The Seikilos Epitaph is the oldest complete song in the world, dating back between the 2nd century BC and the 1st AD. Despite its adventurous recovery, and the uncountable damage caused by its first owner, the object represents an invaluable historical document exactly because of its entirety. If the “Hymn to Nikkal” was the oldest song in the world, The Seikilos Epitaph is the oldest complete composition ever found, equipped also with musical notes able to indicate the pace of the melody.
Below: Sicilian Epitaph picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The song was written on top of what looks like a little column, a stele, and the lyrics was divided in 3 fundamental parts:
The epigram of 6 lines
The actual lyric, 6 lines
The inscription to the epitaph
ΕΙΚΩΝ Η ΛΙΘΟΣ
ΕΙΜΙ · ΤΙΘΗΣΙ ΜΕ
A picture, [me,] the stone,
I am; it places me
an immortal memory
The poetic inscription of the stele is of the “Elegiac Couplet” type, very popular in Greece after the 5th century AD and used for all the following centuries. It recalls the theme of the symbolism linked to the death of its client.
Ὅσον ζῇς φαίνου·
μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ·
πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν.
τὸ τέλος ὁ χρόνος ἀπαιτεῖ.
Until you are alive, show yourself to the world,
do not distress yourself for anything:
life lasts shortly.
Time expects its tribute.
The song talks about the caducity of life, common topic at the time and mainly widespread up until Middle Ages. Especially the philosophy of “enjoying life” was particularly popular in those days and often artistic references of such a topic are found, like the skeleton drawn through mosaic technique in Antakya, Turkey.
“Seikilos [, son] of Euterpes” this last one muse of music.
The inscription is of hard understanding as in, despite it is intelligible, it raises doubts on the fatherhood, either real or metaphorical, of Seikilos. Besides that, it is noteworthy to say that in modern Greece, when filling up official documentations, it is important to mention the name of the father as well.
Below: music notation of the melody according to the ionic notation and the modern one.
The adventurous recovery
The discovery of the stele occurred during the construction of a train line in the city of Aydın, current Turkey, and part of the ancient kingdom of Pergamon, which later on become Roman. This historical context was hypothesised as the one in which the realisation of the stele occurred, with a higher chance around the 1st century AD. The column was found in 1883 and remained of property of Edward Purser, Danish manager responsible for the construction of the train line, decided to cut the stele in two blocks in order to maintain the standing position. The base was not empty of significance since it would contain another line of text, lost forever. The cut occurred to allow to Mrs Purser to place a vase of flower on top of the column.
The stele got hold of Purser’s son in law, who took it in a closer city near Smirne where it was kept until 1922: at the time it was then given to the Dutch consul of the Turkish metropolis, based in the Hague. In 1966, finally, it landed in a museum in Copenhagen.
Below: epitaph in the National Museum of Copenhagen. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The Seikilos Epitaph melody was supposed to sound pretty much this way