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Tuckahoe Joe’s Blog of the Week: The Realm of History — Oldest Known Complete Song – Song of Seikilos.

June 5, 2019

ancient-music
As some of you may know, I have a fondness for rummaging through the internet for blogs that feature obsessions with odd and arcane history. Several years ago I saved to my bookmarks a blog entitled Realm of History (https://www.realmofhistory.com/) that featured unusual articles like 10 Facial Reconstructions from History You Should Know About, or Anubis: History and Mythology of the Ancient Egyptian Jackal God. Recently, I returned to peruse the site and discovered a newly published article entitled 8 Of The Oldest Known Songs, You Should Listen To (https://www.realmofhistory.com/2019/04/25/oldest-songs-in-history/). It contains recordings of musicians playing these songs of replicas of the instruments of the time. The songs range from The Oldest Known Song In The World-Hurrian Song to Nikkal (circa 1450 – 1200 BC) through to Earliest Surviving Secular English Song –
Mirie it is while sumer ilast (circa 1225 AD).

Since I cannot reproduce the actual recordings here, I recommend that one go to the site to hear them. I have however included here the background text accompanying the article about an ancient Greek tune entitled Oldest Known Complete Song – Song of Seikilos, from the Seikilos epitaph (circa 1st century AD):

From the historical perspective, many scholars believe that music played an integral role in the lives of ordinary ancient Greeks, given its role in most social occasions — ranging from religious rites, funerals to the theater and public recitation of ballads and epic-poetry. Both archaeological and literary pieces of evidence rather bolster such a theory that points to the crucial nature of music in ancient Greece.

In fact, the Greeks attributed the ‘creativity’ of musical compositions to divine entities, and as such etymologically the very word ‘music’ is derived from ‘Muses‘, the personifications of knowledge and art who were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Interestingly, Mnemosyne herself was the personification of memory and was also one of the Titans, the children of Uranus the Sky and Gaia the Earth.

As for the historical side of affairs, scholars came across the world’s oldest (known) complete song — and this musical piece (in its entirety) was etched on the Seikilos epitaph. Judging by the ancient Greek characters on the inscription, the song is Hellenistic Ionic in origin, and the etching was probably made sometime in the 1st century AD. The vocalized recreation presented above was made by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE). And in case one is interested, the lyrics roughly translated to English, excluding the musical notation, goes like this –

While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands its toll.

The discovery of the epitaph was made way back in 1883 by Sir W. M. Ramsay in Tralleis, a small town near Aydin (Turkey). The epitaph, according to some stories, was lost again, to finally reemerge after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922, due to its rediscovery in Smyrna in 1923. And interestingly, the region of Aydin has had a long tryst with human civilization in its flowering form, so much so that Aydin in itself translates to ‘lettered, educated, intellectual’. Consequently, the archaeological site in Tralleis boasts many cultural artifacts from human history, including theatrical masks that were symbolically arrayed alongside human burials.

Furthermore, when it came to the ancient Greek musical instruments, the musicians had a penchant for lyres (and kithara), aulos pipes and syrinx, and even the hydraulis — a setup that was the precursor to the modern organ. And with the aid of the flurry of archaeological and literary pieces of evidence of vocal notations and musical ratios, combined with the identification of these instruments, researchers have been able to recreate precise renditions of ancient Greek music.

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