SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.  



Pandoura: The Greco-Roman Lute of Antiquity

Back in the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, the most important string instrument was the lyre, a harp-like string instrument on which the strings run upwards from the body (resonating sound chamber) to a horizontal yoke suspended between two parallel arms. The lyre is the instrument most often mentioned in the literature that has come down to us from Classical Antiquity. It was the "legitimate" instrument of its day, fit to be played by "respectable" bardic poets, professional concert performers, and "Upper Crust" amateur musicians alike. The lyre was what Nero "fiddled" on while Rome burned.

The earliest evidence of the lyre comes from the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia. During the 1920s and '30s, archaeologists uncovered the royal tombs of Ur, circa 2600-2400 BCE, and found three ornate lyres, as well as several depictions of lyre playing on cylinder seals and the so-called Standard of Ur. It's thought that the kinnaru-- Ancient Sumerian for lyre from which the Biblical Hebrew term for the instrument, kinnor, was derived--  made its way to Greece by way of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Evidence for a Mesopotamian origin for the Greek family of lyres can be found in the Greek terms for two types of lyre: citharis and kithara. These words are mostly likely descended from chetarah, the Assyrian name for the lyre.

Greek lyres came in several different forms: the lyra-- originally known as the citharis-- the oldest type with a tortoise shell as its resonating chamber (not to be confused with the modern Cretan fiddle of the same name); the chelys lyra (literally, "the tortoise lyre"), a lyre played primarily by women with a tortoise shell body similar to the lyra but much smaller; the barbiton, similar to the lyra, but with longer arms to give it a lower range of notes;  the kithara, the most popular kind of lyre, due to its louder, stronger voice and sturdier wooden frame and body; and the phorminx, similar to the kithara but with straight arms going into u-shaped body.

Yet, hidden in the shadow of the lyre in all its many different forms was another string instrument: the plucked lute

The lute begins to appear in the archaeological record of Ancient Greece in the early years of the Classical Period (500-323 BCE). Like the lyre, it was probably derived from Mesopotamia. A strong clue to this is the common Ancient Greek term for lute-- πανδοûρα [pandoura]. It's nearly identical to the Ancient Sumerian word pantur (literally, "small bow"), which scholars believe to be the earliest term for the plucked lute.

(Note: While there are no specific or technical descriptions of the lute in period writings on the contemporary music of Ancient Greece, Greek language literature and inscriptions of the later Roman period definitely confirm the fact that pandoura was indeed the common term for lute-type instruments.)


There are other names that have come down to us that many scholars interpret as either being alternate terms for different types of lutes. However, some contend that they are not references to lutes at all, but, rather, terms for harps or zithers. Be that as it may, most  experts agree that they are names of string instruments. These include: tamboura; trichordon (literally, "three strings"); skindapsos, thought to be a kind of 4-string lute; and iambuke and pektis, both of which may be terms for either lutes or harps.

Frustratingly enough, while Ancient Greek literature is replete with references to the various different types of lyres-- the principal instruments of Classical Greek culture-- there are no specific descriptions of lutes or lute playing. This fact has led many scholars to conclude that the pandoura was a minor instrument in the musical culture of Greece. However, judging from the iconic evidence, an entirely different conclusion may also be drawn: Could it be that the pandoura was actually quite popular and so much a fixture of vernacular musical culture to the point where period writers and scholars may have considered it too "vulgar" and "common" to waste any effort documenting it?

One of the oldest Greek depictions of the pandoura is the plaque pictured at the top of this page, circa the 5th century BCE. The lute depicted on this plaque is remarkably similar to the lutes of Ancient Egypt. Akin to the Egyptian lutes, the pandoura seen here appears to a hollowed-our wooden body and animal skin head (soundtable), with two lines of small soundholes running parallel on either side of the instrument's stick neck. The conventional wisdom is that the pandoura was a 3-stringed lute, as were the Egyptian lutes. Even more remarkable is the pandoura's triangle-shaped tailpiece, which is also pretty much the same as those found on the Ancient Egyptian lutes. On both the Greek and Egyptian instruments, this type of tailpiece probably served the same function as a bridge, that is, lifting the strings up off the surface of instrument's head and stick neck to the right "action" for playing.

Looking at the other instruments depicted we see quite an interesting variety. From left to right: large harp, tambourine, aulos (twin reed pipes), pandoura (lute), trigonon (literally, "three corners;" a small triangle frame harp), and aulos.

The large harp, seen on the left, is certainly Egyptian in style. This is pretty remarkable considering that this plaque is dated to the 5th century BCE, which means that it predates Alexander the Great's invasion of Egypt in 331 BCE. This fact-- taken with the obvious similarities between the depicted pandoura and the Ancient Egyptian lutes-- offers us clear evidence of the influence Egyptian musical culture must have had on the Greek vernacular music of the day.

Other period depictions of the pandoura show many variations of form. The illustration on the upper left, a detail from the Greek marble relief known as The Mantineia Base (c. 330-320 BCE), shows a muse playing a variant of the pandoura with an elongated triangle body. The top of the neck finishes in an inverted triangle as well. There's a ring right at the base of the neck's inverted triangle finial: perhaps it's a nut-- the bridge-like piece right below the peghead on many kinds of lutes over which the strings pass--or maybe the top loop of a strap.

