BORN: c. 2300 bce • Mesopotamia
DIED: c. 2260 bce • Mesopotamia
Mesopotamian princess; priestess; poet
Enheduanna is often referred to by historians as the first female poet and is even considered by some to be the first known author in all of literature. The daughter of the Sumerian king Sargon I of Akkad (ruled c. 2334–c. 2279 bce), Enheduanna was a high priestess to the Sumerian moon god, Nanna. As a priestess, Enheduanna was regarded as having near-divine power herself. She chose Nanna's daughter, Inanna, a fertility goddess and the goddess of war, to be her personal goddess and protector. Enheduanna established the religious cult of Inanna and helped to spread belief in the goddess throughout the region. Enheduanna also composed several hymns to Inanna, including The Exaltation of Inanna, the oldest poem credited to a specific author.
"The day was favorable for her, she was clothed sumptuously / she was garbed in womanly beauty. / Like the light of the rising moon, / how she was sumptuously attired."
By the time of Enheduanna's birth in the twenty-fourth century bce, the region of Mesopotamia, which consisted of parts of modern-day Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, had been settled for thousands of years. The local tribes were nomadic (had no permanent home) until the middle of the fourth millennium bce. The first center of civilization formed in the south of modern-day Iraq, in what was called Sumer. Farming villages in this region grew into a series of a dozen powerful city-states which were sometimes at war with one another and sometimes fought together against common enemies. The earliest written records also date from about this time, in the form of clay tablets. These tablets detailed the operations of the large temple complexes in each city.
The stepped temple complexes, called ziggurats, averaged about 150 feet (46 meters) in height. Each ziggurat was built in honor of one of the many gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon, or collection of gods and goddesses. The most important of these were the sky god, An; the storm god and Earth god, Enlil; and the water god, Ea, who was sometimes also called the god of wisdom. These were followed in importance by a second threesome composed of the moon god, Nanna; the sun god, Utu; and the goddess of fertility and war, Inanna. The temple complex in the city of Ur honored Nanna. Uruk, one of the leading cultural centers of the early Sumerian period, had temples to Inanna and An. Priests managed the running of the temples. Ordinary citizens did not take part in the worship of the statues built to represent the various deities (gods and goddesses).
Sumer was conquered around 2330 bce by the Akkadians, a Semitic group who had occupied the lands north of the city. Sumer and Akkad were combined under the rule Sargon I, the father of Enheduanna and the leader of the Akkadians. Sargon became the first Semitic king of Mesopotamia and the first ruler ever to conquer and hold an empire. His realm stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. The empire lasted some 160 years, and Sargon himself ruled for fifty-five of those years.
Little is known of Sargon's early life. According to one Sumerian legend, he was born near the banks of the Euphrates River to a high priestess who found it necessary to hide her baby. She set him afloat in a reed basket that was later found by a gardener named Akki, who raised the baby as his own. The goddess Inanna took a liking to the boy and protected him. Before long he became a cupbearer to the king of Kish, a city in the north of Sumer, and then later king himself. He founded the city of Akkad, which archaeologists (people who study the remains of past human life) believe was located near the modern-day city of Baghdad, Iraq. Sargon fought many battles during his reign. Some accounts total his victories at thirty-four, including the victory over the Sumerian king that united Akkad and Sumer.
The Akkadians introduced many new gods when they conquered Sumer, but they did not forbid the Sumerians from continuing to worship their former gods. Sargon did take power away from the priest class by combining the offices of the ensi, the chief civil and religious leader, and the lugal, the temporary leader taken on in time of war. The new position was known as ensi. By incorporating these functions, Sargon fused the temporary civil leader with the permanent religious leader, and thereby reduced the political strength of the priests. In general, the Akkadians combined elements of Sumerian religion with their own rather than rejecting it.
Sargon appointed his firstborn daughter as the en, or priestess, to the Sumerian god Nanna in the city of Ur. This may have been done to encourage the Sumerian people to think of Sargon less as a foreign invader and more as a rightful ruler chosen by the gods. Nanna, the moon god, was the firstborn of Enlil and Ninlil, the goddess of Earth, heaven, and air. Sargon's daughter, whose birth name is unknown, took Enheduanna as her en name. Enheduanna means "chief priestess of the ornament of heaven." For the next five hundred years, royal princesses were traditionally installed as high priestesses at Ur, one of Mesopotamia's most important centers. This linked the royal daughters with Nanna, which in turn linked the kingship with the pantheon.
Princess, priestess, and poet
During digs conducted at Ur by English archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley in 1925 and 1927, a thin, see-through limestone disk was found. The disk bears a likeness of Enheduanna on one side and an inscription identifying her as the "wife" of Nanna and the daughter of King Sargon on the other. Most likely a religious artifact from the temple, the disk shows the priestess performing a ritual.
Most gods and goddesses in the Mesopotamian pantheon represented some element of nature. Inanna, or Ishtar in Akkadian, was one of the pantheon's most complex deities. She was the goddess of such unalike forces as love, fertility, and war. A pantheon is a group of gods and goddesses. Inanna was described as cruel, vengeful, warlike, and destructive, but also as peaceful, tender, comforting, and mystical. She was seen as the protector of both Sargon and his daughter, Enheduanna. It was partly due to Enheduanna's focus on the goddess that Inanna became the most important deity in Mesopotamia for more than five hundred years.
