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The "Disk of Enheduanna" at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

The Poetry of Gods by Enheduanna - The First Known Female Writer

It is not always easy to read the stories of real people from the artifacts they left behind. This is especially true if they lived 5,000 years ago. However, the story of a remarkable woman from that era is surprisingly well known from archaeological and textual resources.

The Sumerian site of Ur is still one of the most fascinating of the large archaeological sites located near the Euphrat and Tigris Rivers. A woman who composed at least 42 hymns dedicated to the temples of Sippar, Esnunna, Eridu and many others lived in this impressive city. When Mesopotamia was a land of ziggurats and old gods, a woman known as Enheduanna wrote some of the most meaningful poems in history – the first known examples of real poetry.

History’s First Known Author and Poet

Her name means ''high priestess adornment of the god/goddess''. Enheduanna lived from about 2285 to 2250 BC. She was the daughter of the famous Akkadian King Sargon and Queen Tashlultum. It is believed that Enheduanna was her real name - making her the earliest woman in history whose name survived the years. She is also the first known author and poet in history.

Enheduanna’s name was discovered on two big seals which belong to the Sargonic period. Both artifacts were discovered at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. However, the most important artifact related to her is a gorgeous Alabaster disc, which contains her name and some other information. It was discovered in the Giparu at Ur, which was probably Enheduanna’s home. This artifact was dated to 2000-1800 BC, and was found near the statue of a priestess, most likely Enheduanna herself. The inscription on the disc reads: “Enheduanna, zirru-priestess, wife of the god Nanna, daughter of Sargon, king of the world, in the temple of the goddess Inanna.”

A modern reconstruction of the Ziggurat of Ur (background) looms over the ruins of the Giparu, the temple complex where Enheduanna lived.

A modern reconstruction of the Ziggurat of Ur (background) looms over the ruins of the Giparu, the temple complex where Enheduanna lived. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Enheduanna grew up in the court of a very influential and powerful king. His reign was full of war and successful campaigns - which meant that he needed a lot of support by the deities of his time. When the king and his army were fighting in harsh lands, such as deserts, his daughter wrote poetry to cheer the gods and goddesses. She hoped her words would touch their hearts and bring heavenly support to Sargon. Sargon dominated the area of Mesopotamia by the time his power waned. He had achieved so much that nowadays he is considered one of the greatest kings of ancient Sumer.

Enheduanna wrote her poetry and continued work as a High Priestess during the reign of her brother Rimush too. His leadership inspired Enheduanna to write one of her most famous texts – The Exaltation of Inanna. This poem became a time capsule which saved the fascinating cult of the goddess for future generations.

Part of the front of Inanna's temple.

Part of the front of Inanna's temple. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

A Poem to Inanna

It is difficult to ascertain which of the works believed to have been written by Enheduanna were actually created by her. Many of the poems are dated to hundreds of years after her death, but researchers cannot decide if the texts were rewritten from the originals made by the talented ancient poet, or if they were just inspired by her. 

The most popular English translations of Enheduanna’s poetry belongs to Dr. Annette Zgoll, a German researcher who translated ancient inscriptions. The famous poem contains 153 verses in total. The translation of the first verses of the ancient text say:

1. Queen of all the ME, too numerous to count,
rising forth as resplendent light

2. Woman, most driven, clothed in frightening radiance,
loved by An and Uras,

3. An's nugig,
you are above all the great SUHkese-breastplates,

4. You, who love the right aga-crown,
who is suited for the en-priest-hood,

5. empowered with all of its all seven ME --

6. my queen! You are the guardian of the great ME!

7. You have uplifted the ME,
you have held the ME in your hand.

8. You have gathered the ME,
you have clasped the ME to your chest.

9. Like a dragon you cast venom upon the enemy land.

10. In the regions where you thundered like Iskur,
Asnan no longer exists because of you

11. Flooding waters surge down on such an enemy land

12. You are the supreme one in Heaven and Earth,
you are their Inana!

Enheduanna perhaps used her poetry in the rituals she performed as well. As a daughter of the king, she had a very strong religious position. However, what makes her story so interesting in the history of literature is that she was not just a legendary writer, but a real writer whose existence has been confirmed. It is unknown how long she lived, what happened to her, or how she died. Her personal biography is a mystery, but her deep thoughts are known through her writings.

Tablets of the Temple Hymns.

Tablets of the Temple Hymns. ( notablewomen.wordpress.com)

A Forgotten Master of Poetry

Enheduanna seems to be largely forgotten nowadays. Not too many new discoveries related to her story have appeared following the disc with her name; which was discovered by British archaeologist, Sir Leonard Wooley in 1928.

The Enheduanna Disk.

The Enheduanna Disk. ( angelfire.com)

However, Enheduanna was a female writer who, next to the Greek Sapho, made one of the biggest impacts on the future of culture and poetry. After more than 4,000 years, she is still an inspiration to modern writers who compose their poems in Enheduanna's style.

Top image: The "Disk of Enheduanna" at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. ( CC0 1.0 )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Poem NIN-ME-SARA: Lady of countless cosmic powers, available at:
http://www.angelfire.com/mi/enheduanna/Ninmesara.html

Enheduanna, available at:
http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/Enheduanna.html

Enheduanna, available at:
http://www.angelfire.com/mi/enheduanna/

Comments

I dont see a poem so much, i just see praise words. there is no rhyme, only reasoning words driven by a persons blind faith in her gods, which are even more dead than her, because she once had life, where they, never did.

Only a fool is blind to simple beauty.

She also had a flagon at her head and a bronze mirror at her feet. All these artifacts suggest she was an important woman who was of high status. <a href="http://bbc.com" rel="nofollow">bbc</a> She was interred in a wooden coffin. She had a necklace at her feet, indicating a possible female orientation.

The beauty and ingenuity of the black mind never ceases to amaze me! Hopefully one day we go back to being great again.

Sunny is also a writer.

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