Similar to the muse's variant is the one being played by Eros, the terracotta figurine seen on top right from Eretria, Greece (c. 330-200 BCE). Eros' pandoura also has an elongated triangle body. Especially noteworthy is instrument's fixed bridge which is a raised oblong piece much like those found on many later lutes, such as the Chinese pipa and the European guitar.

Yet another variant is represented being played by another muse-- the terracotta figurine, seen on the immediate upper left, from Tanagra, Greece (c. 3rd Century BCE).  This lute is a small instrument with a narrow pear-shaped body that has a shallow bowl-back. Unfortunately, the top of the neck is broken off so we don't know how far it actually extended. One feature of special interest is the lute's bridge-- it's shaped like an upside down "u"  with its two feet rest on the instrument's soundboard. This "floating" (moveable) bridge is remarkably similar to those common on later lutes like the Byzantine-era pandura and North African lutes with drum-like bodies topped with skin heads, such as the Amazigh (Berber) guimbri and lotar. This lute also looks startlingly like the tobshuur plucked lute of western Mongolia, as seen in the photo on the right being played by Avirmed, a tuulich (epic singer) of the Altai-Uriangkai Mongols. The tobshuur also has a narrow pear-shaped body with a shallow bowl-back. In this case, the instrument's body is drum-like and topped with a skin head.

The conventional wisdom is that the Ancient Greeks originally picked up the lute from Near Eastern sources, by way of Asia Minor, probably sometime in the 5th century BCE. As pointed out earlier, the Greek term pandoura is almost certainly derived from the ancient Sumerian word pantur. However, as we have seen, there appears to have been several different forms of lutes in Greek musical culture. To be sure, these various lutes represent other foreign influences, especially the lutes of Ancient Egypt. Yet, the striking similarity between the pandoura with the narrow pear-shaped body and shallow bowl-back and the western Mongolian tobshuur begs the question: Could there be a common source for both of these instruments? Could it be that both instruments can trace their roots back to a common Central Asian ancestor?  Needless to say, more research needs to be done on this.

The Roman Pandura

Like the lyre, the Greek pandoura was absorbed into the musical culture of Ancient Rome where it was known as the pandura. Judging from period iconographic and literary evidence, it appears that the pandura really took off in the first centuries of the Common Era (CE). Yet, compared to the lyre, the lute still seems to have been perceived as a "vulgar" instrument of the common folks.

It apparently had somewhat of a disreputable association with frivolity and low merry-making and was considered to be an instrument best suited for the tavern rather than "polite society." Likewise, unlike the lyre, the pandura seems to have been an instrument favored by professional musicians who performed the vernacular "pop" music of the day.

In the ruins of the ancient city of Aphrodisias in the eastern lands, which the Romans dubbed Asia Minor and the Greeks referred to as Anatolia -- that is, modern-day Turkey-- an inscription, 113, has been found that makes specific reference to lute playing as a profession. The inscription was made in the late 5th century or the early 6th century CE on a wall of a ruin that had been a pagan temple but was later converted into a church. It reads: "For the prayer of Asterius pandouros" ("Asterius the lute player") and is marked with a cross.

Archaeologist Charlotte Roueché offers the following astute observations in her analysis of inscription 113:

Asterius' inscription, 113, should probably be dated to the late fifth or early sixth century; it was presumably not cut until the Temple had been converted to a church — it may record a donation associated with the conversion.... Asterius gives his profession as pandouros, player of the lute, an instrument which became increasingly popular during the Roman period. The profession is among those listed by K. Mentzou, quoting, most revealingly, the life of St Theodoulos the Stylite; when God is testing the saint, he tells him that he will inherit the Kingdom with Cornelius the pandouros from the city of Damascus. Theodoulos is horrified at being associated with a man from the theatre... and he is even more horrified when he goes to Damascus and finds Cornelius at the Hippodrome, holding his instrument with one hand, and with the other, a bareheaded prostitute. Cornelius had probably been providing entertainment in the intervals between races. The idea that playing the pandoura is disreputable is confirmed by the behaviour of St Symeon Salos [Symeon of Emesa, "The Holy Fool"], when he picks one up in a tavern and goes to play it in the street.

Against this background it is remarkable that, as well as the pious inscriptions of Asterius, we have two Christian epitaphs of pandoura-players: a pandouros at Seleuceia-ad-Calycadnum in Cilicia [southern Turkey] and a pandouristes at Gerasa [Jerash in modern-day Jordan]. This seems to suggest that the profession was not in practice seen as so incompatible with Christianity as the story of Theodoulos would imply. It is, however, worth asking whether these Christian pandoura-players were perhaps not so much involved in the sinful world of public entertainments as in providing music for church functions; such an explanation would fit better with their naming of their profession in specifically Christian contexts. There was considerable debate during the early Byzantine period as to whether instruments should be used at church services, and it appears likely that they sometimes were. If this interpretation is correct, then Asterius and the other pandoura players may be describing themselves in terms of their ecclesiastical functions, and may have had nothing to do with performing in taverns or at public entertainments. 


Illustration Credits:


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Last modified: 02/01/09