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Granted, she was a woman of privileged birth, but even women of noble birth in the 23rd century BCE were still considered second-class citizens.

That was a millennium and a half even before the Iliad and the Odyssey were written. She was Enheduanna. And way before Don Quixote was published, Enheduanna was writing poems onto clay and claiming them as her own. Her works went on to influence the biblical Psalms, the Homeric and Christian hymns, and even modern-day compositions.

Enheduanna is relatively unknown in the modern world. We know the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia as the world’s first epic. We know that the world’s first novel is The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese lady of noble birth. But the name Enheduanna remains obscure for most people.

Enheduanna lived approximately between 2300 and 2225 BCE, toward the end of the Early Bronze Age in Europe and the Age of the Pyramids in Egypt. She was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, the first ruler to bring Sumer in the north and Akkad in the south together to establish the world’s first great empire. Sargon’s rule saw a clear separation between state and religion, but he wasn’t above his political ambitions. He appointed his daughter, the princess, as chief priestess, thereby ensuring all-encompassing authority over the land.

We don’t know her birth name, but the priestess was called Enheduanna. “En” stands for “chief priestess,” “hedu” for “ornament of heaven,” and “anna” for the Sumerian moon god Nanna. Enheduanna’s name literally means Chief Priestess of the Ornament of Heaven, Nanna. Though she was en to Nanna, it was to the moon god’s daughter, Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, later linked to Ishtar and Aphrodite, that Enheduanna devoted herself to.

The Works of Enheduanna

Archaeologists have found more than a hundred clay tablets containing copies of Enheduanna’s poems, which were written in cuneiform. Many of these date back to the Old Babylonian period, which was 500 years after Enheduanna, indicating that her works have been copied and distributed centuries even after her death.

She is best known to modern-day scholars for three poems dedicated to Inanna. The first is called Inninmesahusa or The Goddess of Fearsome Powers. It tells the myth of Inanna and Ebih, a fearsome mountain range who refused to bow to Inanna. Inanna asked the moon god, her father, for assistance but he refused. Not willing to give up, she razed the mountain range to the ground with help from Enlil, the god of the air.

“In my victory I rushed towards the mountain.

In my victory I rushed towards Ebih, the mountain range.

I went forward like a surging flood,

And like rising water I overflowed the dam.

I imposed my victory on the mountain.

I imposed my victory on Ebih.”

The second poem is Inninsagurra, which is translated as Stout-Hearted Lady. In here, Enheduanna briefly introduces herself, saying:

“I am Enheduanna, the en-Priestess of the moon god.”

Much of the text, however, is dedicated to extolling the virtues of Inanna to the point of putting her above the other Sumerian gods.

“You alone are magnificent.

You are the great cow among the gods of heaven and earth,

As many as there are.

When you raise your eyes they pay head to you,

They wait for your word.

The Anuna gods stand praying in the place where you dwell.

Great awesomeness, glory… May your praise not cease!

Where is your name not magnificent?”  

In Ninmesarra, or The Exaltation of Inanna, the 153-line composition becomes partly biographical as Enheduanna writes about her struggles after Lugalanne, a usurper to the throne, banished her from the city of Ur. At the end of the poem, Enheduanna heaps praises upon Inanna, who was responsible for bringing her back to the revered post.

“(But now) I no longer dwell in the goodly placed you established.

Come the day, the sun scorched me

Come the shade (of night) the South Wind

Overwhelmed me,

My honey-sweet voice has become strident,

Whatever gave me pleasure has turned into dust.”

Enheduanna is also known for her temple hymns, which were written in honor of the many temples that spanned Sumer and Akkad. She also collected temple hymns composed by other writers of her time, possibly making her the world’s first editor as well. At the end of the temple hymns, Enheduanna declared her ownership, and therefore her responsibility, of her written work.

“The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something

Has been created that no one has created before.”

The Disc of Enheduanna

A team of archaeologists led by Sir Leonard Wooley unearthed a limestone disc depicting a religious ritual led by Enheduanna. It was excavated at the Temple of Nin-gal in Ur in 1927. Nin-gal was the Sumerian goddess of reeds, consort to An. The disc was discarded and defaced by graveyard robbers, but the face of the priestess remained intact and researchers were able to restore much of the rest of the disc. It runs 25.6 cm across and 7 cm thick, with an inscription on the back that reads:

“Enheduanna, zirru-priestess, wife of the goddess Nanna, daughter of Sargon, king of the world, in the temple of the goddess Inanna.”

Donning a rolled brim cap over her braided hair and the long, flounced dress reserved only for priests of that time, Enheduanna is at the center holding her hand up in a gesture of piety. To her left is a male attendant pouring a libation into a raised basin in front of what appears to be the temple of the moon god. To her left are two other attendants, also with shaved heads.

The Disc of Enheduanna is currently stored at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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