The oldest known song (written with both words and musical notation) comes from the remains of the ancient city of Ugarit in Syria. It was written about 1400 BC and is one of two hymns to the goddess Nikkal and to the seven goddesses of childbirth, the Kotharat, found in an ancient wedding myth. It’s part of the story of the goddess Nikkal’s marriage to the Moon God. Nikkal is the daughter of the God or King of Summer, but her own role is less clear. She may be a goddess of fruit or of the moon. Her full name is Nikkal-wa-Ib and Ib may be translated either as “fruit” or as “bright.” She is the western version of the Sumerian (pre-Babylonian) goddess Ningal, the “Great Lady” and beloved wife of the Moon. (Ningal is the mother of the more famous Love Goddess Inanna/Ishtar and of the Sun God. The equivalent western sun deity was a goddess).
Whoever Nikkal was, the Moon God Yarikh (Yarih) was clearly smitten with her. In the myth he offers to pay her father a bride price of a thousand shekels of silver and ten thousand of gold, along with some lapis lazuli. The language of the story is erotic. He promises to turn “the steppeland of her love” into an orchard and a vineyard. Her desire for him is laid out in very explicit terms in the most straightforward way imaginable (and I’ll let the reader go ahead and do the imagining.)
The story and song appear to be designed to be recited and performed as part of a wedding ritual. The summer represented by Nikkal’s father is late summer/early fall, the time of harvest, which was considered a fortuitous time to wed. The language in which the story and song are written is Hurrian, the language of a nearby north Mesopotamian culture. Ugarit was part of an area often referred to (especially in the Bible) as Canaan. Its culture and language were very similar to that of ancient Israel, but this song goes back to a time before Moses, if he existed, ever led the Hebrews out of Egypt.
If you play an instrument and would like to play the world’s oldest song for yourself, you can find sheet music here. Here is another musician’s interpretation of the song: