History’s Oldest Songs: What did Ancient Music sound like?

Music, in my opinion, is one of the most amazing things human beings have created. It has the power to make us feel happy, sad, roused, calm, to tell a story, to bring back memories, all through a limited number of sounds woven together. It is an expression of creativity, cultural identity and even religion – Apollon and the Muses being the Hellenic examples. I previously wrote about my connection to Apollon through classical music.

But although Schubert and Beethoven will always remind me of Apollon’s presence in my life, there is no greater testament to his immortality than the music of our ancestors.

Because music’s greatest gift is that it lasts.

People have been singing, and playing tunes, for tens of thousands of years – so long that we don’t know when we started. We were brought together by music before we could write, before we could farm, maybe even before all of us were homo sapiens. Now, thanks to archeologists, we can be brought together by music even across time.

So what did ancient music sound like? And how was it played?

Though it is impossible to know when we first began to sing, archeological finds can give us an idea of when the first instruments were made. So far, the oldest instrument recovered is a flute that dates back 40’000 years. It has been the subject of much controversy, some scholars arguing it was made by Neanderthals, some arguing it was made by Cro Magnons, some arguing it isn’t a flute at all but a chewed bone. What is indisputable, however, is that the holes are spaced out perfectly so that they form four notes of the diatonic scale (do, re, mi, fa). This gives the flute the flexibility to play many modern tunes, as well as imitate birdsong and other sounds. Whether or not it was intended for music, when Ljuben Dimkaroski reconstructed and played it, the sound was certainly eerie:

With the invention of writing, the preservation of music suddenly became much easier. Sadly, the oldest songs we have found were recorded without musical notation, so while we have an idea of the text, we can only imagine what the tune sounded like. Even so, using ancient depictions of instruments as well as archeological finds, some enthusiasts have created their own interpretations of these songs. While they may not always be accurate, they are fun to listen to!

We also know that ancient epics, amongst which the Iliad and the Odyssey, were accompanied by music. Here is an interpretation of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest works of literature, written 5000 years ago:

The oldest preserved musical notation is also Sumerian. It dates back to 1950 B.C., during the reign of king Lipit-Ishtar for whom it was written. Unfortunately, the fragment that we have isn’t a song but a set of tuning instructions for an ancient lyre.

The Hurrian Hymn no.6 is the earliest song that we have and that is preserved enough to be played. It was discovered in Ugarit, in present day Syria, and was dated to approximately 1400 B.C. At the time, Ugarit was right on the border between Egypt and the culturally closer kingdom of Mitanni, in whose language – Hurrian – the recovered hymns were written. No.6 was dedicated to Nikkal, a Goddess of the moon. Even though she does not belong to my religion, it makes me happy that after being forgotten for so long, her hymns are being sung again 🙂

Here is an instrumental version:

At last, in the Classical period, we are brought to Greece by a short piece composed for the theatre. Though the only surviving copy is from the 3rd century, the text is from Euripides’ Orestes, which was written two centuries earlier. It is a rather grim stasimon – a song performed by the chorus during a play – which laments Orestes’ fate. The lyrics are as follow:

κατολοφύρομαι, κατολοφύρομαι
ματέρος αἷμα σᾶς, ὅ σ’ ἀναβακχεύει,
ὁ μέγας ὄλβος οὐ μόνιμος ἐν βροτοῖς,
ἀνὰ δὲ λαῖφος ὥς τις ἀκάτου θοᾶς τινάξας δαίμων
κατέκλυσεν δεινῶν πόνων ὡς πόντου
λάβροις ὀλεθρίοισιν ἐν κύμασιν.

Translation: I lament, I lament the blood of your mother that drives you mad; great happiness is never lasting for mortals, but like the sail of a swift ship shaken by some God, so it is submerged with terrible suffering into the harsh and deadly waves of the sea.

The 2nd century B.C. brings us a new set of hymns from Greece. The two Delphic hymns, dedicated to Apollon, were found in the sanctuary at Delphi. The first was composed by a certain Athenaios son of Athenaios, and the second by Limenios, son of Thoinos. This is significant: they are the first composers in history whose music is preserved and known to be theirs.

Last but not least, the Song of Seikilos, composed sometime between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100, is the oldest song that has been completely preserved. I have written about it before, but it’s a perfect ending to this playlist, and simply too beautiful not to share. Seikilos’ inscription above the song is particularly poignant in this context:

Εἰκὼν ἡ λίθος εἰμί. Τίθησί με Σείκιλος ἔνθα μνήμης ἀθανάτου σῆμα πολυχρόνιον.

