Hear the “Seikilos Epitaph,” the Oldest Complete Song in the World: An Inspiring Tune from 100 BC

Last sum­mer, we fea­tured a Sumer­ian hymn con­sid­ered the old­est known song in the world. Giv­en the pop­u­lar­i­ty of that post, it seems we may have long under­es­ti­mat­ed the num­ber of ancient-musi­cophiles on the inter­net. There­fore, we sub­mit today for your approval the Seik­i­los epi­taph, the old­est known com­plete musi­cal com­po­si­tion — that is to say, a song that our 21st-cen­tu­ry selves can still play and hear in its intend­ed entire­ty, more or less as did the ancient Greeks who lived dur­ing the first-cen­tu­ry (or there­abouts) era of its com­po­si­tion.

The Seik­i­los epi­taph’s sur­vival in one piece, as it were, no doubt owes some­thing to its short­ness. The Greeks could carve the entire thing onto the sur­face of a tomb­stone, exact­ly the medi­um on which the mod­ern world redis­cov­ered it in 1885 near Aidin, Turkey. Its lyrics, lib­er­al­ly brought into Eng­lish, exhort us as fol­lows:

While you live, shine

have no grief at all

life exists only for a short while

and time demands its toll.

The sur­face also bears an explana­to­ry inscrip­tion about — and writ­ten in the voice of — the arti­fact itself:  “I am a tomb­stone, an image. Seik­i­los placed me here as an ever­last­ing sign of death­less remem­brance.” The Greeks, like many peo­ples in the ancient world of unvar­nished mor­tal­i­ty, rel­ished a good memen­to mori, and this old­est com­plete song in the world offers one whose mes­sage still holds today, and which we can trace all the way to more recent words, like those of William Saroy­an, when he said, “In the time of your life, live — so that in that good time there shall be no ugli­ness or death for your­self or for any life your life touch­es.”

Or for anoth­er inter­pre­ta­tion, you can hear a mod­ern, gui­tar-dri­ven cov­er of the Seik­i­los epi­taph by Vlog­broth­er and famous inter­net teacher Hank Green, in a tru­ly strik­ing exam­ple of two eras col­lid­ing. But of course, the Youtube era has also made every­one a crit­ic. As one com­menter per­fect­ly put it, “I pre­fer his ear­li­er stuff.”

Seikilos epitaph

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in the Orig­i­nal Akka­di­an and Enjoy the Sounds of Mesopotamia

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Saiful says:

    “Seik­i­los Epi­taph”, the song is heart-touch­ing, last­ing and haunt­ing and echoes from more than two thou­sand years. It mere­ly says one thing — we are all a con­tin­u­a­tion of the same race. same feel­ings and same sen­ti­ments.

    Then how we have gone so dif­fer­ent from each oth­er? Is it the time, that Seik­i­los talked about. I won­der.….….…

  • EvenStephen says:

    Sor­ry, Mr Clark, it has no dance­able beat sor­ta herky jerky. I don’t see kids danc­ing to it and it will soon dis­ap­pear from view. I give it a 2 for a good ama­teur try but it has no future.

    Xeres Archidias

  • Guneli Hershiser says:

    If this song is Sumer­ian it can­not also be Greek. Dif­fer­ent cul­tures, dif­fer­ent times. I can­not make out the lan­guage of the song, so I pre­sume it’s been faked.

  • Jo says:

    Yikes! I must be wacko.…I’m “hear­ing” Irish danc­ing and rhythms! Seri­ous­ly! Maybe I’ve just been list­ing to Celtic Thun­der too much.

  • Jenko says:

    I love how it gets all heavy towards the end, kind of like Stair­way to Heav­en.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.