Phoenician Music and Hymn to the Moon Goddess Nikhal Interpreted from Cuneiform Tablets
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Mosaic of harp playerAncient Music

Reaching back into ancient history, it is clear that music and musical instruments played a major part of all civilizations. The earliest known scrap of musical notation -- a hymn to the moon goddess Nikkal -- is discussed later in this essay. What is evident today is the fact that early civilizations bequeathed explorations of theory, systems of tunings, instruments, a range of appropriate occasions for music and an emphasis on specialization and technique. In Greek mythology, Apollo was supposed to have played a "civilized" string instrument. The earliest surviving "new music manifesto" was written in 420 B.C. by Timotheus of Miletus:

"I do not sing the old songs: the new ones are the winners, and a young Zeus is king today."

Harp
Strike (click) the strings of the harp to play "Hymn to the Moon Goddess, Nikkal" discussed later.

In Biblical records musical instrument are referred to on various occasions and circumstances. For example, in Daniel 3:5.

"That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up."

Also, the Book of Psalms contains musical notations which, though not understood today, were used to chant the Psalms. In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Phoenicia and elsewhere musical instruments as well as engravings of the same with musicians and cantors, appear on decorationed walls and monuments of temples, palaces and tombs.

According to Herodotus music and song for special festivities were as follows:

"In social meetings among the rich, when the banquet is ended, a servant carries round to the several guests a coffin, in which there is a wooden image of a corpse, carved and painted to resemble nature as nearly as possible, about a cubit or two cubits in length. As he shows it to each guest in turn, the servant sings, 'Gaze here, and drink and be merry; for when you die, such will you be.' "

"The Egyptians adhere to their own national customs, and adopt no foreign usages. Many of these customs are worthy of note: among others their song, the Linus, sung under various names not only in Egypt but in Phoenicia, in Cyprus, and in other places. It seems to be exactly the same as that in use among the Greeks, and by those called Linus. There were very many things in Egypt which filled me with astonishment; this was one of them. Whence could the Egyptians have got the Linus? It appears to have been sung by them from the very earliest times. For the Linus in Egyptian is called Maneros; and they told me that Maneros was the only son of their first king, and that on his untimely death he was honoured by the Egyptians with these dirge like strains, and in this way they got their first and only melody."

Phoenician Music

What sort of music did Herodotus refer to regarding the Linus in Egypt, Phoenicia and Cyrpus? It is very hard to track down what music across the centuries must have sounded like. This is so because records did not always survive with details information for us to form clear understanding of the tonal and timber quality of music from those days. With that in mind, a couple of major points must be underlined when discussing Phoenician music. They include, an often forgotten point, that the father of musical theory of the ancients was Phoenician Pythagoras who was trained in the temples of Phoenicia and exposed to the mysteries of festivals and ceremonies of these temples. Harp

Pythagoras began to understand music and the theory of music by observation. He chanced to pass a brazier's shop where workmen were pounding out a piece of metal upon an anvil. By noting the variances in pitch between the sounds made by large hammers and those made by smaller implements, and carefully estimating the harmonies and discords resulting from combinations of these sounds, he gained his first clue into the musical intervals of the diatonic scale. He entered the shop, and after carefully examining the tools and making mental note of their weights, returned to his house and constructed an arm of wood so that it: extended out from the wall of his room. At regular intervals along this arm he attached four cords, all of similar composition, size, and weight. To the first of these he attached a twelve-pound weight, to the second a nine-pound weight, to the third an eight-pound weight, and to the fourth a six-pound weight. These different weights corresponded to the sizes of the braziers' hammers. He wrote on the subject in his "Theory of Music and Color."

