as Timo Leisiö (2020: 190).

3. The northern lyres

A different hypothesis of origin was proposed in the last decades – the Baltic psalteries originated from Lyres. The idea was elaborated differently by Povetkin, Ain Haas, Ilya Tëmkin and Timo Leisiö. While Povetkin in 1989 and Haas in 2001 offered nuanced propositions, Tëmkin in 2004 and particularly Leisiö, as recently as 2020, proposed very strict ideas, defending that the Baltic psalteries were developed in the Baltic area under the influence of the northern lyres only during the 11th century.

Plucked lyres were the staple stringed instruments in Eurasia and Africa for millennia, being gradually replaced in Europe during and after the Medieval Ages by other stringed instruments.
Besides the huge Near Eastern instruments from Sumerian and Egypt antiquity and the lyres from the Greco-Roman and Mediterranean antiquity, there was a kind of lyre associated mainly with Germanic-speaking Europe from Late Antiquity and Middle Ages. These instruments were made from a wooden-excavated soundbox, with long and slender bodies and the strings fastened in a knob or protuberance at the rounded bottom (see Figure 3).

Northern Lyre - The Anglo-Saxon Sutton-Hoo lyre
Figure 03. Modern reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo Lyre. British Museum, reference SHR.9. Picture from the author.

In the last century, this last kind of Lyre, which will be referred to as northern lyre from now on but is referred to also as “Round lyre” due to its rounded bottom, was almost rediscovered in Europe after long centuries of lying in obscurity. Archaeological discoveries in Great Britain, Continental Europe and Scandinavia, summed to iconographic representations from Antiquity to the Middle ages from Scythia to Western Europe, revealed the existence of an instrument widespread from the western fringes of Europe to Central Asia.

Reconstructing a Northern Lyre

[p. 238]
The oldest evidence from a lyre in Central Europe is a depiction in a burial urn from the Hallstatt Culture. The 7th or 6th BC depiction was interpreted as an indication of the spreading of the Lyre from the Mediterranean cultures as Etruscans and Thracians to the Celts of Central Europe and further to the Germanic-Speaking populations. (Hagel, 2018: 58)

A Scythian depiction from around the 4th BCE attested to the knowledge of the lyre centuries before the Late Antiquity in the eastern extreme of Europe, associated with the Greek merchants and artisans around the Black Sea. Finally, remains of a round lyre from the 4th century unearthed in 1973 in Kazakhistan were reinterpreted in 2018 and 2022, reinforcing how widespread the instrument was in Eurasia since at least the Antiquity. (Kolltveit, 2022)

Before Kolltveit, Curt Sachs (2019 [1940]: 267) referred to what he called “vestigial instruments” among Siberian populations as the Ostyaks and Voguls in the River Ob, considering the Alemmanic and the Siberian lyres as co-related in some manner.

Currently, more than 30 fragments from northern lyres or related to were discovered in Europe in Continental Europe, the British Isles and Scandinavia, associated with Germanic-speaking populations. So far, the majority of the lyre findings (14) were discovered in graves from the 5th to the 9th century in England, Germany, current France and Sweden, leading to a general opinion associating the instrument mostly with the aristocracy and the upper, warrior class. (Lawson, 2019: 226)

However, besides the fragments from ancient graves, several artefacts were unearthed from cultural layers, originating from different social strata and even connected to the common people. These remains, such as amber, antler, wooden, and bronze bridges, were not always dated precisely. In spite of the number of lyre-artefacts associated with the upper classes, the archaeological data also supports that the lyres had their place among the general population, especially in Medieval Scandinavia. (Lawson, 2019: 232)

All the lyres discovered in graves were made of maple, several containing oak in different combinations, including body and soundboard made of maple, body made of maple with an oaken soundboard, and an oaken body accompanied by a maple soundboard. Many remaining from cultural layers, however, were made of yew. The choice of the woods has not been thoroughly evaluated yet. Hillberg considers the woods not necessarily chosen due to their acoustic properties but fashion, given the Early Modern and Modern preferences for softwood soundboards. (Hillberg, 2015: 15-17; 25) However, the author of this paper is of the opinion that the choice of woods was intentional and not only due to fashion reasons.

Although oak is not regarded as a species of wood with good resonating properties, the acoustic advantages of maple are well recognised among modern luthiers, who use it as the wood of choice for resonators in stringed instruments for the family of violins, violas, cellos and basses, but also in acoustic guitars.

Other issues should be factored in regard to the woods. Oak and maple are hardwoods known for their resistance and durability, which may have been taken into consideration by the builders. Perhaps the preservation of the discovered lyres was given to this factor, while a great number of instruments made of coniferous wood may not have survived to this day. The Kravik lyre (14th century) from Norway, for instance, was completely built from coniferous wood.

[p. 239]
Also, it may have been possible that instruments built from oak and maple were more commonly found among the high social strata, able to reward skilled artisans able to work properly in such woods, while lyres of lesser quality were built in more workable but less durable woods, which have not survived. These factors may interfere considerably with the preserved sample.

