A Princess Was the First Professional Writer?

Disk of Enheduann (via Wikimedia by mefman00)



Enheduanna, a Sumerian princess, is believed by many to be the earliest named writer in world history. But others say the scribes who learned by scribbling her poems and hymns centuries later actually composed them. Or some other man did.

And then gave the credit to a woman?

“Why would the scribes look back and find a high priestess and say she wrote the texts?” asks Benjamin Foster, a professor of Assyriology at Yale. “There is a tendency in our field to regard it as a sign of wisdom not to take ancient texts at their word…. But we have more evidence for her than we have for any other author in ancient Mesopotamia.”

What does seem likely is that the collection that entered the written record contained a mixture, with new work by others added to the surviving works by Enheduanna. Some of the poems contain references to a later world she could not have known. But others contain powerful testimony to the events of her life, composed in a deeply personal, intimate way. What man would have compared his creative process to childbirth? What man could have written what might be the first #MeToo account of sexual exploitation?

Imagine yourself as a Sumerian princess, high priestess of the moon god in the city-state of Ur. Your father is Sargon of Akkad, king of Kish, anointed of Anu, king of Mesopotamia, governor of Enlil. When he conquers Ur and adds it to his empire, he turns to you for help. He knows how bright you are, and how tactful. You will go to Ur and, by becoming high priestess of its moon god cult, begin tying local ways to Akkadian customs and beliefs, helping him unite his empire.

Many years later, when parts of the empire begin to rebel, Lugal-Ane, a military general or priest (sources differ), comes to power in Ur. He demands that you confirm his authority, and when you refuse, he has you removed as high priestess and kicked out of the city. You flee to Girsu, and in exile, you compose a song begging the goddess Inanna to intervene and restore the Akkadian empire.

Inanna did not comply. The empire collapsed in 2137 BCE. By about 500 BCE, Enheduanna had been completely forgotten.

In 1927, Sir Leonard Wooley dug up the ancient city of Ur. He chose the region because it was the biblical home of Abraham and the ancient pagan kings. But his remarkable find was an alabaster disk that bore the name of Enheduanna, written with a starburst symbol, and her likeness. Poised and serene, she stands, presiding over a temple ritual. Her full-length skirt has tiers of flounces, and she wears a circlet headdress. A male attendant, nude, pours a libation at an altar. The disk’s reverse side notes that she was the daughter of Sargon and a high priestess, wife of the moon god. Two seals bearing her name were found with her scribes; they would have rolled that stamp onto whatever document she asked them to produce, as authentication. On one of these seals, Enheduanna rests her foot on the hard-muscled back of a lion.

She was not a trivial being.

Wooley remained dismissive, calling the temple “a nunnery” or “a harem” and never referring to Enheduanna by name, only as “the daughter of Sargon.” But now Assyriologists had thirty-seven clay tablets from Ur and Nippur to analyze. The tablets recorded hymns to various Sumerian deities, and many scholars believe that Enheduanna wrote, at the very least, the final hymn. Today we call it “The Exaltation of Inanna,” but the literal translation of “Nin me sara” is “Mistress of the innumerable me,” which I rather love. Shades of Walt Whitman, who contained multitudes.

In “The Exaltation,” Enheduanna uses a myth to persuade Inanna to rescue the family dynasty. In the story, Inanna becomes the most powerful of all the gods, and when Ur rebels against her rule, she has her father, Nanna, the moon god, kill the city-state. Thus she becomes mistress of heaven and earth alike, and Ur and Lugal-Ane are destroyed.

After spinning her myth to praise Inanna, Enheduanna tells her own story, not mincing words when she comes to Lugal-Ane’s abuse of her. “He has turned that temple into a house of ill-repute,” reads one translation, “forcing his way in as if he were an equal, he dared approach me in his lust!” Bitterly, she recalls her exile: “He made me walk a land of thorns./ He took away the noble diadem of my holy office./ He gave me a dagger.” Is that last sentence a reference to sexual violation? One translator has noted that the verbs used are the same verbs used to convey sexual advances. But there is also an implication that he was urging her to commit suicide: she quotes him as saying, as he gives her the dagger, “This is just right for you.

She flees, but she has lost the storytelling power that has, like Scheherazade’s, sustained her: “My once honeyed mouth has now become froth,/ my power to please hearts is turned to dust.

Dust no longer. In 1978, anthropologist Marta Weigle introduced Enheduanna to an audience of feminist scholars as “the first known author in world literature.” Yale scholars have called her hymns a “major piece of Mesopotamian theology.” From Ur’s many cults and deities and her own, she made a mosaic, a picture that all could recognize. And by doing so, “she altered the very nature of the Mesopotamian gods and the perception the people had of the divine.”

Enheduanna’s writing is more sensuous than the Song of Songs. Marveling at Inanna’s desirability, she says she has the power to “turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man,” which scholars say might refer to the androgyny of the cult followers, but could it also signal a passion roused in the writer? She begs the goddess to take her, to be one with her, to destroy and save her….

Assyriologist Eleanor Robson calls Enheduanna “a wish-fulfillment figure,” maintaining that the picture emerging shows her only as “her father’s political and religious instrument.” This is hardly surprising; women have been defined by the powerful men they supported…well, forever. Other scholars have analyzed the work attributed to her and found the first known rhetorical devices, techniques of invention and persuasion used two thousand years before Aristotle formalized them and became “the father of the rhetorical tradition.”

In 2021, “The Exaltation” was added to Columbia University’s first-year reading list.

In 2022, the Morgan Library & Museum installed a new exhibition: She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400 – 20000 BCE. The curator was Sidney Babcock, a specialist in ancient Near Eastern antiquities who was about to retire and wanted this to be his final coup. He had first learned of Enheduanna a quarter-century earlier, when he saw her name engraved on a cylindrical seal made of lapis lazuli.

One of Babcock’s most memorable teachers, a Viennese woman named Edith Porada, escaped to this country after Kristallnacht, and though she was forced to travel light, she brought the plate copy of her dissertation—which included drawings of ancient seals. Porada became the first curator of the thousand-plus seals in J. Pierpont Morgan’s collection.

For years, those seals were stored in a steel locker in the basement of the library. Babcock remembers her pulling out a tiny change purse and removing the key, opening a locker, taking out a Sucrets tin that contained another key, and finally unlocking the collection.

The recent Morgan exhibit included clay tablets, seals, jewelry and headdresses, and sculptures done as portraits. In one, tiny and meticulously carved from alabaster, a woman is seated with a cuneiform tablet on her lap. She wears the same tiered, flounced garment that Enheduanna wears on the disk, and she looks like Enheduanna.

Babcock knows they do not have enough information to identify that sculpture, but what it represents is unmissable: an ancient connection between women and literacy, ages before it was widely accepted that women should be allowed to read and write. Scribblers, poetesses, and bluestockings all came later, and for centuries (including ours, in some parts of the world), it was preferred that a woman prick her fingers with an embroidery needle than stain them with ink.

“It is the first time someone steps forward and uses the first-person singular and gives an autobiography,” Babcock told The New York Times. “I was high priestess, I, Enheduanna,” she insists, and if it is indeed she, her confidence is thrilling. In one sentence, she had disrupted the anonymity of the world’s first texts and become an author—fifteen hundred years before Homer.

If she was merely a wish fulfillment figure, she was a damned fine one.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.