About 300,000 years ago (give or take a few millennia), the human larynx dropped downwards, an evolutionary advance as vital in separating us from the apes as the development of opposable thumbs and a large cerebral cortex. It meant that our throats got larger, which enabled us to extend the sounds we could make beyond animalistic hooting and howling. Suddenly, we could talk. We could develop a vocabulary. We could sing.
This development marked the birth of music, yet we really know only about relatively recent developments in that enormous history. The world’s oldest known musical instrument – a Neanderthal flute carved from the bone of a bear, found in 1995 in a Slovenian cave – is just 50,000 years old. The oldest piece of written music is far younger: a spry 4,000 years old. What remains of it is little more than notes on how to tune a lyre – certainly not enough for anyone to pull a melody from it.
To find the oldest known complete song, you need look back just 3,400 years. Composed of lyrics, musical notation and tuning instructions for a Babylonian lyre carved into a clay tablet, it is called Hymn to Nikkal, or Hurrian Hymn No 6. Archaeologists found it in the early 1950s – alongside almost three dozen other, incomplete, Hurrian hymns – during an excavation at the Royal Palace of Ugarit in what is now northern Syria.
Despite being a complete song, Hymn to Nikkal has been a subject of controversy since it was published in full in 1968. Most disagreements centre on how to play it: the Hurrian language in which the song was written still mystifies archaeologists. It is a challenge that the Germanic-Nordic experimental folk collective Heilung have taken on with their forthcoming third album, Drif.
“We’ll leave the scientific battle to the scientists,” says instrumentalist and producer Christopher Juul. “You’ll find five different versions of that song from five different people. How we write music is never with the point of view of: ‘We have the answer; this is exactly how it is.’ What we want to do is create an atmosphere where you can feel how it was [in ancient times].”
Heilung know what they are talking about when it comes to ancient music. Juul and vocalist Maria Franz met through Viking re-enactment societies and formed Heilung alongside Kai Uwe Faust, a Viking-inspired tattoo artist, in 2014. Since then, the band have set themselves the goal of “amplifying history”. Their two previous studio releases, Ofnir and Futha, resurrect the music of Viking, iron age and bronze age cultures, inspired in part by an extensive library of artefacts and texts owned by Franz, who is also the band’s archivist – and their live shows extend that historical fascination with their costumed theatricality and tribe-sized lineups.
“I think that we can learn something by looking backwards,” says Juul, speaking alongside Franz in a video call from his home studio in Copenhagen. “A lot of what we do is about respecting the ground under our feet and, also, some basic human emotions that I think – if you are too busy, living in this too-hectic reality – might get lost to you. Turning back time also slows time down.”
That predilection towards ancient sounds makes perfect sense when co-lead singer Franz reveals that Juul was the son of a goði: a priest of Norse paganism. “In Scandinavia, it’s still an accepted religion to work within the old beliefs,” Juul says. “My father married people and baptised children. We did the blót” – a Norse pagan ritual to mark the start of the summer and winter half-years – “twice a year. It was completely normal.”
Franz grew up near Borre national park: a Viking burial ground in southern Norway. “Those grounds are the reason why I am who I am today,” she says. “It’s a beautiful place. I always used to dream about how Viking people would live there and dress, and how they would fall in love and how they would fight for their village.”
On Drif, Heilung broaden their horizons beyond their usual landscape of Nordic and Germanic cultures. There is a serenade called Tenet, which hums ages-old folk melodies inspired by the Sator Square, an ancient Roman palindrome excavated in various places around Europe, and which inspired Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet. The song Urbani was sung by soldiers in the Roman Army, while Buslas Bann is a 13th-century Icelandic curse.
Nikkal, Heilung’s interpretation of Hymn to Nikkal, is the album’s penultimate track. The band based it on the 1984 academic paper A Hurrian Musical Score from Ugarit: The Discovery of Mesopotamian Music by Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin, a pioneer of ancient music theory. The result is three of Drif’s most hypnotic minutes, as otherworldly as it is beautiful.
One known fact about the song is its dedication to Nikkal: the wife of the moon god worshipped in the ancient Middle East. “Most songs are created as a way to remember,” says Juul. “We’ve seen it in Iceland, where people have composed these incredibly long songs that repeat over and over again, created as a way to detail a lineage. I’m pretty sure that a song like Hymn to Nikkal would have been written down to teach adults and children about this subject: this moon goddess.”
For millennia, the history of music was sustained solely through word of mouth. Generations have always passed songs down to the next generation, be it spoken, written or recorded. So, is there a through line – are there echoes of Hymn to Nikkal in modern popular music? Franz laughs. “No. The rhythm in that text is just so weird; it’s so alien. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Hence, for Heilung, the preservation of Hymn to Nikkal is all the more important. “My wish is that people will really feel the emotion behind the ancient pieces we are reinterpreting,” she continues, “because we’re travelling through the whole spectrum of human emotion. Music is one of the tools that we can use to reconnect with ourselves, our surroundings and the people around us.”
This article was amended on 26 August 2022 to remove a misunderstanding of Duchesne-Guillemin’s paper in relation to Hymn to Nikkal.