Finally, a question that may be considered in the future is the symbolic meaning of the chosen woods. Specific trees have been surrounded by imaginary throughout Europe, from pre-historic times to the Modern Ages. In the Scandinavian, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic traditions, oak was prized symbolically and religiously. The descriptions of the Germanic and Baltic Peoples offering cults for the gods in oak forests are well-known, from Tacitus’ Germania to Grunau’s Romuva, as are the connections of oak to the northern thunder gods.

4. Scandinavians, the lyres and the Baltic

The lyre was well-known to the Scandinavians from the Migration Period through the Medieval Ages, and besides the archaeological remains, a great number of iconographic depictions, carvings and written sources mention it. In spite of the broader possibilities offered by the archaeological remains, in the medieval written sources, the instrument was associated mostly with the aristocrats and high social strata individuals. In comparison to Continental Europe and the British Isles, the Scandinavian lyres lasted longer – until at least the 14th century. (Kolltveit, 2000: 19)

During the Vendel, Viking and Medieval ages, there was plenty of contact between Scandinavians from the mainland and Gotland (Gunarsson, 2013: 15ff), Baltic, Finnic and Slavic peoples (Mägi, 2002). These contacts were registered in written primary sources, runic inscriptions (Melnikova, 2001) and preserved in abundant archaeological remains in the Baltics, Finland, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Most part of what was preserved consisted, however, of metal and non-perishable materials, with few exceptions as in the unique case of Novgorod with its favourable geological conditions.

A considerable influence was exercised from Scandinavians in the development of the local elites in Eastern Baltic and the Kingdom of Rus’, and the first dynastic house from the Rus’ was composed of Scandinavians. Local elites and the aristocracy of Rus’ had intimate contacts with Scandinavian aristocracy and noblemen, and emulated part of their behaviour and Material Culture, as attested in the written sources and archaeological findings. (Noonan, 1998: 339)

The Slovisha gusli unhearted in Novgorod, which presented remarkable similarity to the northern lyres in shape, was dated from ca. 1050. Its oaken soundboard, not found in other Baltic psalteries and unjustified in terms of sonority, may have been an emulation of the material utilised in some northern lyre’s soundboards. Haas considered the material might have been chosen due to its strength in order to hold the strings properly [1 – Personal communication].

Later instruments, however, use yew for that purpose, and maple, often quoted in the Russian epics, would be a better alternative – resounding but strong. The instrument is the oldest archaeological sample and coincides with the rule of Yaroslav, the wise (ca. 978-1054). Yaroslav was the son of Wladimir, the great, being co-regent in Novgorod until the death of his father in 1015. He was the prince of Novgorod from 1010 to 1019 and Great-prince of Kyiv after the fratricide wars retold in a humoristic way in the Eymundar þáttr hrings. The prince died in 1054 but kept a residence in Novgorod.

His official mother was Rogneda of Polotsk – the slavicised form of Ragnheiðr. She was the daughter of the Varangian Ragnvald, who ruled Polotsk. Yaroslav’s wife, the Swedish Ingegerd Olofsdotter, bore him several sons and daughters, including Ellisif, queen consort of the Norwegian Haraldr harðráði (ca.1015-1066). Haraldr was exiled to Novgorod and not only fought in Yaroslav’s army but became a commander in the Byzantine Varangian guard. (Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar 2-17)

Varangians in Byzantium - Skylitzes Chronicle, 11-12th century
Varangians in Byzantium – Skylitzes Chronicle, 11-12th century

[p. 240]
Yaroslav’s connections with Scandinavia go further. During his life occurred the expedition of Yngvarr víðförli (ca. 1040), immortalised in more than 20 runestones, and during his reign St.Olaf (Óláfs saga Helga 187) and Magnus the Good (Óláfs saga Helga 187ff, 251; Magnúss saga ins góða 1) sought refuge and help in Novgorod as well.

There was an evident influence from the northern lyres over chordophones in the region of Novgorod, easily understood given the intense relationship between Scandinavian and Novgorodian elites during the 9th century. The same level of emulation of Scandinavian material culture is found in other remains in Novgorod. However, did the northern lyres give rise to the Baltic psalteries and the Novgorodian instruments or, instead, influenced temporarily instruments already existent?

The last option seems more plausible, as stringed instruments among the Slavs are attested to since the Late Antiquity in the written sources. (Povetkin, 1982: 302) Equally, other musical instruments excavated in Novgorod display cultural traces from the former Finnic inhabitants of the area, as indicated by Finno-Ugric symbolism related to waterbirds found in at least one gusli. (Haas, 2001: 219)

5. Crucial issues

There is unequivocal archaeological and pictorial evidence from medieval times to the instruments around the Baltic area, but not in the Baltics and Finland. On a simple archaeological basis, it is impossible to affirm or deny the pre-existence of ancient instruments in these areas due to the limitations characteristic of archaeology – in most cases, the remains simply perished over the centuries. While the discovery of artefacts indicates the object’s existence, the absence of significant discoveries may be explained by many factors.

However, the Baltic psalteries do not necessarily descend in a single line from the northern lyres, and the similarities between the lyres and the Novgorodian instruments should be explained otherwise.

