A Poet and Priestess from Ancient Times

If you had asked me a few months ago for the “world’s first author,” I would have said “Homer.” (I know The Epic of Gilgamesh predates The Iliad and The Odyssey, but there is no named author for that tale.) In our story of tradition, we commit a dreadful error when we castigate the so-called “great books” as works by dead white men—not only because Homer could not be referred to as “white” but also because our human tradition begins before him. Enheduanna: The Complete Poems of the World’s First Author corrects this oversight by introducing readers to Sumerian poetess and priestess Enheduana, “the first poet whose name we know.” Although the translator and editor Sophus Elle wants to reclaim the literary merit of Enheduana, I am more fascinated by the fact of her existence and what it means for tradition. 

Who was Enheduana?

Hopefully your history books from school included the King of Sargon (2334-2279 BCE), the first ruler to unite Sumerian cities; Enheduana was his daughter. When the king established his dynasty from the city of Ur, he installed his daughter as high priestess to Nanna, the moon god of the Mesopotamian religion. Just as “Sargon” means “Legitimate King,” so “Enheduana” means High priestess (en) who is the ornament (hedu) of heaven (ana).” Both are chosen names rather than names given at birth. To provide a sense of time, as most of us are unfamiliar with the Akkadian eras, Sargon and Enheduana predate Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, by at least one generation. You might recognize “Ur” as the birthplace of Abraham.  

Enheduana wrote poetry dedicated not to Nanna, the god to whom she was considered married, but to Inana, the goddess of love, beauty, war, and fertility—a subversive choice, considering her role. We know surprisingly more about Enheduana than other ancient figures from her time because of how much she divulges in her poems. They are filled with more autobiographical information and personal reflections than other verses from this era. The Complete Poems of Enheduana includes five poems, one of which is an anthology of forty-two shorter poems. Aside from these eighty-odd pages, the rest of the book is dedicated to essays unpacking the story of this woman, her time period, and why her poetry matters. 

In 1927 the fascination with Enheduana was rekindled when excavators found an alabaster disk with her image depicted on it and an inscription that reads, “Enheduana, priestess of Nanna, spouse of Nanna, daughter of Sargon, the king of the world, built an altar in the temple of Inana-Zaza at Ur and named it Altar, the Table of Heaven.” The archaeologists responsible for this find were Leonard and Katherine Wooley, and their assistant was none other than Agatha Christie’s husband, Max Mallowan. The “Queen of Crime” based her novel Murder in Mesopotamia on her experience at this dig site with this crew, though the disc sadly does not make an appearance in the fiction. 

In addition to weaving, writing is likened to giving birth, an experience unknown to the virgin priestess, who is a spiritual rather than physical mother.

From Helle’s reading of Enheduana, this writer has lived three lives: 1) her biographical existence as the poet and priestess; 2) a literary star in Babylonian schools, in which her works were transcribed and copied by hundreds of students to learn ancient Sumerian; and 3) as an ancient author rediscovered in modern times. Helle informs readers: “In Sumerian and Babylonian cultures, people were thought to exist in several ways at once: through their bodies, their names, their children, the stories told about them, and the images that depicted them.” Thus, the copying of Enheduana’s poems in the 1800s BCE, and the recent translation of her work now, are ways of reviving Enheduana so that she lives on. 

Following Enheduana’s death, the subsequent generations continued to study her verses in a similar manner to how students in the Middle Ages transcribed and recited Virgil’s Aeneid. We know that students were asked to copy tablet after tablet of her poetry from the nearly 1200 tablets that survive, found at the Nippurian school, an archaeological site that’s been studied for a century and a half. Because of the popularity of Enheduana’s poetry in the successive periods, philologist Annette Zgoll has dubbed her “Exaltation of Inana,” in particular, “the world’s first best seller.” Helle offers a potential reason for this esteem in the “nostalgia for what Babylonian scribes regarded as a golden age.” Under Sargon’s rule, the land was at peace and united, and Enheduana writes poetry within this relative utopia.

Literary Merit of Her Poetry 

Much in the way that Beowulf was once read more as a literary artifact than as a worthwhile narrative poem, Enheduana’s hymns have been interpreted more for their historical value than for literary brilliance. Helle laments, “Because philologists have spent so long arguing about the dating of the hymns, they have paid little attention to their poetic power or popular appeal.” Genre-wise, the poems are hymns, meant to be sung, and as Helle notes, “Their goal is not to describe the world but to change it by invoking the gods and enlisting their help.” Readers should ask, what do we discover about what Enheduana loved through how she worships? Are there parallels or contrasts between these hymns and those of Homer or the Judeo psalms? We might consider closely the varied “torrent of images,” in Helle’s words, that differ from the dominant metaphors in Western culture. 

The poems are inscribed in cuneiform, on tablets of clay, and the translations must be tentative, considering how young is the field of Sumerology. Helle unveils his translation choices in his explanatory essays and offers helpful analysis for how readers should attend to these verses. For those of us unaccustomed to reading ancient hymns, Helle’s interpretations show us where to look and how to see what is before us. 

In “The Exaltation of Inana,” Enheduana names herself as author and questions the goddess whom she praises. Helle assumes this poem then “makes a crucial claim about authorship—namely that it is born out of dialogue.” Enheduana recognizes herself as poet and priestess because she is writing a poem and worshiping the goddess; her identity is founded on relationality. When struggling for words, Enheduana admits the ineffability of her own thoughts: “My honey-mouth/ is full of froth, my/ soothing words are/ turned to dust.” Philologist Louise Pryke thus writes, “The first known story of a writer is also the first known story of a writer’s block.” What Enheduana does compose is elaborate praise of a rather insignificant goddess, uplifting her to “Queen of all powers.” 