But what do we know about the history of music before Pythagoras and Timotheus of Miletus. Excavations of Phoenician Ugarit in 1929 uncovered cuneiform tablets that date back to approximately 1400 B.C. and contain a hymn to the moon god's wife, Nikkal. Althought thousands of such tablets were discovered over the years, these very tablets contain words and notation of a song. Further, they contained instructions for a singer accompanied by musicians, as well as instructions on tuning. Other thousands of cuneiform tablets, mentioned herewith, revealed a Canaanite civilization which, in many respects, were linguistically and culturally closer to the civilization of the Old Testament than any civilization ever uncovered. For further information on this subject of the Old Testament and these inscriptions, please see Ugaritic Bible in this site. They helped and continue to help biblical researchers understand the Bible and trace sources of literary, stylistic and folklore inspiration for many stories and legends of the Bible.

Throughout the excavations of the early 50's archaeologists dug up many fragments of cult songs. Among them were three fragments of a single tablet in different states of preservation. Miraculously, these pieces fit together. As a result, we now have an almost complete text known as the “Song Tablet.” After the tablet was put together, it measured about 7.5 inches long and about 3 inches high. It is inscribed on both sides and even on the edges in wedge-shaped cuneiform characters running from left to right horizontally across the tablet. The text consists of Akkadian terms written in a Hurrianized manner and enscribed in Ugaritic Cuneiform script.

Hymn to the Moon Goddess, Nikkal, wife of Yrikh
Nikkal Hymn, Moon Song Tablet
 
Nikkal Hymn, Moon Song Tablet
“This is a song in niµd qibli [tuning], a hymn (?) of the gods, from [the collection of] Mr. Urhiya; copied by Mr. Ammurapi.”

The writing on the tablet consists of three parts. First, there are four lines of text that run over, on the front (or obverse, as scholars call it) and continue on the back (or reverse side) covering even the right edge of the tablet. Below this four-line text on the front of the tablet are two finely drawn parallel lines. Between the parallel lines at each end, two angle wedges have been inscribed. Below the two parallel lines is the second part, consisting of six lines. This does not, however, continue on the reverse, although a few signs run over on the right edge of the tablet.

A third part is at the bottom of the tablet’s back (reverse) side. To read it, the tablet must be turned upside down. Without even knowing cuneiform, one might guess that this third text is a label which describes the contents of the tablet and which, perhaps, identifies the author or scribe. This label or colophon on the back of the song tablet is written in Akkadian, one of the best known ancient languages.

Several musicologists and cuneiform specialists from several countries -- among them Benno Landsberger, Anne D. Kilmer, O.R. Gurney, M. Duchesne-Guillemin, H.G. Guterbock, E. Sollberger, D. Wulstan, H. Kummel, and E. Laroche -- have examined these five texts. A number of attempts have been made to reconstruct their musical significance, especially that of the Hurrian cult hymn. The results in the latter case are noteworthy for their wide divergence, yet the essentials of the music theory behind all these obscure documents seems well understood.

Lyre tuning
Ugaritic Hymn

Dr. Anne Kilmer et al. of the University of California, Berkeley, made a detailed study of the Ugaritic song text. Further, Dr. Kilmer's reconstructed the tuning system documented by the above finds. (A full explanation of the terms used and the way they are employed is found in the above publication and others.) She places the tonic note of the mode exactly where Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura places it: on the modern note (E). In both cases, this is simply a matter of musicological convention (since we do not know what the tonic pitch actually was).

Re-orchestration of the Hymn to the Moon Goddess, Nikkal, wife of Yrikh

I used the melody from the reconstructed music to interpret a variation on Dr. Kilmer's version of the piece. For this purpose, I employed a number of software to produce the melody in string instruments, as well as wind instruments. Further, I produced harmonization and percussion -- tambourines, drums and shakers. Also, there is another Ugaritic hymn with a different arrangement, reconstructed by Richard Dumbrill. I recreated a version of it, as well. The notation of both are linked herewith. The process was not easy but I hope my version will provide you, the listener with a lively glimpse into this very ancient music. The files are MP3 for your Moon Goddess Hymn and Ugaritic Hymn. Incidentally, clicking the image of the harp (above left) triggers the Hymn to the Moon Goddess, Nikhal, as well. Please remember that the music is 3,400 years old, therefore, it sounds weird when heard for the first time. If interested in the original versioon by Dr. Kilmer, here is a link to a midi version as is.