Inanna was the daughter of Nanna, the moon god, and the twin sister of Utu, the sun god. She was represented in the heavens by the planet Venus. In fact, astronomers (scientists who study the planets and the stars) named a continent on that planet after her. In Sumerian the name Inanna means "Great Lady of An," with An being the god of heaven. When she first began to be worshipped by the Sumerians, Inanna symbolized the life force and was the goddess of both sexuality and fertility. When displeased, she could destroy crops and make women unable to bear children. Among the Assyrians and Akkadians to the north, she was worshipped as the goddess of war and the hunt and was often pictured in battle dress with bow and arrow.
Inanna is at the center of several powerful myths, including one that tells of her descent into the underworld to claim control of it. Her sister, Ereshkigal, who already ruled the underworld, was upset by this and sentenced Inanna to death. When Inanna died, however, the world dried up and crops would no longer grow. The water god, Ea, arranged to save Inanna, with the agreement that someone else would have to take her place in the underworld. Inanna chose her lover, Dumuzi. Dumuzi then ruled from the underworld for half of each year and rejoined Inanna for the other half.
The disk also serves as an introduction to the duties of a priestess, such as making daily offerings to the god or goddess honored by the temple. These offerings consisted of foods such as grain, honey, and dates that were carried in a basket called a gimasab, which is represented on the disk. Other duties included conducting a ceremony to purify water and caring for the giparu, the building attached to the temple that contained the priestess's private residence. Enheduanna's position took her to the other major cities of Mesopotamia, where she promoted not only her deity, Nanna, but also the goddess Inanna, whom Enheduanna took as her personal deity and protector.
Priestesses were also responsible for composing hymns, songs, and poetry honoring the deities. Some of the historical knowledge of Enheduanna comes through the hymns she composed to Inanna. These hymns were later transcribed in cuneiform, wedge-shaped writing carved with a pointed stick on clay tablets. More than one hundred such tablets are believed to be the work of Enheduanna because they were written in Sumerian. Her father, Sargon, typically wrote in Akkadian. At least six different compositions have been attributed to Enheduanna from the tablets, the most well-known and completely translated of which is The Exaltation of Inanna. Historians and archaeologists have given these hymns Sumerian titles taken from their first lines. Therefore The Exaltation of Inanna is also sometimes called Nin-me-sar-ra (Queen of Countless Divine Powers).
The Exaltation of Inanna is 153 lines long and begins with a description of Inanna's characteristics. The second part details Inanna's powers as a goddess of battle. The third section tells of the trouble endured by Enheduanna when a local lugal (third-highest ranking military officer) rebelled against her father and she was banished from the temples in Ur and Uruk. She also mentions in the hymn the difficulty she has finding inspiration to write.
The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature relays the Exaltation in translation for modern readers. This excerpt is from the section in which Enheduanna praises Innana's powers in battle:
At your battle-cry, my lady, the foreign lands bow low. When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest [storm or upheaval], you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers. Because of you, the threshold [door] of tears is opened, and people walk along the path of the house of great lamentations [cries of grief]. In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint. You charge forward like a charging storm. You roar with the roaring storm, you continually thunder with Ickur [god of storms]. You spread exhaustion with the stormwinds, while your own feet remain tireless. With the lamenting balaj drum a lament is struck up.
Another verse written by Enheduanna is In-nin sa-gur-ra (Stouthearted Lady), the longest of her surviving works at 274 lines. This hymn's main theme is the power that Inanna has over all aspects of human life. Another group of hymns that has been translated into English is E-u-nir (Temple Hymns). This is a collection of forty-two verses written or gathered by Enheduanna. Each verse is addressed to a different temple in Sumer or Akkad. More hymns to Inanna are included in In-nin me-hus-a (Inanna and Ebih). Fragments of verses and hymns are also found in two smaller collections, E-u-gim e-a (Hymn of Praise to Ekishnugal and Nanna on Assumption of En-ship) and Hymn of Praise to Enheduanna. In all of these collections, Enheduanna identifies herself somewhere in the text as the priestess of Nanna and the creator of the verses. Thus, it was possible that the copyists simply attributed these verses to the same person incorrectly. Later study of the texts, however, showed enough similarities to prove that they were all by the same person, Enheduanna.
In her dual roles as princess and priestess, Enheduanna helped merge the royal line with the line of Sumerian deities. She also raised Inanna to the position of one of the most worshipped goddesses in the Mesopotamian pantheon. As Inanna was also her father's patron deity, this worship was also extended to him, strengthening his kingship. Due to the skill displayed in her verses and the fact they have survived for thousands of years, some scholars refer to Enheduanna as the "Shakespeare of Sumerian literature."
For More Information
Barnstone, Aliki, and Willis Barnstone, eds. A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1992.
Goodrich, Norma Lorre. Priestesses. New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1989.
Hallo, W. W., and W. Simpson. The Ancient Near East: A History. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Meador, Betty De Shong. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2000.
Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1983.
Binkley, Roberta. "Context: Who Was Enheduanna?" http://www.public.asu.edu/∼rbinkle/enheduanna.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Binkley, Roberta. "Enheduanna." Feminist Theory Website. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/Enheduanna.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"Enheduanna." Gateways to Babylon. http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/gods/ladies/ladyenheduanna.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"Enheduanna." Other Women's Voices. http://home.infionline.net/∼ddisse/enheduan.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"The Exaltation of Inana (Inana B): Translation." The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr4072.htm (accessed June 2, 2006).