The World’s First Writer

The World’s First Writer

The stately Morgan Library in New York City (unfortunately, founded by no Morgan relative of mine) is having a unique exhibition, open until February 16th, titled “She Who Wrote: Enheduenna and The Women of Mesopotamia, circa 3400 to 2000 BCE.” If you will be anywhere in the environs of Manhattan, definitely plan to see it. The literature of ancient Sumer is the earliest known human literature, the Sumerian language is the oldest language for which writing even exists, and Enheduenna is the first named Sumerian writer–thus the first known writer in human history. She also read and wrote Akkadian. Called “the Shakespeare of her time” by subsequent scholars, her petitionary psalms, prayers, and epics influenced the psalms of the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Solomon, the epics of Homer, The Magnificat, and Christian hymns.

Enheduenna was unknown to modernity until 1927, when the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley excavated objects that bear her name and her image. We know now that her name in Sumerian means “ornament of heaven,” and she was termed the high priestess, but (we’re not going to write the diminutizing “priestess” here), we’re going to write high priest of the moon deity Nannasuen. Her existence as a historical personage is well established; she is not a mythic figure, nor was her father, Sargon the Great. In fact, historical records indicate that her mother was a Sumerian from southern Mesopotamia and that her father was purported to be the son of a priestess. She composed 42 Temple Hymns and three stand-alone poems comparable to the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is not credited to a named author but which scholars consider another important part of Mesopotamia’s literary legacy. She was the first writer to ever use the first person–a stunning feat in itself.

Enheduenna also wielded considerable political power: as the daughter of Sargon, credited by most historians as the founder of the world’s first empire, she played an essential role binding together the northern Mesopotamian region of Akkad, where her father first rose to power, and the Sumerian city states in the south that he went on to capture. She did so by melding the beliefs and rituals associated with the Sumerian goddess Inanna with those of the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, emphasizing those links in her literary and religious hymns and poems, thereby creating a common system of beliefs throughout the empire.

Each of the hymns Enheduenna wrote for 42 temples in the southern half of Mesopotamia highlighted the unique character of the patron goddess to the worshippers in those cities–in other words, making the prayers relevant to the local worshippers (good organizing techniques!). The hymns were then copied by scribes in the temples for centuries after her death. Her writings are displayed on clay tablets bearing the wedge-shaped imprints known as cuneiform.

In this excerpt from her poem The Exaltation of Inanna, she describes the creative process: “I have given birth, oh exalted lady goddess, to this song for you. That which I recited to you at midnight, may the singer repeat to you at noon,” paying tribute to the magic of writing itself–meaning that a text could now last for twelve hours without having been memorized. She also proudly lays claim to her authorship at the conclusion of the temple hymns: “The compiler of the tablet is Enheduenna and that which has been created here no one has created before!” Which was true.

Her grasp of mathematics, by the way, is perhaps less surprising if we remember that historians trace the origins of math to Mesopotamia, right alongside the development of cuneiform and other early writing systems: both writing and counting probably were developed by necessity in the region’s active agricultural and textile economy, where the systems became intertwined as farmers and merchants counted what was produced and recorded as being sold and traded. Women took on more roles in a wide variety of trades (or perhaps had always had them) including ceramics, weaving, baking, animal husbandry, brewing, and artisan work.

Enheduenna lived, composed, and taught roughly 2000 years before Aristotle and 1700 years prior to Sappho, and she tells her own story of banishment and ultimate restoration by Inanna in a hymn that became part of the cultural myths of Sumeria and for the next thousands of years existed as a component of that civilization. The attempted coup against her authority by a rebel named Lugal-Ane details her expulsion, along with her prayerful request to the goddess for reinstatement. She explains being banished from the temple in the city of Oruk, and denounces Lugal-Ane, who has destroyed the temple, one of the greatest temples in the ancient world; further, in the most ancient recorded instance of sexual harassment, he made sexual advances to the high priest(ess), his own sister-in-law. This is Enheduenna’s address to him, A Lament to The Spirit of War:

You hack down everything you see, rising on fearsome wings you rush to destroy our land, raging like thunderstorms, howling like hurricanes, screaming like tempests, vegetation collapsing before you! Blood gushes down mountainsides, spirit of hatred, greed, and vengeance! Your ferocious fire consumes our land!

She also appeals to Inanna, in an intimate, personal manner, warm and erotic:

I have laid out your daisies, set fire to the coals, conducted the rites, prepared your nuptial chamber! Now may your heart embrace me! These are my creations, almighty queen, that I made for you, what I composed for you by the dark of night the cantor will chant by day.

It seems Inanna heard her, because she was restored to her position, and wrote that “the day became favorable to her, clothed in beauty, radiant with joy, she carried herself like the elegant moonlight, oh Inanna praise!”

Enheduenna seems to have been the first woman to hold this position in Urr, and her comportment as high priest would have served as a model for those who followed her. The skill and beauty of her works, aside from their impact on Mesopotamian theology, was as profound as it was on politics: she drew the gods closer to the people of the land, making them deeper and more sympathetic characters, gods for all of the people and not just for Sumerians or Akkadians. Ultimately, the allure of Enheduenna’s work is her open sensuality and ardent devotion; she writes a pre-christian Magnificat to Inanna in The Great Hearted Mistress: “You are magnificent. Your name is praised, You alone are magnified! My lady, I am yours. This will always be so, may you hear and be soothed toward me. Your divinity is resplendent in the land! My body has experienced it!”

[Happy Solstice and other holidays! This blog will return in January.]