Enheduanna – the world’s first known author

Enheduanna facts

Living in the 23rd century BC, Enheduanna was an ancient Mesopotamian chief priestess, poet and author who famously combined mythologies of both the Sumerian and Akkadian people. She was also the daughter of Sargon of Akkad

Of all the incredible individuals to emerge out of the Akkadian Empire, Enheduanna must surely be one of the most influential. The extant archeological records show that Enheduanna was a high priestess of the Sumerian temple as well as the world’s first known author.

She is most known for producing original literary works that not only praised the gods but also gave them more human features. Her religious duties, among other things, went a long way in helping the newly built Akkadian Empire stay united, thriving and prosperous.

What else was this great poet and priestess most famous for? Learn more about the life and major achievements of Enheduanna, the world’s first known author.

The daughter of Sargon the Great

Sargon the Great – also known as Shar-Gani-Sharri or Sarru-Kan – was the world’s first known empire builder, having united independent city-states of the Sumerians and the Akkadians. He is said to have gone by epithets such as “True King” or “Legitimate King”. Sargon of Akkad’s empire spanned large places in ancient Mesopotamia. He even stretched the boundaries to include places in Lebanon and regions close to modern-day Turkey. Image: Mask of Sargon the Great

Enheduanna was born in ancient Mesopotamia, the birth place of human civilization and the first cities that sit between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. There is not much that is known about the early life of Enheduanna other than the fact that she claimed to be daughter of Sargon the Great. It’s possible she was not Sargon’s actual biological daughter; perhaps, the word ‘father’ was used not in literal sense.

Sargon the Great (also known as Sargon of Akkad) was history’s first known empire builder. A northern Semite, i.e. an Akkadian, he was a powerful military ruler who conquered and united the various independent city-states in Mesopotamia, especially the older Sumerian cities in the south. He reigned for more than fifty years.

Typical of any conquests, the people that Sargon conquered viewed him as a foreign invader. This meant that Sargon had to contend with many revolts that threatened the empire he had just created. Among other things, Sargon worked very hard to blend the various cultures, i.e. Akkadian and Sumerian.

How Enheduanna used the cuneiform script to produce brilliant and original literary works

First and foremost, Enheduanna (c. 2235 – c. 2250 BC) wasn’t the average ancient Mesopotamian woman. Being the daughter of a powerful ruler, Enheduanna was given the best education that there was at the time. She could read and write in both Sumerian and Akkadian. She was also trained to do mathematical calculations.

The cuneiform script was the world’s first known writing system that was primarily used for accounting purposes and transcription. It largely remained that way for about three centuries until the coming of Enheduanna, who started using the script to produce original literary works. Image: Ancient Sumerian clay tablet inscribed with the text of the poem Inanna and Ebih

As the high priestess of the city of Ur, she deployed the cuneiform script, which was predominantly used for record keeping and communication between merchants, in ways that had not been seen before. The Sumerian high priestess used the language for literary pursuits, producing a number of famous religious hymns and three brilliant epic poems in honor of the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna.

Enheduanna injected life and vigor into Mesopotamian gods

Enheduanna gave the Mesopotamian gods more humanistic emotions. This meant that the gods could feel pain, love, and struggle. She and the authors that came after her wrote epic poems about the gods engaging in wars and bitter struggles. Image: Ishtar, the Goddess of war and love,  smashing the face of a lion with her foot

Prior to the coming of Enheduanna, the Mesopotamian gods were distant and aloof beings with little to no human attributes. Enheduanna communicated to the people that the gods, although mighty and powerful, had human emotions. In other words, they loved, got angry, fought among themselves, and even act in a vindictive manner. We see this in the religious poem that she wrote, in which, the goddess Inanna warns the people not to disobey her least they be punished severely.

The priestess of Nanna

The Akkadians revered Nanna as the king of their pantheon of gods. He was, among other things, the god of time and wisdom. In him, all the secrets of the world were kept. Image: (Left to right) Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud (c. 2300 BC) shown on the Adda Seal from ancient Akkadia

Enheduanna was first and foremost the high priestess of the god Nanna, also known as Sin or Inbu. The earliest mention of Nanna’s worship goes as far back as the 4th millennium BC, when his worship center was primarily found in the Mesopotamian city of Ur of the Sumer people in southern Mesopotamia (in today’s Iraq). Basically, Nanna was the king of the pantheon of gods in the city and even beyond.

How Enheduanna helped Sargon maintain dominion over the various Mesopotamian city-states

It’s also likely that Enheduanna was an important advisor to Sargon all throughout the period that king tried to cement his rule in conquered lands of the Sumer people. To do this, Sargon had to be very brave, be a military genius, and have a whole lot of diplomatic acumen. Sargon took cognizance of the benefits that religion brought in terms of uniting the people. This is where Enheduanna proved extremely useful. By making Enheduanna the chief priest of the Sumerian temple, he knew he could count on her to merge the various gods in Mesopotamia under one pantheon. To pull this off, Enheduanna is said to have used hymns and poetry. For example, the Sumerian goddess Inanna became associated with the Akkadian goddess Ishtar. Thus Inanna, who was originally a local fertility and vegetation deity, incorporated some of the character traits of Ishtar, especially with regard to war.

Somehow, Enheduanna had brilliantly woven the Akkadian gods into the Sumerian pantheon, forming a much bigger pantheon that allowed Sargon to better rule the empire. Sargon’s goal was to create an empire that was kind of a melting pot of different cultures – i.e. the south (Sumer) and the north (Akkad).

