When I write, I often think of the first women who were daring enough to write. Over the years so many things have been forbidden—most disturbingly, the freedom of expression. Yet one woman found herself crafting words into poetry and commanding the course of history.
Enheduanna, whom authors and poets may call “grandmother,” lived at the beginning of recorded history in the kingdom of ancient Sumeria. She is credited as the world’s first known author. Enheduanna translates as: “En” (Chief Priestess); “hedu” (ornament); “Ana” (of heaven) or as “En-Priestess, wife of the god Nanna.” It is possible that she was the brilliant daughter of Sargon, the first king to build an empire.
Enheduanna was elevated to the position of high priestess at the temple of Uruk in the ancient city of Ur about 4,200 years ago. Although she served over the moon god, Nanna, much of her work is devoted to the Mesopotamian goddess of love, Inanna, who would be linked by later cultures to Ishtar and Aphrodite. She presided for forty years over the temple. Her role was the most important religious office in the kingdom.
The Sumerians invented and developed the world’s first written script in what is the southern half of present day Iraq. Enheduanna used that script, known as cuneiform, to write the first known literary texts in history. She also may have taught other women in the temple how to write.
Most importantly, Enheduanna wrote poetry…the world’s first poetry. Much of it could be considered Sargon’s “propaganda,” as she had been tasked with the significant job of reconciling the gods of the Akkadians with the gods of the Sumerians, which would make Sargon’s rule much easier over his conquered subjects. This body of work, “The Sumerian Temple Hymns,” was a literary celebration of the forty-two temples which were located throughout the empire, as well as the documentation of a universal pantheon of gods that all Mesopotamians could share and worship. Each of these hymns end with an identical two-line colophon–except for the forty-second hymn, which instead ends with Enheduanna signing her name and stating that she “herself gave birth” to this work which did not exist before she created it.
Temple Hymn 42
O house of stars, E-zagin-guna (House adorned with lapis lazuli), reaching into all lands, establishing …… in the shrine, Erec! The primeval lords raise their heads to you every month. …… the potash plant, great Nanibgal, Nisaba, has brought divine powers from heaven and added to your divine powers.
535-542Sanctuary established for ……! To the true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom, soothing …… and opening the mouth, always consulting a tablet of lapis lazuli, giving advice to all lands, the true woman, the holy potash plant, born of the stylus reed, applies the measure to heaven and places the measuring-rope on the earth — to Nisaba be praise!
543-544The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.
You can read a full, modern translation of her Sumerian Temple Hymns here: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr4801.htm
The body of work which she devoted to Inanna (Inninsagurra, Ninmesarra, and Inninmehusa, which translate as ‘The Great-Hearted Mistress’, The Exaltation of Inanna’, and ‘Goddess of the Fearsome Powers’) elevated the female goddess above the male gods—and included a story in which Inanna kills An, the chief deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and becomes the leader of the gods herself. This certainly may have been a courageous undertaking for a woman in an early patriarchal society. It is believed it was written after she had been exiled for a time and was meant to transform public opinion regarding the supremacy of the gods and her favored goddess, Inanna.
She (Inanna) has changed altogether the rites of Holy An,
Has seized the Eanna from An,
Feared not the great An,
That house (the Eanna) whose charm was irresistible,
whose allure was unending,
That house She has turned over to destruction,
Her . . . that She brought there has . . .
My Wild Cow (Inanna) assaults there its men, makes them captive.
(You can read a full, modern translation of the “Exultation of Inanna” here: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr4072.htm)
History has recognized Enheduanna for her literary significance. According to the scholar Paul Kriwaczek, as quoted on the website Sheroes of History, “her compositions, though only rediscovered in modern times, remained models of petitionary prayer for [centuries]. Through the Babylonians, they influenced and inspired the prayers and psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric hymns of Greece. Through them, faint echoes of Enheduanna, the first named literary author in history, can even be heard in the hymnody of the early Christian church.”
Enheduanna’s poems, hymns and prayers were deeply personal and reflected her feelings about the affairs of the world and of her own mortal life. Her poem, “Lament to the Spirit of War,” is believed to be the very first recorded poem in response to war.
Lament to the Spirit of War
You hack everything down in battle….
God of War, with your fierce wings
you slice away the land and charge
disguised as a raging storm,
growl as a roaring hurricane,
yell like a tempest yells,
thunder, rage, roar, and drum,
expel evil winds!
Your feet are filled with anxiety!
On your lyre of moans
I hear your loud dirge scream.
Like a fiery monster you fill the land with poison.
As thunder you growl over the earth,
trees and bushes collapse before you.
You are blood rushing down a mountain,
Spirit of hate, greed and anger,
dominator of heaven and earth!
Your fire wafts over our land,
riding on a beast,
with indomitable commands,
you decide all fate.
You triumph over all our rites.
Who can explain why you go on so?
Upon her death, Enheduanna was laid to rest in a burial ground for priestesses near the temple at Ur. Artifacts have been discovered that reveal how for centuries after her death, she was still remembered and honored.
Perhaps the most significant thing about Enheduanna was that she “signed her name” to her work. In fact, she is the very first person in our world’s history to have proclaimed ownership of her own design. Before she marked her name upon her work, writing was anonymous. She was the first to emerge as an individual, as an author, and her words have provided the framework and the basis for much of the world’s literature.
Author and historian, Amanda Foreman writes:
“It’s incredibly exciting: for thousands of years the notion of the ‘I’ was withheld from women, even after Enheduanna’s time. Yet here was a woman who had incredible power and status, claiming her own work, nearly 5,000 years ago,”
And with this first “birth” our “grandmother,” the ancient writer, Enheduanna, brought literature into the world and it still lives on in her memory many, many generations later.
©Michelle Barthel Kratts 2018
Ancient History Encyclopedia: https://www.ancient.eu/Enheduanna/
“Documents that Changed the World; the exultation of Inanna, 2300 BC”: http://www.washington.edu/news/2015/05/05/documents-that-changed-the-world-the-exaltation-of-inanna-2300-bce/
“Enheduanna, the first known author”: https://www.atanet.org/publications/beacons_10_pages/page_15.pdf
“Enheduanna, Part 2: “The Sumerian Shakespeare”: https://notablewomen.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/enheduanna-part-2-the-sumerian-shakespeare/
“Enheduanna, Seven Sumerian Temple Hymns”: https://jacket2.org/commentary/enheduanna-2300-bce-seven-sumerian-temple-hymns
“Enheduanna, Sumerian Princess”: http://voiceseducation.org/node/141
“The Exultation of Inanna”: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr4072.htm
“The First Ever Poet in the World”: https://interestingliterature.com/2018/03/30/the-first-ever-poet-in-the-world-the-woman-writer-enheduanna/
“Hymnal Prayers and Poems of Enheduanna”: http://classicalarthistory.weebly.com/library/enheduanna-poems
“The Temple Hymns, a translation”: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr4801.htm
“UR DIGITIZATION PROJECT: ITEM OF THE MONTH, JUNE 2012”:
“Who was Enheduanna; Akkadian Literature”: https://quatr.us/west-asia/enheduanna-akkadian-literature.htm
Featured image from:
Tablets of the Temple Hymns