The Mesopotamian Literature
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
There are very few women in ancient history who made their mark on the world with the full moral support of their fathers. Sargon the Great (of Akkad) was considered great for many reasons, but an unofficial reason I’m going to talk about in this blog post (which echoes Fathers Day, albeit belatedly) is that he might have even been a great dad to his daughter, Enheduanna.
Dubbed by scholars “Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature,” (just in time for Shakespeare outdoor events!) Enheduanna began her journey as an Akkadian princess and wound up being the world’s first named author. Some even consider her the world’s first feminist.
In her essay “Enheduanna, Daughter of King Sargon. Princess, Poet, Priestess,” Janet Roberts summarizes what Enheduanna represents perfectly:
“Enheduanna represented a strong and creative personality, an educated woman, and one who fulfilled diverse roles in a complex society, not unlike women’s aspirations today.”
Although the 100+ clay tablets that were found bearing Enheduanna’s writings date back to the Old Babylonian period, she lived about 500 years prior to that, around 2285-2250 BC. Though some scholars question whether Enheduanna is really Sargon the Great’s biological daughter, she must’ve possessed something extra special, charisma, because Sargon ordained her as high priestess of the most important temple in Sumer at Ur. It was a political strategy to help him stabilize the empire he’d just acquired by way of a high priestess of royal blood meld Sumerian gods with those of Akkad.
It is through her ordainment that Enheduanna got her name. It translates into “High Priestess of An,” An being the sky god, or “En-Priestess,” wife of the moon god, Nannar. She was the first known holder of the title of En-Priestess, a role of great political importance held by royal daughters, a tradition which began with Enheduanna. Other translations of her name I came across all boil down to “High Priestess of the Ornament of the Sky/Heaven,” but her birth name is not known.
The Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature
The title that would strike us the most today when we talk about Enheduanna is the one given to her by William Wolfgang Hallo, a Yale scholar and professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature. After reading her works, Hallo dubbed Enheduanna “Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature.”
But unlike the elusive identity of the man we call Shakespeare, we know how and why Enheduanna was literate, and enough so to write all she wrote. You see, it was not rare for high priestesses and royal women in Ancient Mesopotamia to be literate. (Wikipedia) What separates Enheduanna from other women of her status, however, is that she was more than just a scribe. She was an author whose status and father’s support allowed her to write in first person and include herself in her hymns and poems.
One source I found describes her writings: “Her hymns function as multi-layered incantations, interweaving political, personal, ritual, theological, historical and legal dimensions.” (Enheduanna Research Pages)
Copies of her work were made and kept in Nippur, Ur and possibly Lagash. Having been kept alongside royal inscriptions drives home the idea that Enheduanna’s writings were highly valued, even centuries after her death.
A tablet with a poem of Enheduanna’s. (Source)
Being that religious appointments in the ancient Near East were pretty much political appointments, Enheduanna’s political influence was so strong, that after her father’s death, and during her brother Rimush’s reign, a coup was attempted against her by a Sumerian rebel, Lugal-ane. This forced her into exile, and her most famous work, Nin-me-sara or “The Exaltation of Inanna,” was a hymn in which she detailed her expulsion and eventual reinstatement as High Priestess during that time. It is especially through this hymn that we have a record of some details of her life.
Perhaps Hallo dubbed Enheduanna the Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature for her writings on things that continue to be timeless subjects continually discussed in even the most modern literature-like the horrors of war she describes in “Lament to the Spirit of War.”
Ahead of Her Time
Enheduanna also had a hand in systematizing theology with the Sumerian Temple Hymns, which comprised of 42 hymns addressed to temples across Sumer and Akkad. This collection is considered by scholars to be the first attempt at a systematic theology. In them, Enheduanna herself states that they are the first of their kind:
Tablets of the Sumerian Temple Hymns. (Source)
“My King, something has been created that no one has created before.” (Wikipedia)
Enheduanna remained active in her influential role as En-Priestess for over 40 years, stopping only at her death, during her nephew Narim-Sin’s reign. She continued to be an important figure posthumously, and might have even attained semi-divine status. (Wikipedia)
The Enheduanna Disk, found either in 1927 by Sir Leonard Wooley during an excavation at Ur of the temple where Enheduanna lived. It was the first artifact found that introduced Enheduanna to the modern world. The Penn Museum’s description of the disk states that it is a “Disk of white calcite; on one side is a panel wherein is carved in relief a scene of sacrifice, on the other an inscription of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad ” (Source)
Enheduanna’s tomb may never be found, and scholars might continue to debate whether she really is the one who wrote all those hymns and poems like they do Shakespeare, but her legacy is sealed by her writings. They echo her personal feelings about the world she lived in.
“Me who once sat triumphant, he has driven out of the sanctuary. Like a swallow he made me fly from the window, My life is consumed. He stripped me of the crown appropriate for the high priesthood. He gave me dagger and sword—‘it becomes you,’ he said to me. … It was in your service that I first entered the holy temple, I, Enheduanna, the highest priestess. I carried the ritual basket, I chanted your praise. Now I have been cast out to the place of lepers. Day comes and the brightness is hidden around me. Shadows cover the light, drape it in sandstorms. My beautiful mouth knows only confusion. Even my sex is dust.” (Source)
At the next Shakespeare festival, silently call the Bard “Enheduanna of English Literature.”
Sources and further reading:
http://www.transoxiana.org/0108/roberts-enheduanna.html (Janet Roberts Essay)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckP95dKpkhE (Video of excerpt from Exaltation of Inanna)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlBkzD1h6Js&feature=related (Voices in wartime video)
http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/enheduan.html (Sumerian Temple Hymns)
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