“Wife of the god Nanna”

As stated earlier, Nanna was an extremely important deity whose worship was found across Mesopotamia. In some famous accounts, he is seen as the father of the sun god Utu-Shamash and Ishtar, the goddess of sexuality, beauty and love. As the priestess of Nanna, Enheduanna was sometimes referred to as the “wife of Nanna”. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that Nanna was the inspiration behind Sargon the Great’s conquest of the region as well as other great feats chalked by his descendants, including his grandson Naram-Sin (c. 2260-2230 BC).

Enheduanna’s role in merging Sumerian gods and Akkadian gods

Following his conquest of the region, Sargon set about to harmonize the various pantheons in Mesopotamia. This was vital as it allowed him to communicate to the different cultures that he ruled over his divine right to rule. Facilitating this merger was none other than Sargon’s daughter and chief priest, Enheduanna.

A high-ranking official of Sargon’s government

Enheduanna presided over an important temple in Ur, an important city of Mesopotamia that had about 34,000 people. With its narrow dusty roads and mud brick homes, the city of Ur bustled with life. As the high priest of the city, Enheduanna’s role went beyond religious matters. She played a vital role in ensuring that the city was peaceful and stable. This meant that she had to attend to the city’s infrastructure system, including irrigation and granaries. She probably supervised the construction of many projects, including the city’s markets, temples, and monuments.

As the high priestess of the city of Ur’s patron god, Enheadunna not only presided over religious festivals and interepreted sacred dreams, but she also supervised construction projects. Her primary objective was to facilitate the blending of the older Sumerian culture with the newer Akkadian civilization.

Honoring Inanna

Inanna was the Mesopotamian goddess of war and desire. Occupying the top position in the region’s pantheon of gods, Inanna is said to have even transcended gender boundaries. Image: Ancient Akkadian cylinder seal depicting Inanna crushing a lion

In her role as chief priestess, Enheduanna was responsible for coming out with a number of literary works and songs to honor Nanna and other major gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon.

Scholars credit her with writing hymns such as Ninmesarra (‘The Exaltation of Inanna’), Inninmehusa (‘Goddess of the Fearsome Powers’) and Inninsagurra (‘The Great-Hearted Queen’). Those hymns were used to praise Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, fertility and sensuality. In majority of the myths, Inanna is revered as the daughter of Nanna. Enheduanna identified this Sumerian goddess with Ishtar. Sargon credited Inanna with helping him secure victory in many of his battles. As a result, she became associated with war.

The poems that Enheduanna wrote were full of sexual imagery. After all the Ishtar was the goddess of sexuality, beauty and love. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the chief priestess used those imagery to show her unwavering dedication to the goddess.

Aside those three hymns, Enheduanna wrote many other works, mostly short poems that covered a number issues, including love, war, fertility, and among others.

Enheduanna’s poems on the immense power of Inanna

In both Ninmesarra (‘The Exaltation of Inanna’) and Inninmehusa (‘Goddess of the Fearsome Powers’), Enheduanna communicates to the listeners about how powerful a deity Inanna is. She warns the people of the dire consequences that could befall the society if they failed to heed the words of the goddess. According to Enheduanna, Inanna’s wrath falls heavily on anyone who shows any sign of hubris towards her or any other gods in the pantheon. And since the words of the priestess and the emperor were seen as the words of the gods, those warnings Enheduanna issued went a long way in keeping the people loyal to Sargon the Great.

Therefore, Enheduanna paints a picture of Inanna who is at the same time a benevolent fertility deity and a goddess of retribution so to speak.

Temporary exile

After the death of Sargon, a rebel leader (possibly Lugal-Ane) usurped the throne. Enheduanna and many high-ranking official were forced to go into exile. She did not return to the city of Ur until her nephew Narem-Sin successfully crushed the rebellion. Subsequently, she was restored to her old position. In one of her writings, she heaps enormous praise on the gods, particularly Inanna, for the restoration.

Meaning of her name

After her father’s conquest of the Sumerian lands, Enheduanna is believed to have moved to the city of Ur, the cultural hub of the Sumerian people. In Ur, she was elevated to the position of chief priestess. She chose to adopt the Sumerian title “Enheduanna”, which when broken down means “chief priest of Ana” or “chief conduit of Ana”. As stated above, ‘Ana’ means heaven or sky in Sumerian culture.

Did you know?

Interestingly, Enheduanna was not the only author of her time. It’s said that her father, Sargon of Akkad, penned an autobiography titled The Legend of Sargon. Similar to the earlier works by Enheduanna, Sargon’s work was aimed at consolidating his reign over the Mesopotamian region.

There have been some scholars that state that those famous hymns credited to her might have not been written by her in the first place. It’s possible they were written by one of her chief scribes or a junior temple priest who wrote them in her name.

Legacy

Enheduanna is most remembered as the high priestess of the moon god Inanna and history’s first known author. Her poems and forty-two other literary works, which were written more than 1600 years before the archaic Greek poet Sappho (c. 634- c. 570 BC),  had tremendous impact on the literary works across the Mesopotamian region, including the Hebrew Old Testament and Homer’s epic poems in ancient Greece.

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Other notable achievements of Enheduanna

She supported Sargon’s official government as the ruler tried to unite the various Mesopotamian cultures under one banner. To do this, she would have had to have very sound diplomatic skills in addition to her knowledge of religious matters. The following are some of her other achievements.

Enheduanna, the World’s first author, was also a priestess and important administrative official of Sargon the Great, the founder of Akkadian Empire.

  • It’s been said that she was the first known author to use the pronoun ‘I’ in a literary work.
  • To put into perspective just how astonishing her achievement was. Enheduanna’s literary works and poems were written about a millennium and a half before the Greek poet Homer penned his works. Without a shred of doubt her poems and hymns had tremendous influence on high priests/priestesses, scribes, rulers and poets that came after her.
  • After her death, she was revered as a minor Mesopotamian deity.

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