St. Yared the Melodious
St.Yared (501¬¬–576). While growing up, Yared had difficulty grasping the basics of the alphabet. He gave up on his education. But according to a popular story, he was inspired to persevere academically while watching an ant successfully crawl up the bark of a tree after six failed attempts. He eventually became a prominent scholar best known for his musical compositions, and some attributed his many compositions to supernatural revelation. His later disciples invented a musical notation and a form of liturgical dance (aquwaquam) in addition to starting an academy at Bete Qetin. His antiphonary books including the main one that is known as Degguwa also contributed to the school of Qene poetry in Ge’ez.
Yaredian texts in Ethiopia and Africa remain one of the most influential, important liturgical antiphonary corpuses and yet they are not known elsewhere particularly in the English-speaking world. There is no English translation available of the Yaredic corpus. The Yaredic corpus exists in manuscript and printed forms and is still used in the liturgical services in Ethiopia.
There is a poetic bend in patristic hymnography be it Latin or Greek. But poetry is more pervasive in the Syriac and Ethiopic traditions. In Ethiopia this poetic-hymnodic tradition is attributed to St. Yared the Melodious.
St. Yared is the Father of Ethiopian traditional church education. He is the pioneer for the school of interpretation, hymnody, liturgical dance and Qene or Ge’ez oral poetry. The poetic-hymnographic tradition that was pioneered by St. Yared left an enduring legacy including on the exegesis of the Scripture in the liturgy, biblical exegesis and poetry tradition in Ethiopia.
St. Yared (501- 576) was born in Axum, the ancient capital and sacred city of Ethiopia. Yared descended from a priestly family. Yared’s early education and revelation is captured both in oral memories, icons, and hagiographies. His life is briefly sketched in his Vita (Dersan wagadl zayared, ‘Homily and Acts of Yared’) published by Conti Rosini in 1904. The legendary story of St. Yared told in variations and according to Hailu Habtu is as follows:
Yared (501 – 576 A. D.) was born in Axum, Ethiopia’s ancient capital and sacred city, and his family was from a continuous line of priests. As was the prevalent custom in such cases, he was sent to a church school early on. Legend has it, however, that he found the mastery of the alphabet difficult and that he could never have succeeded, had he not drawn the right moral from the contendings of a little worm. Yared observed the worm trying to climb up a tree trunk, but falling mid-way to the top every time it tried. But the little worm preserved. It tried again and again, and again. Nonetheless, it kept falling down repeatedly until, at last, it triumphed on the seventh attempt. Were it not for the lesson that little worm taught him, we would never have known of Yared or listened to his spiritually edifying music today.
He went to the church school to study under his uncle, Gedion. But legend tells that Yared had struggled to grasp the reading and memorization of the Psalms – an elementary education. Some contemporary commentators on ETV documentaries have argued such a legendary story of a natural/supernatural encounter is a blasphemy to the intellect of Yared. He could have been a late-bloomer. Also, the story illustrates the connection of the divine encounter through scripture and nature, which is part and parcel of ancient Christianity. The pursuit of the intellect and having a supernatural encounter were not mutually exclusive. Moreover, the lesson he learned from an ant is that of virtue, namely an intellectual courage and humility. He returned to his teacher, submitting himself to his master and apologizing (intellectual humility). Concurrently, the mystery of the books of the Scripture, both the Old and New Testament, was revealed to him. He mastered the interpretation of the Scripture (both Old and New Testament), before he invented his music and hymnody. Also, Yared was the founder of an academy at Bete-Qetin, in Aksum.
Yared’s composition of music and hymnody also was infused with the divine encounter and mystical experiences of the divine liturgy. The sick were healed, those who were mourning were consoled. The famous icon depicts the king, mesmerized by the melody, piercing Yared, but Yared the Melodius was so enveloped by the contemplation he did not notice it. Even the birds of the air were mesmerized by his singing. Yaredic music has been used as part of the divine liturgy for the last 1,500 years in Ethiopian Orthodox Churches in Ethiopia, Eritrea and elsewhere in the Diaspora. The scriptural basis and the spiritual encounter may reveal why the hymnody continues to enrich the traditional schools and liturgical worship across generations. Yaredic music, hymnography and liturgical dance are all part of Ethiopian Christianity. Here it is fitting to Yared to compare the dominant attitude of ancient Christianity and the church father’s reservations at using musical instruments in the Divine Liturgy with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church who is indebted to Yared for he is a musician, hymnographer and poet-theologian. The three dominant musical instruments are the prayer staff or the Tau-cross, the sistrum and the drum. Besides music, Yared is often credited for invention of Qene/ poetry.
