AAbout 300,000 years ago (give or take a few millennia), the human larynx collapsed, an evolutionary advance as essential to separating us from the apes as the development of opposable thumbs and a large cerebral cortex. It meant our throats got bigger, allowing us to expand the sounds we could make beyond the animal hooting and howling. Suddenly we could talk. We could develop a vocabulary. We could sing.
This development marked the birth of music, but we really only know about relatively recent developments in that vast history. The world’s oldest known musical instrument — a Neanderthal flute carved from a bear’s bone, found in 1995 in a Slovenian cave — is only 50,000 years old. The oldest piece of written music is much younger: a spry 4,000 years old. What’s left of it are little more than notes on how to tune a lyre – certainly not enough to get a melody out of it.
To find the oldest known complete song, you only need to look back 3400 years. Composed of lyrics, music notation, and voice instructions for a Babylonian lyre carved into a clay tablet, it is called Hymn to Nikkal or Hurrian Hymn No. 6. Archaeologists found it—alongside nearly three dozen other, incomplete, Hurrian hymns—in the early 1950s 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 fully published in 1968. Most of the disagreement revolves around how to play it: the Hurrian language in which the song is written still baffles archaeologists. It’s a challenge that the Germanic-Nordic experimental folk collective Heilung has taken on with their upcoming third album, Drif.
“We leave the scientific battle to the scientists,” says instrumentalist and producer Christopher Juul. “You find five different versions of that song from five different people. How we write music is never from 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 what it was like [in ancient times].”
Heilung knows what they are talking about when it comes to early music. Juul and singer Maria Franz met through Viking reenactment societies and in 2014 formed Heilung with Kai Uwe Faust, a Viking-inspired tattoo artist. Since then, the band has set itself the goal of “strengthening history”. Their two previous studio releases, Ofnir and Futha, bring the music of Viking, Iron Age and Bronze Age cultures to life, inspired in part by an extensive library of artifacts and lyrics owned by Franz, who is also the band’s archivist. that historical fascination with their costumed theatricality and tribal lineups.
“I think we can learn something by looking back,” 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 beneath our feet and also some basic human emotions that I think – if you’re too busy, living in this too hectic reality – you might get lost. Turning back time also slows down time.”
That fondness for old 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 is still an accepted religion to work within the old beliefs,” Juul says. “My father married people and baptized children. We did the blót” – a Norwegian pagan ritual to mark the beginning of the summer and winter half-years – “twice a year. It was completely normal.”
Franz grew up near Borre National Park, a Viking cemetery in southern Norway. “Those grounds are why I am who I am today,” she says. “It’s a beautiful place. I always dreamed about how Viking people would live and dress there, and how they would fall in love and how they would fight for their village.”
On Drif, Heilung broadens their horizons beyond their usual landscape of Scandinavian and Germanic cultures. There is a serenade called Tenet, which hums ancient folk tunes inspired by Sator Square, an ancient Roman palindrome excavated in several places in Europe that 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 penultimate track on the album. 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 early music theory. She believed that the piece contained intervals that together form a two-part harmony. It suited Heilung perfectly, with their two vocalists. The result is three of Drif’s most hypnotic minutes, as otherworldly as they are beautiful.
A well-known fact about the song is its dedication to Nikkal: the wife of the moon god who was worshiped in the ancient Middle East. “Most songs are made to be remembered,” Juul says. “We’ve seen it in Iceland, where people have composed these incredibly long songs that are repeated over and over, created as a way of detailing a lineage. I’m pretty sure a song like Hymn to Nikkal would have been written to teach adults and children about this topic: this moon goddess.”
For millennia, the history of music was sustained only by word of mouth. Generations have always passed on songs to the next generation, whether spoken, written or recorded. So, is there a continuous line – are there echoes of Hymn to Nikkal in modern popular music? French laughs. “No. The rhythm in that lyrics is just so weird; it’s so otherworldly. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
That is why the preservation of Hymn to Nikkal is all the more important for Heilung. “My wish is that people really feel the emotion behind the old pieces that we’re reinterpreting,” she continues, “because we travel across the spectrum of human emotions. Music is one of the tools we can use to reconnect. come with ourselves, our environment and the people around us.”