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The Seikilos Stele, held today in the Copenhagen National Museum, is the oldest surviving complete musical composition. Dating from either the 1st or 2nd century CE, the inscribed stone features an epitaph and musical notation on an enduring humanist theme: life is short, so enjoy it while you can.

Sometimes called the ‘Song’ or ‘Epitaph’ of Seikilos, it is a skolion, or drinking song, carved on a tombstone (stele). It was discovered in 1883 by Scottish archaeologist Sir William Ramsay near present day Aydin, Turkey. Its opening lines state: ‘I am a tombstone, an icon. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance’.

Its lyrics read:

As long as you live, be lighthearted.
Let nothing trouble you.

Life is only too short,
and time takes its toll.

As the Norton Anthology of Western Music notes, with the Seikilos Stele ‘we are encouraged to be cheerful, not in spite of death and the ravages of time but… because of them’. This idea that the finality of death gives meaning to life is at the heart of the humanist philosophy, and its presence on this ancient stone is a reminder of the deep roots of humanist thinking – throughout history and across the world. It is also a powerful reminder of how, from the earliest times, human beings have sought to capture philosophy and feeling in music and song, uniting us today with people whose world was so different from ours.

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Image: Seikilos-stelen by Copenhagen National Museum. CC-BY-NC-ND

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