Besides deggua, Yared is regarded by Ge’ez (Ethiopic) scholars as the founder of qiné [Qene], a very high, elaborate, strict and multi-layered from [sic] of Ge’ez poetry that is cryptic, complex, profound and rich in allusions to religion, legend, history, law, social customs, etc, and generally to the human condition. Following Yared, Yohannes of Gebla in Wollo, and Tewanei of Deg Istifa in Gojam are reputed to have enriched it and made it even more complex and rigorous.
The poetic nature of Yaredic hymnography shall be explored further. Of course, later generations elaborated further the system of poetry as they did with hymnography.
Yared’s Hymnographic Corpus
The five hymnodic works are Deggwa, Tsome Degwa, Mieraf, Zemare and Mewasit. They are used for different liturgical occasions including funerary liturgy, feasts, and the liturgical year and seasons of Ethiopia. Hailu Habtu in his introduction noted: “Yared, the polyglot of nature’s varied sounds, incorporated in his hymns reflections and observations of nature and its kaleidoscopic phenomena, all to the glory of the Creator. Thus, his compositions reflect the periodicity of the seasons, and of the agricultural cycle.” 
The agricultural cycle includes the rainy season, (mid-June to mid-September), and that of the harvest or the flower season, (mid-September to mid-December). According to Daniel Assefa, such contextual seasonal and agricultural thought weaved to salvation history is strong evidence for the indigenous innovation of the Yaredic antiphonary.
How Hymnography of the Angels Was Revealed to St. Yared
According to the Ethiopian tradition, on Hidar the 5th, by the will of God to be praised by the people of Ethiopia, three white birds by the name of Aropion were sent from heaven to Yared. The three birds were hovering above where Yared was teaching and they spoke to him in Ge’ez saying: “Oh Yared, you are blessed, the one who conceived you is blessed; blessed is the breast that fed you!” He was told to, “call the new name of God, Jesus Christ and you will learn to recite the hymnody of the 24 heavenly priests.” Like the Apostle Paul his calling and ordination comes directly from the Lord Jesus Christ. 
Generally speaking, Deggwa and its division is twofold: seasonal and liturgical. His Deggwa begins with a hymn of wonder over the divine hymn he encountered. It is believed he was taken to heaven (ascended) during contemplation to the heaven and experienced the divine liturgy, and the hymns of the angels. He expressed his wonder of that heavenly encounter in the following hymn.
Oh! Music! …
Ah! Music that I heard the angels sing in Heaven
Uttering Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord!
The Heavens and the Earth are filled with
Your holy praise. 
One can see Yared’s deep sense of wonder after seeing the divine liturgy. After this transcendent and mystical encounter, he began to compose new poetic-hymns full of symbolism, taken both from nature and scripture. Then, Yared went to Zion Church of Aksum, lifted up his hands and offered praise with a loud voice: “Alleluia, praise to the Father, praise to the Son and praise to the Holy Spirit.”  He also improvised a song that connects creation, sabbath and the (tabot) Ark.
In the beginning, God made the Heaven and the Earth;
And having completed all, He rested on the Sabbath;
And Said He to Noah at the onset of the Flood:
“Build yourself an Ark by which you may be saved.” 
The hymn connects the story of creation and redemption, with the Ark of Noah representing salvation. The place where he composed his song is known as ሙራደ ቃል murade qal. This place is still preserved in the memory of the EOTC. The beginning of his composition is also dated with reference to the specific time of the hour. It was Hidar 6 of 534 E.C. (Ethiopian Calendar).