It translates as: I, this stone, am an image. Seikilos placed me here as the ageless symbol of a deathless memory.

Seikilos, Athenaios, Limenios and the other nameless composers may be long-gone, but here we are, listening to the same sounds they listened to, singing the words they wrote, communing with them as if we were sitting around the same hearth despite the years that separate us.

Is that not the very definition of immortality?

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Anti-Christianity within Hellenic polytheistic communities

Remember that little thing you were told when you were just starting out as a Pagan? We’re an accepting bunch, we won’t judge you because of who you are and how you worship. We don’t believe there’s only one way to the Divine, so we can’t be intolerant, right?

Yeah, that’s a lie.

I’ve been a Pagan of various branches (first Hellenic polytheism, then Wicca, then eclectic Paganism, then Hellenic polytheism again) for eight years now, and an active member of various communities for four. Most of the time, people are friendly and discussion is thought-provoking, but on sadly regular occasions, I’ve found myself disturbed by what some people have said about other religions. Just yesterday, on one of the Facebook groups I’m a member of, someone posted a picture of Jesus with this caption:

It’s like this. I created man and woman with original sin. Then I destroyed most of them for sinning. Then I impregnated a woman with myself as her child, so that I could be born. Later, I will kill myself as a sacrifice to myself to save all of you from the sin I gave you in the first place.

Admittedly, this does bring up several discrepancies within Christianity that require a bit of explanation. But the tone of the text, coupled with the comments that followed (“lol there are a lot of contradictions”; “if you put Heracles and Jesus in a room you know who’s walking out”) made me very uncomfortable. Only one person had the common sense to hint at the complex history of Christianity, and the fact that when you boil it down like this without taking its nuances into account, of course it’s not going to make sense.

No religion makes sense when you put it as bluntly as this. Jesus was sacrificed to himself – so what? Aphrodite was born when her father’s severed genitals impregnated the sea. Loki gave birth to an eight-legged horse. All Gods are individual, separate entities, except when they aren’t.*

I can already hear the Pagans arguing that yes, mythology states that about Aphrodite, but it was meant to be metaphorical, and the Gods’ identities are… Are what? Easily explained? So is Jesus’ sacrifice. A Catholic once explained to me that it was the continuation of Jewish animal sacrifice (hence why Jesus died at Passover, a feast commemorating when God passed over – in other words, didn’t kill – every Jewish family which had sacrificed a lamb to Him), a kind of ultimate sacrifice ensuring that it would never need to be done again. And what greater sacrifice to offer than a part of divinity itself? The parallel with polytheistic sacrifice, purification and even reciprocity is clear.

And yet non-Pagan religions retain a separate status within our communities, a status that allows them to be targeted in a way no Pagan path would. Some other behaviours I have encountered across the years include blaming monotheistic religions for world violence (as if polytheistic societies weren’t violent), patriarchy (even though polytheistic Rome was one of the most repressive societies for women) and a lot more, including calling Islam a heresy and encouraging polytheists to “rise up against” Christianity, “this bastion of white privilege, colonialism, and destruction and bring it down stone by stone, or head by head if that’s what it takes”. Admittedly, the person who wrote that (prominent blogger Galina Krasskova) did agree that there are also good monotheists, but does that make the rest of her text okay?

Another behaviour that is becoming increasingly common – not particularly problematic compared to others, but still a pet peeve of mine – is the dismissal of Yahweh and Jesus. Apparently they didn’t exist, or weren’t Gods. I find that strange, considering that we are polytheists. For people who believe in dozens of Gods scattered across one or more pantheons, what difference does an extra God or two make? The least we can do is to stay neutral on the existence of pantheons other than our own.

I understand that many Pagans, Hellenic polytheists included, come from monotheistic backgrounds and that some of them have been extremely hurt by bigoted and ignorant Christian, Muslim or Jewish people. I understand that they may be bitter towards their previous faith. But that gives them no excuse to belittle it. Christians, Muslims and Jews (and everyone else) deserve to be held to the same standard as Pagans. If you don’t like them stepping on your beliefs, don’t step on theirs, either.

Because no religion is entirely good or entirely bad. Abrahamic faiths have that Leviticus verse about homosexuality being an abomination. Hellenic polytheists have Delphic Maxim #95, “rule your wife”. Each religion has its complexities, its theology to explain them, and its idiots who don’t understand them. As Pagans, we have no right to mock others while turning a blind eye to our own bigots and discrepancies. It’s simply hypocritical.

