The World’s Earliest Song

A lyre player and a singer. Detail from the “Standard of Ur”. Ur. Mid-third millennium BCE. British Museum

I have made offerings to the goddess
That she will open her heart in love,
And that my sins will be forgiven.
May my jars of sweet sesame oil please her,
That she may look kindly upon us,
And make us fruitful,
Like the sprouting fields of grain,
May women bring forth with their husbands
And may those who are yet virgins
One day be blessed with children.

So goes the reconstructed lyrics of the world’s oldest known song for which we have musical notes. The song was written about 3,500 years ago and was discovered on a Sumerian cuneiform clay tablet in the city of Ugarit in Northern Syria.

The Sumerian civilization – one of the world’s first – flourished between 4000 BC and 1750 BC.  They and those who came after them dominated the plains of Mesopotamia, an area that comprise present-day Iraq, and parts of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Kuwait. Collectively, these people ruled the area from around 4000 BC to the fall of Babylon to the Persians in 539 BC.

This song is known as the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkai. It is written in the little studied Hurrian language and is a prayer to the goddess Nikkai, most likely a moon deity associated with fertility and childbirth. The song is part of about 36 hymns written in cuneiform clay tablets uncovered in the ancient city of Ugarit. Over the years, the song has been reconstructed by musicians and researchers and put online so anyone can listen to what the song may have sounded. The qualifier “may” is important because apart from the fact that both the Hurrian language and the context of the song have not been thoroughly studied, parts of the original tablet has bits missing. The most thorough and convincing interpretation (and by far the most musical), is that offered by archaeomusicologist, Dr. Richard J. Dumbrill, and that is the one which you hear in the following video performed on a four-string lute of the type that have been played since ancient times throughout Mesopotamia and Anatolia.

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