Disk of Enheduanna

It was during the reign of her father – Sargon of Akkad, perhaps the first emperor in history – that Enheduana announced his own genius. After writing a temple hymn extolling the powers of the Sumerian goddess of writing and the grain, the high priestess signed her own name in glitter.

More than 4,200 years later, archaeologists and literary enthusiasts seem to agree: Enheduana is the earliest known author in history.

Who was Enheduana?

Like many other famous writers, Enheduana did not reach this level of artistic insight without first experiencing her share of trauma and violence.

By her own account, she may have survived sexual abuse during a rebellion that temporarily dethroned her position as high priestess in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. But she persevered and continued to support her father’s dynasty through her position and through writing—even after his death.

“It certainly had a very powerful cultic and political role,” says Sidney Babcock, curator of ancient Western seals and tablets at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Babcock recently directed an exhibition that attracted the museum’s largest collection of artifacts related to Enheduanna and the poems attributed to her.

And yet we don’t really know much of the basic biographical facts of Enheduana’s life. Was she Sargon’s firstborn daughter? Who was her mother? When exactly was she born? And when did she die?

In fact, we don’t even know if Enheduana is the name she was given at birth. From Sumerian, Babcock explains, the name translates as “high priestess, ornament of heaven.”

Read more: Who were the ancient Sumerians?

Enheduana and Acadia

The Akkadian ruler Sargon created the world’s first empire by uniting several Mesopotamian city-states in the Akkadian north and the Sumerian south. Enheduana’s name was probably taken when the princess became high priestess of Inanna, the powerful Sumerian goddess.

The maneuver was political – an attempt to strengthen relations between her father and the conquered city of Ur, where Inanna was the patron deity. By becoming high priestess, Enheduana embodied the goddess’s earthly partner.

“It is a way [for the Akkadian conquerors] to show respect for the traditions of the past,” says Babcock. “It’s a huge asset to her father’s political ambitions.”

However, Enheduana did not sit idly by as she enjoyed her privileged position. The poetry he writes is beautiful, but there is also a political side that helped cement his own status as Inanna’s representative.

Read more: Rise of the Akkadians

Hymns of Enheduana

her Exaltation of Inanna describes a real-life period after Sargon, when someone named Lugal-Anne revolted and took power in Ur — driving out Enkhedwana and possibly sexually abusing her, Babcock says. The poem itself describes this situation: Enheduana escapes from the window and asks Inanna to intercede on behalf of Sargon’s dynasty.

This seems to have worked, as Naram-Sim, Sargon’s grandson, eventually reconquered Ur.

Babcock, praising the “beauty and intense sincerity” of the poem, says that Enheduana uses an innovative change of perspective—first and third person—to narrate the events and praise Inanna. She also compares writing the poem to giving birth, he says.

“She addresses the goddess in the way she thinks is most important,” Babcock says. “The act of writing became so special that she wrote about the act.”

The poem ends with a return to order, Babcock notes. This is a strong message supporting the legitimacy of her nephew’s rule. Inanna is also appeased and credited with destroying the enemy.

Some aren’t so sure

Yet a number of scholars have expressed doubt as to whether Enheduana really authored some or even all of the poems attributed to her. It is true that most of the surviving texts of her poems are not contemporary with her life. Instead, they are derived from copies made centuries after her lifetime.

“I understand why they tried to copy it in scribal schools because it’s just so rich,” Babcock says.

Unfortunately, some of these poems include language that would not have been used in Enheduana’s time. Some scholars see in this evidence that Enheduana herself did not actually write them. But Babcock believes they simply represent language that has been miscopied or modernized from the original over the years.

In comparison, he notes that the oldest copy of Metamorphoses it dates from about a millennium after Ovid’s lifetime – and its authorship is not questioned nearly as much.

The fact that Enheduana was a woman played a major role in this source of doubt, Babcock believes. “It’s really disappointing,” he says, adding that many of the political elements of her work would have been meaningless to a charlatan creating a fake document five centuries later.

The Enheduana Effect

Unlike some of the named authors we know from later millennia, such as Homer and Sappho, we know what Enheduana looked like – thanks to a name alabaster disc found during excavations of the temple where she probably lived.

Babcock’s exhibition also included art that he believed was inspired by Enheduana’s poetry. Her three dozen temple hymns are extensive, each describing the trappings of various religious cults in cities across the empire.

Around the same time that Enheduana lived, Babcock says, an “abundance” of images and artifacts of gods and goddesses began to appear in the archaeological record. “It’s one of the first examples of literary inspirational art,” he says. “Visual evidence has not been considered before.”

Although neglected by many scholars for centuries or perhaps millennia, however, Enheduana may finally be getting its due: In addition to the recent exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, Babcock knows of several new translations and biographies of the first known in the holy named poet, princess and high priestess.

“I’m glad she’s having her moment,” Babcock says.

Read more: Decoding cuneiform, one of the earliest forms of writing

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