Enheduanna: A High Priestess of the Moon and the First Known Author in the World
The ancient Sumerian poet Enheduanna has a unique claim to fame: she was the first author in the world known by name. While there were previous instances of poems and stories written down, Enheduanna was the first to sign a name to her work. And what a work it was! Her text was so significant that it influenced hymns for centuries.
The Life of a Priestess
Living in the 23rd century BC (approximately 2285 – 2250 BC), Enheduanna was the high priestess of the Temple of Sumer. She was a daughter of Sargon of Akkad (Sargon the Great) and Queen Tashlultum, Today, it is known that Sargon was the son of a priestess and Queen Tashlultum may have also been a priestess. Religion played a very important role in those tumultuous times, serving as a check against any intention of the populace to rebel (either against an established overlord or a newcomer).
The Akkadians were Semitic–speaking people from Mesopotamia. Under Sargon the Great, the Akkadian Empire absorbed several Sumerian city-states, some say as many as 34. One of Sargon’s greatest conquests was the Sumerian city of Ur. As a coastal city at the mouth of the Euphrates River, Ur had easy access to trade and transportation, as well as great fertile plains.
A modern reconstruction of the Ziggurat of Ur behind the ruins of the Giparu - the temple complex where Enheduanna lived and was buried in Ur. (M. Lubinski/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
Enheduanna was charged with the task of reconciling the gods of the Akkadians with the gods of the Sumerians so that the important city of Ur would acquiesce to Sargon’s rule. Not only did she succeed in that difficult task, but she also established standards of poetry and prayer that would profoundly influence the Hebrew Bible and Homeric hymns.
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Sargon must have had enormous trust in his daughter to place her in charge of the Sumerian Temple at such a politically delicate time. Enheduanna most likely was born with a different, Semitic name. However, “on moving to Ur, the very heartland of Sumerian culture, she took a Sumerian official title: Enheduanna - `En' (Chief Priest or Priestess); `hedu' (ornament); `Ana' (of heaven)” (Kriwaczek quoted in Mark, 2014).
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Despite living over 4300 years ago, Enheduanna’s historical existence is well-established. Not only are there historic records speaking of her, but a great disk bearing her image was excavated from Ur.
The "Disk of Enheduanna" at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. ( Public Domain )
Creating an All-Powerful Goddess that Lasted
Enheduanna was the priestess for the moon goddess. In Semitic, this goddess’ name was Sin; in Sumerian, she was called Nanna or Inanna. Nanna is perhaps best known as the deity to whom the famed Ziggurat of Ur is dedicated. Later, Nanna/Sin would be identified as Ishtar and, still later, as Aphrodite.
Rectangular, baked clay relief panel known as the “Burney Relief” or the “Queen of the Night.” ( Public Domain ) There is debate whether this relief depicts Inanna/Ishtar, Lilitu, or Ereshkigal.
Enheduanna’s monumental task was to combine two deities into a single, all-powerful goddess. She accomplished this through her spiritual writings. According to historian Paul Kriwaczek, Enheduanna “is credited with creating the paradigms of poetry, psalms, and prayers used throughout the ancient world… Her compositions, though only rediscovered in modern times, remained models of petitionary prayer for even longer. Through the Babylonians, they influenced and inspired the prayers and psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric hymns of Greece. Through them, faint echoes of Enheduanna, the first named literary author in history, can even be heard in the hymnody of the early Christian church.” (Kriwaczek quoted in Mark, 2014).
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Her Famous Hymns
Some of Enheduanna’s best-known hymns are Inninsagurra (The Great-Hearted Mistress) , Ninmesarra (The Exaltation of Inanna) , and Inninmehusa (The Goddess of the Fearsome Powers). “These hymns re-defined the gods for the people of the Akkadian Empire under Sargon’s rule and helped provide the underlying religious homogeneity sought by the king” (Kriwaczek quoted in Mark, 2014). Enheduanna also wrote a number of non-devotional poems in which she reflected upon her own personal hopes and fears as well as her thoughts about the world.