Hurrian hymn from Ugarit, Canaan in northern Syria, 1400 BC

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"The Oldest (Known) Song of All Time"

Includes spectrograms of different reconstructions.

Although this YouTube was made three years ago, I am calling it to the attention of Language Log readers now that I know about it because it draws together many themes we have discussed in previous posts.

Note by the author, hochelaga:

The Hurrian Hymn is History's first Song. Well, the oldest known song. If we're really splitting hairs: the earliest written song that can be reconstructed. We're not even sure what the song even sounds like, but each attempt to decode has its own value. All we are sure about is that the Hurrian Hymn is really, really ancient and nothing is as clear as it seems.

*Note that the Hymn was not written in 1600BCE (my mistake), but probably around 1400BCE. Plus, the image I use of the goddess Nikkal is actually the goddess Asherah. There were no pictures of Nikkal, she's a bit too obscure it seems.

I wrote an article about the bone flutes, the oldest (35,000-40.000 BP) musical instruments in the world, indeed, the oldest evidence for music performed by humans, that are described in the video.

Victor H. Mair. “Prehistoric European and East Asian Flutes”, contained in [Anderl 2006], pages 209–216.  (trans-Eurasian — from Germany to Shandong in Paleolithic times)

And there are a LL post and a SPP paper by Sara de Rose about early Sumerian music that resonates with some of the material in the video.

"The Musical Origin of the Seven-Day Week" (5/6/22)

Sara de Rose, "A Proposed Mesopotamian Origin for the Ancient Musical and Musico-Cosmological Systems of the West and China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 320 (December, 2021), v, 178 pages.

Music, language, writing — the more we learn about them and their linkages, the better we understand the complexity of human cognition and esthetics.  Will AI ever be able to attain that synesthesia?


Selected readings

[Thanks to Gene Hill]


  1. David Marjanović said,

    September 9, 2023 @ 8:42 am

    Will AI ever be able to attain that synesthesia?

    Why "synesthesia"? I haven't "attained" synesthesia either, and yet I have esthetics (and a spectrum of strong emotions about them).

  2. John F said,

    September 9, 2023 @ 9:07 am

    On the subject of humming a little hurrian:

    Josh Tyra, who is the very model of a Biblical Philologist

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2023 @ 10:18 am

    Synesthesia includes sensations and emotions.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    September 9, 2023 @ 2:01 pm

    Synesthesia is not a cover term for sensations or emotions. It refers specifically to conflations of sensations: to the impression that you see certain colors or smell certain odors when you hear certain sounds, or that certain letters or numbers have inherent colors, for example; or that your spine tingles when you read or hear a poem or hear music. Some people have that, others don't.

  5. martin schwartz said,

    September 9, 2023 @ 4:55 pm

    As it happens, my dear colleague, the Assyriologist Prof. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who first decoded the Hurrian Hymn in 1974, died just a few weeks ago at 92. I see that her 1976 boxed annotated LP collaboration "Sounds from Silence" with her Berkeley musicologist colleague Prof. Richard L. Crocker, who reconstructed an ancient lyre, is available.
    There is also a video interview of her from 10 years ago online, and much else on her.
    ADK is mentioned briefly in the video in this LL posting.
    As I think Dr. Marjanović knows well, a VERY engaging acccount of a synesthetic patient was published by the Soviet psychologist
    A.R. Luria, trans. as "The Mind of a Mnemonist". I recall that the
    phenomenon figured in the music of Scriabin, and that Nabokov
    alludes to it; it may be a mere coincidence that all are Russians.
    Martin Schwartz

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2023 @ 7:04 pm

    "Synesthesia is not a cover term for sensations or emotions."

    I did not say that. I said that synesthesia includes the sensations and emotions.

    "Some people have that, others don't."

    I guess you don't have it. 'Tis pity.

    I have it in abundance, and it is one of the most precious aspects of my existence.

  7. martin schwartz said,

    September 9, 2023 @ 11:03 pm

    To add to Sara de Rose's post on the Mesopotamian 7 days/planets and music, which received many comments–there is a Pythagorean correlation of the 7 vowels of the Greek alphabet and music which ties in; it is probably relevant for strings of vowels in the Nag' Hammadi gnostic texts. I already mentioned Joscelyn Godwin's work.
    Martin Schwartz

  8. David Marjanović said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 4:39 am

    I did not say that.

    I'm trying to ask what this means:

    Music, language, writing — the more we learn about them and their linkages, the better we understand the complexity of human cognition and esthetics. Will AI ever be able to attain that synesthesia?

    That's not synesthesia, so what do you mean?

    As I think Dr. Marjanović knows well

    I didn't. Of course I'm not surprised that some, or many, musicians, poets and other artists have been synesthetes and that synesthesia has directly contributed to their art; but that still doesn't make sense of calling "the complexity of human cognitions and esthetics" "that synesthesia", so I'm still confused.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 5:28 am

    You probably don't understand what Martin Schwartz and I are saying about synesthesia because, by your own admission, you've never experienced it.

  10. Stephanie said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 9:39 am

    I am with David Marjanović: I have no idea what the phrase "Will AI ever be able to attain that synesthesia?" means.
    I am a musician (piano), I know colleagues who have some level of synesthesia. I know colleagues who work in AI and a couple in both camps.
    When I showed them the phrase they too said it meant nothing to them. Clearly some people find that their senses blend and for them music may trigger other senses but try as I might I cannot decode the reference to AI attaining synesthesia…. please help me….

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 10:10 am

    Try harder.

    AI has no sensorial or emotional capabilities.