If you are interested in my musical composition which I specifically composed in honor and tribute to Ahiram, King of Byblos, you can access it herewith.

Specifically, for this website, I composed a piece entitled, "Ahiram, the King's Coronation March." It is a pipe organ piece in tribute to the king. The official blurb that goes with the piece follows. To listen to it in an MP3 file format click on MP3 file or to view the notation/sheet music sheet music, click on PDF.

Phoenician Ahiram the King of Byblos, Phoenicia, lived c. 1250 B.C. His sarcophagus is inscribed with the single oldest document in history that contains all the letters of the Phoenician alphabets. The music honors the king and his coronation.

Also, my most recent composition is an oboe sonata with piano in C Major entitled "Spring Again in Bmakine" (spring in my hometown). It is an MP3 format and here is the notation/sheet music in PDF format. It represents the timeless days of spring in my hometown during the spring season where sometimes twittering birds overwhelm the countryside with their sweet, yet dissonant noises. Another recent piece is my attempt to write variations of woodwinds and strings quartet (clarinet, bass clarinet, viola and contrabass) in C Major entitled "Vacant Homes." It is reminiscent of the many homes left vacant in my hometown after their owners deserted them to ruin and time. It is an MP3 format and here is the notation/sheet music in PDF format.

Phoenician Christian Music

Greek and Roman music, in addition to Christian church music were the basic and had a fundamental influence on Western music. Early Christianity took much of its culture from the Near East as one can find in early hymns. Further, early church music may well have been a combination of Hebrew and Phoenician music since the early church was primarily made up of Jewish and Phoenician converts who were the first to embrace the new faith during the Apostolic Age.

Since it is very hard to determine what the ancient tunes may have sounded like, one may be able to find traces of them in some hymns and liturgies of some churches of the Eastern rites. This ancient Maronite (Eastern Catholic church) Christmas hymn in Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) may very well contain tones that have their roots in ancient Phoenician music. It is sung by Fairouz, a famous Lebanese singer accompanied by a chamber orchestra.

The hymn herewith provided for your listening pleasure is in AIFF format. Click to play the file: fairouz.aiff

Further, to listen to a sample of what the Phoenician/Aramaic language sounds like, follow the links to the music files provided of the Good Friday Entombment Service of Jesus Christ. The files are in MP3 format. Click to play: Glory -- ends with the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic (mp3 audio file format) and Bearers of Fragrance (mp3 audio file format). They are part of the full service in Aramaic which was held in Maalula, Syria (a town which were Aramaic is still spoken today), 1994, for the first time in 300 years. The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchal Office of the Catechism holds the copyright and is indebted for providing this rare service.

There is a fine performance or rendition of chanting the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, also, by a major Lebanese singer called Pascale Sakr. She has a large collection of secular songs and sacred chants composed and orchestrated by major Lebanese musicians. Those interested in knowing more about her repertoire are provided with a link to her site. There are samples of her songs and chants from her various CDs online -- make sure to visit her site and sample her new CD entitled "Avoonan Dbishmaya."


For more information, please follow the link to Facebook on the Aramaic Language
and
http://www.youtube.com/user/HardcoreAramean

Phoenician Art

An extensive study of Phoenician art is available in this Web site. Please see "Phoenician Art".

sources:

  1. Hordern, JH, The Fragments of Timotheus of Miletus, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. Histories of Herodotus, Euterpe
  3. Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 63, No. 4, The Mysteries of Ugarit: History, Daily Life, Cult, pp. 184-185, 2000.
  4. Hall, MP, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, The Pythagorean Theory of Music and Color, San Francisco, 1928.
  5. Kilmer, AD, Crocker, RL, Brown RR, Sounds From Silence: Recent Discoveries in Ancient Near Eastern Music, Bit Enki Publications, POB 9068, Berkeley, 1976.

Additional Resources:

  1. Music of the Ancient Near East
  2. Sacred Music in Antiquity
  3. The Middle Muse: Mesopotamian Echoes in Archaic Greek Music
  4. The Oldest Song in the World
  5. Bella Roma Music

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