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 Seikilos Epitaph

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Seikilos Epitaph

  • Birth unknown
  • Death unknown
  • Burial Copenhagen, Kobenhavns Kommune, Hovedstaden, Denmark
  • Plot Room 11, Exhibit No. 35
  • Memorial ID 88882228

Historic Artifact. An Ancient Greek tombstone dated between 200 BC and 100 AD, it contains the world's oldest piece of music that survives complete. It derives its name from the popular belief that a musician named Seikilos composed the brief song in memory of his wife, Euterpe, and had it inscribed on her grave column. Seikilos probably lived in the historical city of Tralles, now part of Aydin in southern Turkey. He may have descended from a musical family. The stele he erected was of a type commonly used in Grecian culture for those who died young. Its inscription begins: "I am an icon in stone. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance". The song follows, an epigram on a theme that is as familiar to us now as it was then: "As long as you live, shine / Let nothing grieve you beyond measure / For your life is short / And time will claim its toll". Epigrammatic verse was also a standard feature on grave columns; what makes the Seikilos Epitaph unique is that he provided the score along with the lyrics, just as epigrams were sung rather than recited in performance. Musical notation had existed in Greece since the 6th Century BC but was known primarily to professional musicians, priests and philosophers (Plato, Aristotle); most Greeks learned music through oral tradition or by ear, and it was seldom written down. Seikilos's sad melody is in the Phrygian mode, which some Greeks believed had a healing effect on listeners. The last extant line of the inscription is of two names, "Seikilos Euter", usually translated as "From Seikilos to Euterpe". The only thing more remarkable about the Epitaph is that it survived at all. Tralles was conquered many times throughout its history and fell into ruin during the Middle Ages. Then in 1883, Scottish archaeologist William Mitchell Ramsey announced he had unearthed the Seikilos column on a railroad construction site in the Tralles/Aydin area and invited scholars to study it. Initial observers documented that it had 13 lines of text; the concluding line contained only the letters "ZH", Greek for "is alive", referring to Seikilos himself. The musical notation was deciphered in 1891. But once the artifact was exhumed its troubles began again. Edward Purser, the Anglo-Irish chief engineer responsible for building the Ottoman National Railway, claimed it for his private collection. The base was broken and at some point Purser's wife had it cut off so the column could stand upright as a pedestal for her flower pots - destroying the 13th line in the process. It then passed into the De Jonge collection in Buca near Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), where it remained during the Greco-Turkish War (1919 to 1922). After the destruction of Smyrna in September 1922 the stone was left under the protection of the Dutch Consulate; from there it was transported to private hands in The Hague, via Istanbul and Stockholm. For 40 years it was presumed lost again. It resurfaced in December 1967, when the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen announced it had acquired the Seikilos Epitaph for permanent exhibition. In 2010, the Director of Culture and Tourism in Aydin launched efforts to have the stele returned to its place of origin, charging it had been illegally smuggled out of Turkey in the 1920s. The Seikilos Epitaph has undergone intensive study, though scholars have yet to establish what Seikilos intended it for. Nothing is known of his life apart from what can be gleaned from the stone, and it is only conjecture that he had a wife named Euterpe. (Significantly, Euterpe was also the name of the Greek goddess of song and elegiac poetry, both exemplified in the inscription). But the romantic idea that it represents an ancient poet mourning his lost love is attractive and in no way contradicted by the song's bittersweet humanity. Barely 30 seconds long, the Song of Seikilos provides the most appealing hint of what the music of that remote civilization sounded like. And it reaches out to us across the millenia with its haunting admonition to treasure what time we have in this world. Numerous arrangements have been recorded. Seikilos has come a long way in achieving his "everlasting sign of deathless remembrance".

Bio by: Bobb Edwards





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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Originally Created by: Bobb Edwards
  • Added: 21 Apr 2012
  • Find A Grave Memorial 88882228
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Seikilos Epitaph (unknown–unknown), Find A Grave Memorial no. 88882228, citing National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Kobenhavns Kommune, Hovedstaden, Denmark ; Maintained by Find A Grave .