In honour of National Poetry Day, I am going to sing the praises of Enheduanna, whose name is displayed below in cuneiform, the first known author and poet.

enheduanacunieform

A Brief Biography  of Enheduanna

Writing around 2500 BCE in the city of Ur (in what is now Iraq), she was the first fully attested holder of the En Priestess of Nana title which became a long lasting office traditionally held y the daughter of the King and which was one of the most influential religious offices. Despite being Akkadian she composed in Sumerian, the language of the religious and literary traditions of the Sumerian south, which was newly conquered by her father, King Sargon of Akkad. To further assert his dominance over the Sumerian south and to create a sense of unity between the two cultures Enheduanna was tasked with composing a series of  Hymns known as ‘The Sumerian Temple Hymns’ designed to be read in all the temples of Sumer and Akkad.     The office she held, En Priestess, may itself have been designed to suit this new idea of religious and cultural unity between Sumer and Akkad, taking elements from older traditions and creating a new office.  The office of En Priestess – The High Priestess of the moon God Nana at Ur – lasted for hundreds of years after Enheduanna and there is evidence later En Priestesses were aware of Enheduanna and held her up as a influential figure; indeed she may have been elevated to a semi divine status.

Enheduanna is well attested in both the written and archaeological records, there are many references to her in written sources and archaeological evidence such as the seal of one of her servants from the cemetery at Ur to the disc bearing her likeness  and name found the En Priestesses residence, the Gipar, at Ur.  The disc, shown below, was found in a context dating to hundreds of years after Enheduanna’s death, suggesting she was indeed remembered long after her time as an influential figure.

disc of enheduanna

The office of En-Priestess, which is attested from a period spanning from around 2334 BCE to around 555BCE, was one of many roles within a religious tradition with many deities throughout the cities of Sumer and Akkad. Many towns and cities had a patron deity and it was at the temple of Nanna at Ur, in the Shadow of the great Ziggurat, that Enheduanna took up her position. En Priestesses were known across Sumer and Akkad, including for the god Enki in Eridu and the god Utu in Larsa, it appears the position of En Priestess of Nanna at Ur was especially important and boasted a particularly close affiliation to the King. The En Priestess of Nanna at Ur played a central role in both the Nanna cult and the ideology of Kingship; helping to legitimise the king’s rule by suggesting divine approval.

Enheduanna’s Poetry

The importance of Enheduanna as a respected poet is reflected in the fact the only surviving copies we have of her work date to hundreds of years after her death;  this suggests her work was held in high esteem, copied  by generations of scribes and held in Libraries with other important texts, many of them with royal associations.

Besides the ‘Sumerian Temple Hymns’ Enheduanna is best known for her personal dedications to the goddess Inanna, with whom she had a close personal affinity. Her most well known and complete composition is the epic poem known as ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’ which details not only the gruesome power of Inanna, goddess of love and war, but Enheduanna’s own expulsion from the temple at Ur and her eventual reinstatement, a historical event mentioned in various other sources.  It is a fantastic poem, the imagery and artistry stand out and have the power to move even after so many years. It includes the use of similes, vivid descriptions, metaphors and other such sophsiticated literary devices that are the markers of ‘literature’.

‘The Exaltation of Inanna’ is long so I will only copy a few short segments (but please do check out the full version at the electronic corpus of sumerian Literature and for more detail Hallo and Van Diyk’s book remains the best on the subject) . The ECTSL has translations and transliterations of much of Enheduanna’s work, including more hymns and poems dedicated to Inanna, and is a good, free and accurate source.

“At your battle-cry, my lady, the foreign lands bow low. When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest, you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers. Because of you, the threshold of tears is opened, and people walk along the path of the house of great lamentations. In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint. You charge forward like a charging storm. You roar with the roaring storm, you continually thunder with Iškur. You spread exhaustion with the stormwinds, while your own feet remain tireless. With the lamenting balaĝ drum a lament is struck up.”

“He made me fly like a swallow from the window; I have exhausted my life-strength. He made me walk through the thorn bushes of the mountains.”

and perhaps my favourite line :

“I shall give free vent to my tears like sweet beer!”

Poetic Musings

Poetry is too often taught and thought of as the domain of  the white men who dominate the ‘classics’ we should all apparently know, in light of this I think we should never forget the first known named poet (many poems were written before Eheduanna but anonymously) was a woman from the middle east. The idea that literature pre Ancient Greece was somehow ‘basic’ or lacking in  sophistication is primarily one of Eurocentric fiction, the depth, artistry and complexity of Sumerian literature can be stunning. Similarly the idea that writing and poetry have until very recently been a male preserve is false, influenced perhaps by the overly androcentric nature of classical Greece and Rome (with the exception of Sappho) and the renaissance ideals based on them.  In addition to Enheduanna, much annonymous sumerian poetry may have been written by women (see ‘Sex and Eroticsm in Mesopotamian Literature’ for more on this) and indeed the Sumerian goddess of Wisdom, learning and writing was female, Nidaba.

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Comments

  1. This is facinating! I didn’t know anything about this!

Feel free to comment, I do love a good debate

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