Music from the Past: Seikilos Epitaph

Hello everybody. It has been a while since I wrote an entry in this blog, but a month of fieldwork and another month of setting up my dissertation work have taken the best of me. I am back, however, with a topic I have carefully working on for a while, and that I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

Seikilos, Nationalmuseet
Seikilos Colum, Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.

I do not usually write about topics I do not have a good knowledge about, but today I am tempted to make an exception. I also have this tendency to enjoy researching topics with “low visibility” on the archaeological record, as in the case of my work on divers I posted some time ago. Music, ancient music, is another of these topics. Nobody questions the existence of instruments in ancient times, and we have both representations and actual remains of them in the archaeological record. But, how do you excavate music? This is an idea that has fascinated me for a very long time. I must clarify, first of all, that I have no formal education on music. I have been playing for some years the tin whistle as a way to deal with homesickness, and although my tunes are becoming less and less harmful to the listeners, that cannot be compared with the years of hard work and practising of the professionals. What I intend here is to bring some light on a rather unknown topic from the perspective of somebody who works on the past and enjoys listening to music.

Of course, the answer to the question I was formulating before is rather obvious… we cannot excavate music. That is the beauty of it, that until the appearance of recording devices, we were not actually able to keep, to save music itself. After every note was played, it was gone. That is why from very early times, much earlier than you would expect, humans have tried to “save” and transmit their music by means of different systems of musical notation. Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform tablets contain in some cases musical notation, and the earliest, almost complete, piece of music was recovered from a tablet written in cuneiform script, the so called “Hurrian song”, a religious hymn to the god Nikkal.

But what I bring you today is a little bit later. The epitaph of Seikilos is the first composition, in the western world (we always forget our geography), that has been preserved complete, the verses of the song and the notes. It was found in Aidin (Turkey), and despite the disagreements on the dating it is usually considered to be composed around the 1st c. BCE (Grout and Palisca 1990). The inscription itself is a tombstone, and includes a song with the musical notation, composed in Iastian tonos (Solomon 1986) or Phrygian octave species (Winnington-Ingram 1925). Unfortunately, our knowledge of the Greek metric system is rather limited, due to the fragmentary state of the record and its theoretical focus. Although the work on papyri always leads to the discovery of new fragments that increases our knowledge and repertoire (Johnson 2000). The first to consider is the lyrics of the song, brief but very beautiful:

Ὅσov ζῇς φαίνου

μηδὲν ὃλως σὺ λυποῦ·

πρὸς ὀλίγov ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν,

τὸ τέλoς ὁ χρόνoς ἀπαιτεῖ.

While you live, shine

have no grief at all;

life exists only for a short while,

and time demands an end.

There is some debate among the epigraphers whether the dedication is read as “Seikilos to Euterpe” or “Seikilos son of Euterpe”. However, there is another line that reads that Seikilos set this stone, so I am inclined to believe that the song is a dedication from Seikilos to her love Euterpe. Or not, but since this is a blog and not a paper I can decide to choose the most romantic option. As Grout and Palisca (1990) wrote, the songs seems to be nor sad nor happy, but something balanced in between, very adequate to the Greek ethos. I interpret it as an optimistic message to enjoy life.

Finally, I am afraid I could not resist the temptation of trying to play the song on my tin whistle. As I wrote before, I do not have much musical knowledge, so I do apologise to my musician friends. I think the transcription to the fingering chart is the correct one, but please let me know if there is any mistake or it can be improved in any way.

How to play Seikilos epitaph in the tin whistle.

I hope despite the limitations you have enjoyed the reading. This is a fascinating topic that unfortunately is not addressed very often in archaeology. Music was a central element of past societies as it is of the present-day ones. From religion to parties, every form of cultural expression was accompanied by music. Even military training was closely related to musical performances. For Pythagoras music transcended its natural medium to be the underlying force (as a mathematical expression) of the organization of the kosmos, while tragedy was always accompanied by musical instruments and choruses. Despite all that, I always forget when I read Sofokles that I am missing the OST…

Enjoy the best version I have found, with a proper Ancient Greek pronunciation:


Grout, Donal J. and Claude V. Palisca. 1990. Historia de la Música Occidental, Vol. 1. Madrid: Alianza Música.

Johnson, William A. 2000. Musical Evenings in the Early Empire: New Evidence from a Greek Papyrus with Musical Notation. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 120: 57-85.

Solomon, Jon. 1986. The Seikilos Inscription: A Theoretical Analysis. The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 107, No. 4: 455-479.

Winnington-Ingram, Reginald P. 1929. Ancient Greek Music: A Survey. Music & Letters Vol. 10 (4).

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