5.1 Insufficient theory

This issue is pretty common in organology and not a privilege to the Baltic Studies. Much of the theoretical models involving archaeology applied to musicology do not consider recent theoretical developments in archaeology.

The main theoretical frame used to explain the existence of a particular musical instrument in a given culture is the Culture-historical archaeology from the late 19th century to the inter-war period. As such, migration associated with a close ethnicity or more “advanced” culture is the major explanation for the rising of technology in an “inferior” culture – such as Byzantines, Slavs, or Scandinavians bringing the advanced chordophones to the Baltic and Finnic peoples.

Migration as the explanation for culture change – one of the main tenets of Culture-historical archaeology.

Often some material culture manifestation is closely associated with an ethnic group, as in the case of the Baltic psalteries being associated with the Narva and Kunda cultures – the central scope of the Finnic theory.

Only very recently, with the development of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology, especially after Casja Lund’s works, new archaeological perspectives have been taken into consideration. Still, there is a need for precise theoretical formulation, clear questions, and awareness of processual, post-processual, and modern archaeological frameworks.

5.2 Narrow temporality and geography and lack of continuity to the ethnographic data

The influence from the Northern Lyres to the Novgorodian guslis occurred primarily due to the intensive contact between Scandinavian and Rus’ elites during the Viking and Middle Ages. The lyres might have been perceived as part of the Scandinavian aristocratic Material Culture, which was vastly influential on the aristocracy of the Rus’. However, such influence gradually faded away in the following centuries. Such cultural impact is well attested in the written sources and the material culture. The Novgorod guslis should be considered part of this context, differing considerably from the later ethnographic instruments.

[p. 241]

5.3 Arguments of absence

The archaeological evidence attests to the knowledge of the lyre – therefore, an elaborate chordophone – centuries before the Late Antiquity in the extremes of Europe to Siberia. The Baltic peoples sustained contact with Central and South Europe during Pre-historic times, mostly due to the trading of amber and other materials. Ideas and technology spread via commercial interaction. Amber was a material used in parts of musical stringed instruments discovered in different parts of Europe in the Late Antiquity and the Mediterranean.

The Amber route
The Amber Route

That may imply the Baltic peoples have knowledged populations who owned complex stringed musical instruments and the concept of stringed musical instruments at some point in their pre-history (Haas, 2001: 216; 231). There is no strong reason or even logic to assume that complex chordophones were known before the Roman times throughout all of Europe and to the Siberian populations, but not to the Baltic and Finnic peoples.

5.4 Immaterial traditions among Balts and Finns

There is, however, immaterial, though inconclusive and non-datable evidence of a long-duration musical tradition connected to the stringed instruments among Baltic and Finnic peoples, attested by etymological studies (Nieminen, 1963: 01-43) and the rich amount of songs, epics, oral tradition, mythologic and religious symbolism among the Balto-Finnic peoples. (Oinas, 1996:181ff).

Baltic-Finnic epics collected during Romanticism as the Kalevala offer at least two traditions related to the creation of the Kantele – an instrument made of birchwood, oaken pegs and human hair and another, older, made from animal or fish parts as a fishbone (Kalevala 40: 274; 44: 297).

The Defense of the Sampo (1896) by Gallen-Kallela
The Defense of the Sampo (1896) by Gallen-Kallela

Besides connections of the instrument with ancient religious and shamanic practices, including usage of parts of the human body (Oinas, 1996: 182f), these traditions may preserve idealised memories of events from many centuries before, regarding the building of instruments from readily available materials in nature, as in the case of the Greek myths related to the first lyre built from a dead tortoise.

6. Conclusion and a proposition

The Baltic psalteries’ origin only can be explained in terms of multiculturality. They were and are part of the material culture of several different groups, interacting and coexisting in complex social environments and vast geographies. The instruments as known in Modern ages are, therefore, descendants of stringed musical instruments that:

  • may have been developed locally in the very first Baltic pre-history, from primitive materials and building techniques such as fishbones and animal parts,
  • may have accompanied immigrating groups to inhabit the Baltic margins,
  • may have been developed after contacts and interactions with other populations in Europe since prehistoric times. That possibility includes derivation from several kinds of lyres.

Most probably, the Baltic psalteries were developed through a conjunction of these possibilities. Over the centuries, different features have been added to the first stringed instruments as local inventions and influences from other cultures, like the wing. Innovations such as the window from the northern lyres were abandoned, even though the lyres evolved into a different class of instruments – the bowed lyres in Western Finland and Estonia.



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Andris Mucenieks
Andris Mucenieks

Andris Mucenieks, Dr hist, is a historian, writer, and musician.
He is the author of Saxo Grammaticus: Hierocratical Conceptions and Danish Hegemony in the Thirteenth Century, several chapters and articles in English, Portuguese, and Latvian, and textbooks.
Andris taught History of Church, Archaeology, Medieval History, and History of Music for more than ten years in several institutions, including the Federal University of Ouro Preto, the Baptist Theological Faculty of Sao Paulo, and a short time as visitor at the Latvijas Kristīgā akadēmija.

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