Yaredic Melodies, Musical and Seasonal Symbolisms
The major Yaredic melodies represent persons of the Trinity. The three melodies that are known as Ge’ez, Izl and Araray respectively represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Ge’ez melody (not the language) symbolizing the Father is a hard, stark and dry melody. Ethiopian scholars of the Yaredic corpus note that the Father is the source of the Trinity. The melody of Ge’ez is meant to evoke the symbol of the Father and it is hard stern, stark and dry. The second one that symbolizes the Son is Izl, representing one who is soft, gentle and full of love. The melody of Izl is tender, mellow and comforting – a representation of the Incarnate Word who endured suffering on the cross. The Araray is a symbolic melody for the Holy Spirit, and “is often described as plaintive, verging almost on melancholic… its plaintive and almost melancholic quality.” The Araray melody is used for occasions like lent, passion week and funerals. Though, the three are the basic melodies, there are several sub-melodies in the Yaredic musical system. The following are sample Yaredic seasonal and liturgical hymns.
Listen to the sound of the footsteps of the rain
When the rains pour down, the poor rejoice.
Listen to the sound of the footsteps of the rain!
When the rains pour down, the hungry are satiated …
The clouds hear and obey His word;
And the streams brim with water,
And the furrows quench their thirst …
In its own time, the rainy season has passed.
Now is established the season of plenty.
Behold! The plants have blossomed and brought forth fruit …
He has bedecked the sky with stars;
And the earth, He has adorned with flower
Scripture and Nature (Yared’s encounter with the Divine and Nature) are joined to the salvation story. The following nativity hymn taken from the gospel itself provides the basis for combining nature and salvation history.
The star became a guide
And, to them, a herald of joy.
- Ephraim Issac. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. 103.
- His name comes from Genesis Jared (Genesis 5:15 - 18).
- Antonella Brita, “Yared” Encycopadeia Aethiopica, Vol. 5 (2014): 26 – 28.
- Hailu Habtu “Introduction,” in Tintawi Serate Mahelet ZeAbuna Yared. The Ancient Order of Singing of our Father Yared, the Master (Addis Ababa: Maison Des Etudes Ethiopiennes, 1997), XVI.
- Tekletsadik Belachew. “From Abba Salama to King Lalibela: Christian traditions in Ethiopia are among the oldest in the world” in Christian History Magazine. Christianity in Early Africa: Ancient traditions and profound impact. Issue # 105 (2013): 20. “While growing up, Yared had difficulty grasping the basics of the alphabet. He gave up on his education. But according to a popular story, he was inspired to preserve academically while watching an ant successfully crawl up the bark of a tree after six failed attempts.”
- Hailu Habtu. “Introduction. Xvii. According to Hailu Habtu the legacy of St. Yared has three dimensions as follow: Yared’s corpus of hymns has remained basically table, as have the chants he composed and the dance movements he set. However, this does not mean that is has been completely static. Additions and innovations took place at least in a few important areas: (1) in the text itself (2) in the system of notation and (3) in the duration of the curriculum.
- Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church and Music. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1998. Pp. 74 – 75.
- Hailu Habtu. “Introduction.” xxi.
- Hailu Habtu. xxi.
- Habtu. Introduction. Xxii.
- Lisane Worq Gebre Giyorgis. 23. My translation.
- Lisane Worq Gebre Giyorgis. 24. My translation.
- Lisane Worq Gebre Giyorgis. 25.
- Translated by Hailu Habtu. xxii. The hymn evokes Isaiah 6:1 – 6.
- Lisane Worq Gebre Giyorgis. 25. My translation.
- Translated by Hailu Habtu. xxii.
- ETV documentary.
- Hailu Habtu. xxvii.
- Translated by Hailu Habtu.xxv.
YOUTUBE Documentary on St. Yared: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBRZ6VBjL-M (Internet connection needed)
ቅዱስ ያሬድ የጉባኤያት አባት ፡ May 20, 2014
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This article is reprinted with permission from Ethiopian Gospel Music Net and will be published in a forthcoming book–https://ethiopiangospelmusic.net/egm-book/. The author, Tekletsadik Belachew Nigru, Double MA (Trinity International University, Deerfield), is writing a PhD dissertation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO on the 6th-century Ethiopian musician and hymnographer, St. Yared. Next to patristic exegesis, Tekletsadik’s research interests include Ethiopian cinematography (esp. Haile Gerima). He is also a member of the DACB’s International Editorial Board. Contact: https://thesignofconcord.academia.edu/TekletsadikBelachewNigru