Included in this collection is a second “Hymn to Inana,” which hyperbolizes Inana’s greatness above all other gods. Unlike how Inana is usually presented in Sumerian literature, Enheduana says, “It is she who rules/ the gods, she who/ seals their verdicts.” Enheduana grants Inana even paradoxical powers to both destroy and create, “To turn men into/ women, to turn/ women into men,” and so on. Sometimes Inana is described as a seductress, but Enheduana zeroes in on her warrior nature: “In/ her happy heart,/ she sings the song/ of death in battle:/ signing the song/ in her heart, she/ washes her weapons/ with blood and guts.” Helle likens the poetic effect of the poem to what “Umberto Eco has dubbed ‘the vertigo of lists,’ the dizzying sense that a list can go on forever.” That is how it reads—list upon list of praises, all varying and extreme, with various ellipses from tablets where the cuneiform has faded away. 

In the Mesopotamian religion we see distant and silent gods whereas in the Jewish testament, a single omnipotent God reaches out to Abraham to bless him and make covenant with human beings.

“The Temple Hymns” are the longest selection, with forty-two hymns attributed to Enheduana, all dedicated to various temples and their respective gods. Each verse might be read “as if they were beads on a hymn string,” writes Helle, and provides “a glimpse of what the Sumerian world had looked like in previous centuries.” In the final hymn, dedicated to the patron of writers, Nisaba, Enheduana calls her a “righteous woman of unmatched mind [who] measures the heavens and outlines the earth.” This praise of the goddess of writers becomes an ideal for the poet herself who employs the metaphor of weaving to describe her writing: “The weaver of this tablet was Enheduana,” and finishes with a grand boast, “Something has been born which had not been born before.” In addition to weaving, writing is likened to giving birth, an experience unknown to the virgin priestess, who is a spiritual rather than physical mother.

For Helle, we should read these poems because they are “soul-searching” and “poetically breathtaking,” and they enlarge our concept of authorship. As we read her poems, Helle argues, “[W]e step into [a] contributory lineage, reviving and subtly revising the figure of Enheduana.” I agree that reading Enheduana feels both as though I’ve stepped back into time, and as though I’ve brought the author herself forward into mine. 

However, I did not find the poems themselves as lovely or riveting, as does the translator. I’m sure the process of moving from cuneiform on a clay tablet to sensible words on a page is exhilarating for the editor, but the meager taste we get of Enheduana’s work does not compare to the beauty of The Iliad: “Dawn from her bed arose… to bring the light of day to deathless gods and mortal men…” (Il.11.1-2, trans. Caroline Alexander) or the wisdom of Moses (Psalm 90:12-17 MSG): “Teach us to live wisely and well… Surprise us with love at daybreak… Make up for the bad times with some good times… And let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us,/ confirming the work that we do.” 

Expansion of the Great Tradition 

While I was not moved to memorize Enheduana’s hymns and treasure them in my heart, I would recommend reading her poems and retaining them for the same reasons that I would recommend the Canaanite origin myths or The Epic of Gilgamesh. In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre contends that education must occur in “a place of constrained disagreement, of imposed participation in conflict.” Too often the conservative or liberal institution of higher education will suppress or sustain only one set of voices. I would advise reading Enheduana in conversation with Genesis, comparing and contrasting the God of Abraham with the goddess Inana of Ur. In the Mesopotamian religion we see distant and silent gods whereas in the Jewish testament, a single omnipotent God reaches out to Abraham to bless him and make covenant with human beings. The gods of Enheduana are changeable, manipulatable, and chaotic. The God of Abraham has been the same since before the creation of the world; he can be approached by conversation and request but not manipulated into action; and he brings order out of the void. We need to read texts in conversation with one another and not remove one side of the story, which may degrade the other side in the process. 

Helle rightly asks, “What would the history of Western literature look like if it began not with Homer and his war-hungry heroes but with a woman from ancient Iraq, who sang her hymns to the goddess of chaos and change?” I’d add (or counter) that the history of Western literature begins more in Genesis and Exodus than The Iliad or The Odyssey. And, I’d insist that  Homer offers not just “war-hungry heroes” but also prophetic and just women, by which the reading of Enheduana’s verses would underscore those oft-overlooked characters and their voices. 

We will not lose Homer by adding Enheduana. Her poems are short, and the fact of her life is even more compelling than the verses. Helle claims, that “history has since come to be dominated by white men, so the fact that the first known author was a ‘woman of color’—to use a deliberately anachronistic phrase—comes as an empowering revelation to many modern readers.” He’s not wrong. When the story of our human tradition shows that authorship began not with a man but with a woman, we should expand our ways of defining the great books canon. 

However, the inclusion of Enheduana does not dislodge Homer from his place of preeminence: his epics are more powerful than her hymns, and Homer has had more influence than Enheduana. We cannot go back in time and hand Enheduana’s poems on to Plato, Averroës, Hannah More, etc. Nor do we want to undo history. Rather, Enheduana and her verses must rightly be considered an addition to the tradition to pass on, now that we know of their existence. Helle calls his work “historical dumpster-diving.” He has found treasures that others have discarded too quickly and irreverently. In gratitude for his finds, we read Enheduana’s poems and revive again for the world its first named author.