Interpretation of an ancient Greek song: “Seikilos Epitaph”

The Seikilos Epitaph is an ancient Greek song which (apparently?) is the oldest complete song we know of. It is a wonderful piece of art with a profound philosophical outlook. There are lots of versions available, though I prefer the one performed by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody, a band I discovered recently and admire:

An honourable mention goes to the SEIKILOS channel for their remarkable work in bringing ancient melodies to life while adding new ones to the mix:

[ The name Seikilos (Σείκιλος) is pronounced as “Sea-key-loss”. ]

Below are the original lyrics, my translation of them into modern Greek and English, and some further commentary.

[ Ancient ]

Ὅσον ζῇς φαίνου
μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ
πρὸς ὀλίγον ἔστι τὸ ζῆν
τὸ τέλος ὁ χρόνος ἀπαιτεῖ

[ Modern ]

Όσο ζεις φέγγε
Καθόλου μην λυπάσαι
Λίγη είναι η ζωη
Το τέλος ο χρόνος απαιτεί
While alive shine
Grieve none at all
Life amounts to little
Time demands the end

This song is an epitaph, meaning that it was written on a tomb. Seikilos copes with the loss of a loved one by acknowledging the powerlessness of the human condition. From our perspective, time is invincible, while life is a miracle we can only experience moment-by-moment. There is no living in the past or the future. What is, is present.

We cannot undo what has transpired. We cannot prevent what is to come. All we can do is control our attitude towards the here-and-now. We can either deny what the global magnitudes are, and forever suffer for not being able to exert control over them, or we can live peacefully in the knowledge that the cosmos does not revolve around us.

It is natural to cry. Part of our humanity is to develop emotional attachments. Seikilos is not prompting us to not grieve the loss of the ones we love. To feel sad is human. What the poet is saying is that our life at-large is not a matter of our volition. We do not choose mortality, just as we did not choose to live. Other forces contribute to this eventuality, which we may name “nature”, “the gods”, “the cosmos”… It does not matter what name we use, for as long as we recognise the underlying fact: our life is not “ours”—we have no involvement in the matter.

[ Watch: Harmony, tranquillity, non-ownership ]

What we can influence is the attitude we maintain towards what is already set in motion. At least such is the impression we get. Be content with what the gods have given you, the good and the bad, the plenty and the few. Be content because the alternative is an insatiable desire, a fool’s gambit. You can never have enough of whatever it is you want, as it will be alienated from you in one way or another, or always remain elusive.

When we seek the unattainable, we are reminded of our powerlessness while remaining in denial of it. This makes us suffer. Instead of trying to “shine”, we are unsettled, empty, dead inside.

What does shining amount to? Nothing fancy. It consists in acceptance. Recognise who you are: what you can and cannot do; what you can and cannot have. Admit to what the case is; to what your life renders possible. Live within your means. Live in moderation.

[ Watch: On meditation, walking, and acceptance as well as On self-importance and elitism ]

We can do nothing about matters of life and death, just as we can do nothing about owning or disowning whatever it is we like or dislike. A shift in our attitude does not alter the fundamentals of our state. It simply changes how we look at them. We no longer are inimical towards our self. We stop cursing our luck and blaming ourselves as “deffective”, “ugly”, “failure”, etc. We accept what we have.

“What if it is not enough?”, you might say. That is your insatiable attitude speaking. Adjust it so that it is enough.

Is this a happy message? No. You think those who appear to have “stuff” are happier than you? You think that time will not go after them? You think they do not suffer in other ways than yours?

When one day you find yourself walking alone in a forest, don’t lament your loneliness. Thank the gods for experiencing that moment: the walk, the forest, the vastness and ever-presence of this world.

The cosmos is ever-lasting. Life always is. What we perceive as birth and death are phases in an incessant cycle of transfiguration. This too, is not our affair. Whether we experience life before or after this one is unknown. It must still be outside our control though, for one cannot be the cosmos.

Shine, then, as the alternative is too burdensome for us feeble beings.

[ Watch: Being breakable and taking it slow ]