  12. Stephanie said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 1:56 pm

    Thanks. it says something about me, I fear… it never occurred to me you were using irony…

  13. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 2:43 pm

    From Sara de Rose:

    I have been corresponding with a few scholars who are responsible for deciphering some of the calendrical scrolls that are part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    The reason for this is that, according to scholarly consensus, it is at Qumran that the week is first used as a timekeeping device.

    Moreover, I have pointed out to them that the sequence that underlies the week-day order (the Mesopotamian musical sequence) is written repeatedly on the ´Signs’ scroll.

    Because of this, I would like to understand, in depth, Martin’s comment about the Nag Hammadi texts. In particular, I wish to have more details regarding the connection between the seven vowels and the Nag Hammerli texts.

  14. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 6:24 pm

    In ancient societies, there was a search for harmony and symbiosis between sounds, colors, words, music, celestial and human bodies. This varied slightly depending on the civilizations, but indeed today the modern human spirit and computerised societies are separated from it because cut from nature.

    See for example the days of the week/gods/heavenly bodies

    In ancient China/Japan
    日曜日 (Sunday), 月曜日 (Monday)、火曜日 (Tuesday)、水曜日 (Wednesday)、木曜日 (Thursday)、金曜日 (Friday)、土曜日 (Saturday)

    In ancient Greece:

    Sunday Ηλίου Sun Solaris
    Monday Σελήνης Moon/Artemis Diana/Luna
    Tuesday Άρεως Ares Mars
    Wednesday Ερμού Hermes Mercury
    Thursday Διός Zeus Jupiter
    Friday Αφροδίτης Aphrodites Venus
    Saturday Κρόνου Chronos Saturn

  15. martin schwartz said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 8:10 pm

    @Sara Rose and Lucas Christopoulos: SdR: According to the Pythagorean cosmic musical theory (the so-called Music of the Spheres, there is a correlation of the 7 planetary spheres,
    7 musical tones, and the 7 letters of the Greek alphabet.
    Now, among the the Nag' Hammadi Gnostic texts, several feature
    strings of the Greek vowels. Are these meant to be sung??
    Start by reading through the Gospel of the Egyptians, where the vowels variously figure in different places, and then work your way
    thru the corpus. The trans. by James Robinson is most serviceable;
    you can also use Bentley Layton's version, which has erudite commentaries. LC: For the history of the correlated
    heptads–7 planets, 7 days of the week, 7 planets, 7 metals/colors,
    7 traits, from their Mesopotamian origins to Greco-Roman Late Antiquity, that old chestnut, Wihelm Bousset's seminal
    Die Himmelsreise der Seele, is still admirable. There are medieval
    European outgrowths, as well as Islamic, perhaps most notably
    the Persian Nizami's Haft Paykar, with its prologue. The Chinese I leave to you. Oh, @ David Marjanović: "certain … numbers have their inherent colors" and the sound of food names should be related to their taste, etc.–do see Luria's book, a memorable read,
    for many reasons. E.g. L's subject's mnemonist concreteness came at the expense of his ability for abstraction….
    Martin Schwartz
    the expense of

  16. martin schwartz said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 11:05 pm

    @Sara de Rose: see the google page for "Nag Hammadi vowel chants", and look at the articles (some serious) at least up 'til "Monkey Business". David Frankfurter may also have addressed the matter.

  17. GH said,

    September 11, 2023 @ 5:05 am

    See for example the days of the week/gods/heavenly bodies […] In ancient Greece:

    Sunday Ηλίου Sun Solaris

    A while back I read a paper that argued, to me, convincingly that the association of specific weekdays with planets was an original development of Roman astrology and datekeeping in the first century BCE, following the introduction of the Julian calendar, rather than something inherited from Hellenistic (much less Egyptian or Babylonian) astrology. Only later did is spread East from Rome. (For a brief account, here's a blog post by one of the authors of the paper.)

  18. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    September 11, 2023 @ 5:42 am

    From wikipedia: The seven-days week was adopted from the Hellenistic system by the 4th century CE. It was again transmitted to China in the 8th century by Manichaeans via Kangju (Sogdiana) and it is the most-used system in modern China and Japan.

    For the Chinese system of the week days I would have to check the original source. However for either the Roman or the Chinese systems, I don’t think that in both cases it will be easy to get rid of the Greeks.

  19. GH said,

    September 11, 2023 @ 6:09 am

    @Lucas Christopoulos

    Wikipedia reflects the view of older scholarship. If you read the linked article, you will see the evidence and arguments advanced for rejecting a Hellenistic origin. In brief: all the early attestations comes from Rome and Southern Italy, while evidence from the Eastern parts of the Empire is late and scarce. Also, the order of the weekdays, derived via the idea of planetary hours, depends on a certain cosmological/astronomical ordering of the planets. There were two different variations of this order in the ancient world, and the one used to derive the week is the one found (so the authors assert) primarily in later, Roman, texts, not the one used in earlier, Hellenistic ones—contra Ptolemy, who believed the "Roman" order (known in modern times as the so-called "Chaldean order") to be the older, original one.

  20. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    September 11, 2023 @ 6:14 am

    and "Hellenistic" by definition, inculdes Babylonian, Egyptian and Indian sciences with Universal concepts, not ethnic or national.

  21. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    September 11, 2023 @ 6:19 am


    For me to end here, check for example the "Cult of Mithras" proper to Rome. It comes from Hellenistic syncretism among the Parthians and not from earlier Persian cults: D. Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (Oxford, 1989);

  22. David Marjanović said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 8:50 am

    AI has no sensorial or emotional capabilities.

    Yes, but unless you're somehow equating synesthesia with having sensorial or emotional capabilities, you're still not making sense.

    I'm exasperated that a professional teacher, and author of scientific papers, would say "try harder" instead of trying to explain!

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