Music is one of the few things in humanity’s existence that spans all barriers. Everyone who has ever lived has heard or made music in some form. It brings together cultures, ages, and nations and spans the centuries. The most fascinating piece of music history I have come across as of yet is the Seikilos Epitaph.
Seikilos’ Song was written by a man who likely lived in Tralles, an ancient city now part of Aydin, Turkey. The column was unearthed in 1883 by Scottish archaeologist William Mitchell Ramsey near what would have been the Tralles region of Aydin. Made of marble, passing through many, sometimes careless, hands, and disappearing for several years at one point, it finally came to rest in 1967 in Copenhagen at the National Museum of Denmark. Controversy over the marker’s rightful final resting place began in 2010, but as of today, the museum is still it’s home.
This Epitaph stands out in the chronology of music as the oldest surviving record of a complete musical arrangement. Many older instances of mankind composing music have been found, but only in fragments. Although it is a short four lines long and written as a simple melody, it bears great weight in history. This single piece gives us a view into our shrouded musical beginnings.
The song gathers its name from the engraving on a column, dating between roughly 200 BC to AD 100. Etched into the stone is a brief description followed by lyrics in ancient Greek, roughly translated here into English:
I am an icon in stone. Seikilos placed me here
as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.
As long as you live, shine
Let nothing grieve you beyond measure
For your life is short
And time will claim its toll.
The full lyrics and complete musical notation are engraved along with the words, setting the Song of Seikilos apart from other incomplete and fragmented pieces. It has an almost haunting quality when sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Musical group Savae performs a beautiful rendition of this piece.
Imagine ancient Greece being gazed upon by a musician as he mulled over the purpose of existence. Was he grieving a loved one? Perhaps he enjoyed philosophy as well as music. It could be that he was simply an aged man who looked back on his life and wanted to leave a legacy that would inspire others.
We don’t know exactly who this Seikilos was, or why he composed this song and had it inscribed on a stone column. One thing we do know. His advice, surviving hundreds of years, has not become outdated. Rather, mankind has grown to appreciate and implement this timeless admonishment in so many individual ways. It is my hope that we take Seikilos’ words to heart. “As long as you live, shine.”