Enheduanna was an ancient high priestess; the very first identified author and one of the earliest named women in history!
Enheduanna lived around between 2285 – 2250 BCE. She was a princess, the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad. The name we know her by means ‘High Priestess, ornament of the sky/god’, and was given to her when her father appointed her the En-Priestess (high priestess) of the central temple in the Sumerian city of Ur (in modern day Iraq). We don’t know what her real name was.
Her father Sargon was attempting to bring together Akkad in the north and Sumer in the south and by placing Enheduanna in such a position of importance in Ur, he hoped she would help unite their religions and so bring together the people. So she became the high priestess of the moon god Nanna, managing the temple and leading rituals.
Probably the most important discovery relating to Enheduanna is a round disk, which was excavated in 1927 by archeologist Sir Leonard Wooley. The disc depicts Enheduanna leading a ceremony at the temple, wearing clothes and a headdress which indicate her divine nature. On the back of the disk reads the following description of Enheduanna:
“Enheduanna, zirru-priestess, wife of the god Nanna, daughter of Sargon, king of the world, in the temple of the goddess Innana.”
Enheduanna is most known for her writing. Her works include 42 short poems or hymns, and three lengthy poems which read as prayers to the all-powerful goddess, Inanna.
What makes Enheduanna unique is that she identifies herself in her writing – making her the first person in history to do so. She writes in the first person, acknowledging her position, her beauty and her power. Her poems are personal and passionate; they praise the goddess, but also give real detail about her own life, her feelings and her situation. This too was unusual for writing at the time.
Her most well known poem The Exultation of Inanna expresses how she has been exiled from Ur,removed from her position in the temple by a rebel uprising led by a man called Lugal-Ane. She pleads for Inanna to help restore her to her position. We don’t know how, but we do know that she was able to return to resume her role in the temple and continue in her service, in total serving as high priestess for over 40 years.
The hymns which she wrote continued to be used for many years after her death, copied and recopied onto clay tablets. It is these later clay tablets, made years after Enheduanna’s death which are how we are able to read her words today. Discovered in archeological excavations and translated, they give us a unique insight into Enheduanna’s life & times.
It has been argued that the form of writing she pioneered influenced many of the writers who came after her. The historian Paul Kriwaczek wrote,
“Her compositions, though only rediscovered in modern times, remained models of petitionary prayer for even longer. Through the Babylonians, they influenced and inspired the prayers and psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric hymns of Greece. Through them, faint echoes of Enheduanna, the first named literary author in history, can even be heard in the hymnody of the early Christian church”
Although much about Enheduanna’s life remains a mystery us today, what we can be sure of is that she was a figure of great importance. A woman with political and religious power who inspired worshippers for millennia with her words.
Find out more…
Learn more about Ancient Sumerian life and culture here.
There is a really informative documentary about Enheduanna which you can watch on YouTube: