Friday, April 29, 2011

Enheduanna: High Priestess and World’s First Author

This disk shows Enheduanna, third
from the right, assisted by male
attendants in a ritual. To show her
importance, she is the largest
person in the scene, a common
practice to indicate hierarchy.
Just in time for the close of National Poetry Month in the U.S. is this gem of a find, Enheduanna, the first poet known by name. Enheduanna lived 4,300 years ago (c. 2285-2250 BCE) and was the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad. She was so prolific and had such longevity -- over 50 hymns that were followed for over 500 years -- that she is often called the Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature. In actuality, shouldn’t he be called the Enheduanna of Tudor Literature?

Enheduanna was the High Priestess of Nanna, the moon god. That doesn’t sound like a big deal to us now, but back then this was the most important position to have. Before the monotheistic religions we are familiar with today -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- the world revolved around nature, the sacred feminine, and the teachings and rituals of women in the temple. These intricate and elaborate rituals were believed to control everything from birth, to death, to the harvest, to victory in war.

In her official capacity, Enheduanna would have acted as priestess, diplomat, and politician. Her father, Sargon, is famous for combining the city-states of Akkad and Sumer into one, multi-ethnic empire known as the Akkadian Empire. Some consider this one of the first empires in world history, although a couple other people have claim to that title. Nevertheless, to organize and maintain such a vast network, dad was going to need some help. While he was in charge of the secular, religion and therefore supreme authority were still in the female realm. And this is where Enheduanna proved indispensable.

As High Priestess, she was in charge of writing all the religious doctrine. To solidify power under her family’s rule, she combined the worship of all local deities into the worship of the Sumerian goddess known as Inanna. According to some text, Inanna was the daughter of Nanna, and therefore Enheduanna positioned herself as the final authority over religious matters (since she was the High Priestess of Nanna). Many credit this move with solidifying the Akkadian empire and giving her father control over the city Ur in Sumer.

A second great feat of Enheduanna was a series of poems she composed known as the “Sumerian Temple Hymns.” They are a collection of hymns of varying length describing the different temples of the empire, which city they were in, and which deity was worshiped there. They are the first known example of a systematic theology. Even Enheduanna knew they were a big deal, because in the inscription she says herself “that which has been created here no one has created before.”

All is going well for Enheduanna under her father’s reign. When he dies and her brother Rimush assumes the throne, things go a little south. There is a revolt and a guy named Lugalanne tries to become priest of the Temple and ousts Enheduanna from her stately position. Proving again that the pen is mightier than the sword, Enheduanna composes her greatest poem “The Exaltation of Inanna.” In this work, the most completely translated of all her works, she calls forth and praises the supreme power of Inanna, recounts her strife with Lugalanne in first person, and then comes out victorious and is restored to her position as High Priestess.

The poem has some major girl power going on. To sum it up, Inanna, and by extension Enheduanna, is triumphant because of the power of the female to be both destructor and creator at the same time -- the mother goddess who is responsible for all life and death and its prosperity. There is no way a man can be a priest for a temple that revolves around the sacred feminine. Makes sense to me.

This image of a tablet is
one  of the many copies of
Enheduanna's most famous
poems "The Exaltation
of Innana."
Before Enheduanna, which was her priestess name not her birth name (which we don’t know), Sumerian writing was anonymous. She is the first person we know of to attach her name to her writings, which also makes her the first author. Most scholars believe this is because she may have been the first writer of royal lineage and entitled to reveal herself in her writings. Up until now, most writings that survive are examples of bookkeeping and inventory, or the writings were commissioned and there was no sense of ownership. And frankly, it is 2300 BCE people.  This is the beginning of writing and someone had to do it first.

Enheduanna’s scripture and poems were continuously copied and studied by her followers. In fact, “The Exaltation of Inanna” may be the most famous Sumerian work of literature in existence due to the amount of copies that exist. Examination of her life and work begs for comparison to later religious doctrine and symbols. One passage exclaims that Inanna’s wrath “is a devastating flood which no one can withstand.”  In another, Enheduanna recounts her expulsion from the temple and that Lugalanne “made me fly like a swallow from the window.” And after her death, she was deified by her followers. Sound familiar?

List of Enheduanna’s works that we attribute to her, with a link to an online translation if available:
Further Resources:

Samuel N. Kramer, Diane Wolkstein. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. 1983.


Betty De Shong Meador. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna. 2001.
 (I skimmed this one, and there is some hardcore polytheism/matriarch vs. monotheism/patriarchy stuff going on that looks amazing!)

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