Back in ancient times, religion wasn’t a matter of “I believe this and I’m right, you believe that and you’re stupid”. The boundaries between pantheons fluctuated, local cultus was assimilated into official worship, foreign Gods were not worshipped but were respected all the same. This still exists within modern Paganism and its various branches (though not always – Pagan discrimination of Pagans happens too), but it’s time we applied to people of other faiths as well. Sure, their beliefs and customs can be giggled at – Herodotus did a fair bit of that in his Histories. But not mocked. Whether we like it or not, these people are still a sizable portion of our society, and community and coexistence being so highly valued by most polytheistic religions, they deserve to be treated as such.

Many people come to Pagan faiths to escape bigotry in their birth religions. One day, I hope that we will be able to tell them, in all honesty, that they’ve found the place they’re looking for.

*Zeus Serapis. Roman Apollo and Hellenic Apollon. Astarte and Ishtar, depending on who you ask.

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Hellenic birthday prayer

It’s my birthday today so I thought I would share this Hellenic birthday prayer to Artemis:

It’s been a wonderful year and I am thankful for every single day of it. I look forward to the rest of the road. Wherever I go, may the Gods lead the way!

– Artemisia Astraiê

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Reconnecting with the Gods

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting much lately. I’ve had a lot on my mind, and I’ve been experiencing changes – both in my spiritual and non-spiritual life. This post will be about the spiritual.

At the end of March, I moved back to Switzerland after spending nine months in New Zealand. The differences between both countries are striking. In New Zealand, I was confronted every day with rolling deep green hills, skies the colour of forget-me-nots, prickly yellow expanses of grass, and colourful wooden houses that dotted the streets nearby. Aiolos never stopped whirling around me, Hermes was in the smile of the stranger handing out flyers in town, and just out of sight, but always there, Poseidon’s whispers filled the sea.

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In Switzerland, there is no sea. Aiolos is quiet here, and there is no wild bush for Artemis to roam. The land is tamer, paler, not at all like primal, fierce, vivid New Zealand. But the Gods are here. Different, perhaps, but still here.

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The wonderful thing about Hellenismos is that our Gods aren’t one-dimensional beings that only exist in a limited area or domain. Take Zeus, for example. He isn’t just the God of thunder and the Father of Gods and men; he is also Zeus Ombrios, of the rain, Zeus Teleios, of the marriage rites, Zeus Ktêsios, of the house, Zeus Xenios, of hospitality, Zeus Areios, of war, and so much more. The sky can be cloudy or sunny, but it’s still the sky. The same goes with the Gods. They have many faces.

I may not find Poseidon Pelagaios or Poseidon Ennosigaios here, but Poseidon Hippios is all around me – and while he is usually associated with the sea, rivers do, to some extent, belong to his domain as God of water as well. The wild Artemis I honoured in New Zealand is not so prevalent in Switzerland, but Artemis Eurynômê is, and so is Artemis Philomeirax. Wherever I go, the rivers and forests are still home to nymphs, and Helios still burns in the sky.

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Everywhere I am, the Gods are there. I just need to look at them with different eyes.

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Building kharis

One of my favourite things about Hellenismos is the concept of kharis. Kharis, in Ancient Greek, can be translated as joy, grace, and kindness. To me, it’s when your inner happiness is so radiant that it bubbles out and touches others – after all, aren’t the most contented people often the most generous? In the case of religion, almost every community offers kharis to other people in the context of charity, or religious giving. What I love about Hellenismos is that, in a slightly different way, we offer it to the Gods as well.

Every religion has its own view on what a relationship to the Divine should be like. In the Abrahamic faiths, God is infinitely above mortals and should be worshipped. In Wicca, the Gods are helpful forces that one can work with in order to achieve a goal. In Hellenismos, our relationship to the Gods is based on religious reciprocity. Give to a God, and you are more likely to receive in return. (Not always, of course. Sometimes the Gods have their own good reasons not to help. The key is that a God to whom you have sacrificed is more likely to help than one to whom you haven’t.)

This is where kharis comes in. Research shows that happiness and thankfulness are intertwined, and in the case of religion, this is most certainly true. Giving thanks makes me happy, and when I am happy, I give thanks. I make offerings to the Gods. If my offerings please them, then they, too, are happy and look upon me favourably. Then, when I need help or guidance, they are more inclined to give it to me. This makes me happy, so I give thanks. It’s like a vicious circle of kindness. Give, receive, give some more. That’s kharis.

The best thing is that I can see it in my everyday life. Hermes, for example, is a God that I had almost no relationship with one year ago. The first time I prayed to him was in July 2014, just before I moved to a new country on the other side of the world. Now, I offer to him regularly, and interestingly enough, the areas in my life where I have been most blessed, these last months – work, communication and travel – are all related to Hermes.

