About forty-three hundred years ago, in an area we now call Iraq, a sculptor chiselled out of a disk of white limestone the image of a woman presiding over a temple ritual. She wears a long ceremonial dress and a headdress. There are two male servants behind her and one in front, pouring a libation on an altar. On the back of the disc, an inscription identifies her as Enheduanna, a high priestess and the daughter of King Sargon.
Some scholars believe that the priestess was also the world’s first recorded author. A clay tablet preserves the words of a long narrative poem: “I took my place in the sanctuary’s abode, / I was high priestess, I, Enheduanna. In Sumer, the ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia from which writing was born, the texts were anonymous. If Enheduanna wrote these words, then it marks the beginning of authorship, the beginning of rhetoric, even the beginning of autobiography. To put her precedence in perspective, she lived fifteen hundred years before Homer, seventeen hundred years before Sappho, and two thousand years before Aristotle, who is traditionally considered the father of the rhetorical tradition.
The poem, written in wedge-shaped cuneiform impressions, describes a time of crisis in the life of the priestess. Enheduanna’s father, Sargon, united the city-states of Mesopotamia to create what is sometimes called the first empire in history. His domain stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing modern day Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan and Syria, comprising over sixty-five cities, each with its own religious traditions, administrative system and local identity. . Although Sargon ruled from Akkad in the north, he appointed his daughter High Priestess at the Temple of the Moon God in the southern city of Ur. The position, though outwardly religious, was in practice political, helping to unify disparate parts of the empire. After Sargon’s death, the kingdom was torn apart by rebellion; the throne went briefly to Enheduanna’s brothers, then to his nephew. In the poem, a usurper named Lugalanne – a military general who may have led an uprising in Ur – drives Enheduanna from her place in the temple.
“He turned this temple into a house of ill repute. / Forcing his way like an equal, he dared approach me in his lust!” said Enheduanna. Driven out of the city, she wanders in the desert. “He took me through a land of thorns. / He took away from me the noble diadem of my holy office, / He gave me a dagger: “This is just for you”, he said. The full meaning of the usurper’s crime is lost in a literal translation, but the language suggests sexual violation. (The verbs, one translator noted, are the same used elsewhere to express sexual advances.) It also suggests incitement to suicide. Giving him a dagger, Lugalanne encourages him to commit suicide. “It’s just for you.”
Enheduanna’s salvation depends on her rhetorical skills, but she finds that her powers have dried up. “My once-sweet mouth has now turned to foam, / My power to please hearts is reduced to dust,” she says. To overcome this blockage, she first appeals to the moon god, but he ignores her: “My moonlight doesn’t care about me!” / He leaves me to perish in this place of deceived hopes. Then she turns to Inanna, the goddess of love, sex and war, offering a long hymn to her glory: “My lady! This country will again bow down to your battle cry! Enheduanna’s crisis is resolved by such praise and the creation of the poem itself, which is called “The Exaltation of Inanna”. In a surprisingly awkward passage, the work of writing is compared to the pains of childbirth. “It fills me, it overflows me, Exalted Lady, as I bear you. / What I entrusted to you in the dark of night, a singer will perform to you in the light of day!”
Enheduanna’s nephew eventually put down the rebellion and Enheduanna was restored to his office. She attributes her rescue to Inanna – “Know that you are laying waste to the rebel land!” – but the poem also suggests that Enheduanna, by exalting Inanna, played a part in the salvation of Ur. Goddess and priestess are closely related, the priestess being in part the earthly representation of the divine. The poem is political, inscribing the relationship between power and language, but it is also deeply personal.
In addition to “The Exaltation”, two other texts have been attributed to Enheduanna: “A hymn to Inanna”, which mentions Enheduanna by name, and “Inanna and Ebih”, which has been attributed to her for stylistic reasons. His claim is also attached to a collection of forty-two religious poems – hymns addressed to the temples of various city-states. Taken together, the hymns form what Yale scholars William Hallo and JJA van Dijk have called a “major piece of Mesopotamian theology”, uniting the many cults and deities of the region and making Enheduanna “a kind of systematic theologian. The cycle ends with a postscript: “The compiler of the tablet is Enheduanna./ My King, something has been created that no one has ever created before!”