It’s also in the little things. Just yesterday, I was in a hurry and couldn’t find a scarf I wanted to wear. I was sure I’d left it next to my bed, but it was nowhere to be found. Hermes being the God of thieves, I figured a quick prayer to him couldn’t hurt. I found my scarf five seconds later. I don’t pray to the Gods very often about trivial matters, but when I do, it’s nice to see that they’re willing to help!

I love kharis. I love how it’s founded on what I value most – kindness, happiness and devotion. I love how I was introduced to it, one year ago, when I was slipping from eclectic Paganism to Hellenismos and asked which God was my patron. The answer was so simple. Kharis.

At the time, I thought it meant that Kharis, who is also a Goddess, was watching over me. Now, I understand another meaning. Patron Gods of people aren’t a Hellenic concept – patrons of cities are, and of professions and even of heroes, but not of common people.

But kharis is. To build a relationship with a God, build kharis.

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A Global Day of Mourning and Invoking the Gods of the People

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I read on wild hunt.org today that Jack Prewitt, a California Pagan has called for a Global Day of Mourning on April 18 in response to the destruction of antiquities and sacred sites by Daesh (to use the acronym ISIL legitimizes them and they are in no way legitimate). Why April 18? I was curious and read his site- you can get to it from the link above— and I almost burst into tears when I read his reasoning: it’s World Heritage Day. These living bags of excrement have destroyed two Unesco sites. They’ve spat upon the holy places of their own ancestors. They’ve set scholarship back in ways I can’t even begin to imagine. This is all in addition to their depredation of their own, and their terrorizing and torture of women.

I know some of you reading this are wondering what setting aside a day of mourning could…

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What do Hellenic polytheists believe, anyway?

If I asked you what Hellenic polytheists believe, what would you reply?

“Well, duh. You believe in Zeus and the other Greek Gods.”

Yes. Zeus, Apollon, Aphrodite, Athena, Hercules, Homer and the Iliad, Plato, Socrates – all those are part of the mythological and cultural background of our religion. But what do we actually believe?

If you asked a Christian the same question, they would reply that they believe in Jesus Christ, the son God sent to Earth so that humans could accept him as a saviour and be allowed into Heaven. If you asked a Buddhist, they would tell you the purpose of life is to let go of material possessions and to unclutter your mind so as to achieve enlightenment. If you asked a humanist, they would say they put their faith in humanity and human potential rather than in an outside force. If you asked a Wiccan, they would explain their belief in a dualistic universe and the sacredness of nature.

But what do Hellenic polytheists believe?

As with most religions, Hellenismos is diverse. Some of us believe in reincarnation; some do not. Some of us believe in animal sacrifice; some do not. Some of us believe in Gods as personal patrons; some do not.

Me? I believe that Gods walk among us. I believe that every tree hides a dryad, every spring a naiad, every mountain an oread, and as such, they all should be treated as sacred. I believe that our Ancestors and Heroes watch over us. I believe that my purpose in life is to honour these beings as best I can by living virtuously, and by making offerings to the Gods so that in return, they may be kind to me.

Like the organisation Elaion, I believe in upholding piety, tradition and virtue. I believe in researching the way of the Ancient Greeks as best I can, then adapting them to the modern world. I believe in the wisdom of the Delphic Maxims and in living a modest, honest and kind life. I do not believe in one universal Truth, nor in converting others to my religion. As a polytheist, I believe in many Gods and many ways; while I believe that my Gods are true, I am open to the existence of other Gods whom I do not worship, but who may be just as true as mine. I see no difference between someone choosing to worship Demeter over Artemis, and someone choosing to worship Allah over Yahweh.

I believe in the sanctity of life and of death. I believe that both should be treated with respect and acceptance – after all, we were all born, and we are all going to die. I believe that nobody can be certain of what happens after death, and that the issue is one of philosophy, not of religion. I, due to my personal experiences, believe in reincarnation – but that is only my opinion. Overall, I believe that while we live, we should focus on living a good life, rather than trying to attain a reward after death. That should not prevent us from giving those who have passed on the honours they are due.

Many people, in our modern day and age, fail to look at pre-Christian polytheistic beliefs beyond the basics. We have become mythology; our religions have been simplified to the names of our principal Gods, and a few famous fairytales and legends. Yes, I believe in Zeus, Hera, Artemis and the other Gods of Ancient Greece. But I also believe in so much more. Hopefully, this post will have helped you understand the core of my religion a little more.

Piety. Virtue. Moderation. Respect. Tradition. That is what I, as a Hellenic polytheist, believe.

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