In ancient Mesopotamia, the works of Enheduanna were celebrated and were even part of the school curriculum of the edubbas, or schools of scribes, which trained future priests and officials in cuneiform writing and Sumerian grammar. For hundreds of years students learned by carving the words of Enheduanna on clay tablets, and about a hundred such copies of “The Exaltation of Inanna” have survived. But since their discovery, in the mid-twentieth century, scholars have fiercely debated the authorship of Enheduanna. Did the priestess really write these works? Is the idea of a woman at the beginning of the written tradition – two thousand years before the Golden Age of Greece – too good to be true? This winter, an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia,” will attempt to give the priestess her due. “You ask anyone you know and they’ll tell you the first author is Herodotus or some other man,” Sidney Babcock, the show’s curator, told me. “It always amazed me. No one will ever come with her.
The city of Ur was first excavated in the fifties. But much of it remained unexplored until 1922, when a British archaeologist, Leonard Woolley, led a joint expedition funded by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. Wooley was drawn to Ur as the biblical home of Abraham and ancient pagan kings. (His account of the excavations, “Ur of the Chaldeans: A Record of Seven Years of Excavation,” alludes to Genesis: “And Terah took Abram…and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abram; and they came out with them from Ur in Chaldea.”) Woolley’s big find was the royal cemetery, where his team unearthed the tombs of kings and queens, as well as jewelry, weapons, pottery, instruments of music and other treasures.
Ur was also, of course, Enheduanna’s adopted home. In 1927, five years after excavations began, excavators discovered the ruins of a temple. Inside they found the defaced shards of a stone disc – the disc representing Enheduanna – and nearby three other objects naming the priestess: cylinder seals belonging to her servants. Elsewhere in the temple were clay tablets covered with cuneiform writing. “Here is definitive proof that the priestesses kept a school on their premises,” Woolley wrote. But he missed the significance of the find, calling the temple a “convent” and a “harem”. Some of the tablets found at Ur were copies of the Enheduanna texts, but Woolley, attentive to the history of the Great Men – political dynasties, biblical patriarchs – seems to have been uninterested in the priestess, treating her as an appendage without consequence of his famous father. His book doesn’t even name Enheduanna, referring to her simply as Sargon’s daughter.
In the years that followed, archaeologists and looters unearthed other tablets with the words of Enheduanna, in cities like Nippur and Larsa. But his work was not transcribed, published and attributed until the late fifties and sixties. In 1968, the first translation of his writings from Sumerian into English appeared. “We can now discern a body of poetry of the very first order that not only reveals the name of its author, but describes that author to us in a truly autobiographical way,” Hallo and van Dijk wrote in their introduction to the translation. “In the person of Enheduanna, we are confronted with a woman who was at the same time princess, priestess and poetess.” The couple acknowledged that the picture put together by academics may be incomplete. “We do not yet know the full extent of Enheduanna’s literary work”, they write, “but the imprint of his style and his convictions is so strong in the poems that one can certainly attribute to him that it will perhaps one day be possible to detect his paternity also in other less well-preserved pieces.
While Hallo and van Dijk noted that Enheduanna might have written more than has been discovered – Akkad, the capital of Sargon’s empire, has yet to be excavated – others downplayed its claim. British scholar W. G. Lambert raised the possibility of a ghostwriter, suggesting that at least one of Enheduanna’s texts could have been written by a scribe. (Sumerian kings often had scribes compose for them.) “Our emotional response to ancient texts is not necessarily the best standard of judgment,” he wrote later, in 2001. Other scholars have questioned Enheduanna on the grounds that the surviving versions of his work, copied by the students of edubbas, dates five hundred years after his death; no copies of his time survive, and in a few cases the texts contain place names and vocabulary later than his time. This could simply be the result of changes in the transmission process of the scribes – alterations usually accompany the reproduction of old accounts – but some see this as a reason for skepticism. “She speaks in the first person, but that’s not the same as being the author,” Paul Delnero, professor of Assyriology at Johns Hopkins University, told me. Enheduanna could be a cult figure honored by later writers, her name being invoked in the works to lend them authority.