The New Yorker: the Struggle to Unearth the World’s First Author

The New Yorker: the Struggle to Unearth the World’s First Author

Decades ago, archeologists discovered the work of Enheduanna, an ancient priestess who seemed to alter the story of literature. Why hasn’t her claim been affirmed?

Around forty-three hundred years ago, in a region that we now call Iraq, a sculptor chiselled into a white limestone disk the image of a woman presiding over a temple ritual. She wears a long ceremonial robe and a headdress. There are two male attendants behind her, and one in front, pouring a libation on an altar. On the back of the disk, 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 up my place in the sanctuary dwelling, / I was high priestess, I, Enheduanna.” In Sumer, the ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia where writing originated, texts were anonymous. If Enheduanna wrote those words, then she 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 credited as the father of the rhetorical tradition.

The poem, written in the wedge-shaped impressions of cuneiform, describes a period of crisis in the priestess’s life. Enheduanna’s father, Sargon, united Mesopotamia’s city-states to create what is sometimes called history’s first empire. His domain stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing modern-day Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, including more than 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 by rebellion; the throne went briefly to Enheduanna’s brothers, and then to her nephew. In the poem, a usurper named Lugalanne—a military general who possibly led an uprising in Ur—drives Enheduanna from her place at the temple.

“He has turned that temple into a house of ill repute./ Forcing his way in as if he were an equal, he dared approach me in his lust!” Enheduanna says. Cast out of the city, she wanders the wilderness. “He made me walk a land of thorns. / He took away the noble diadem of my holy office, / He gave me a dagger: ‘This is just right for you,’ he said.” The full significance of the usurper’s crime is lost in a literal translation, but the language suggests sexual violation. (The verbs, one translator has noted, are the same ones used elsewhere to convey sexual advances.) It also suggests an incitement to suicide. Giving her a dagger, Lugalanne encourages her to kill herself. “This is just right for you.”

Enheduanna’s salvation depends on her rhetorical skill, but she finds that her powers have dried up. “My once honeyed mouth has now become froth,/ my power to please hearts is turned to dust,” she says. To surmount this block, she appeals first to the moon god, but he ignores her: “My moonlight has no care for me! / He lets me perish in this place of hopes deceived.” Then she turns to Inanna, the goddess of love, sex, and war, offering an extended paean to her glory: “My lady! This country will bow down again at your battle cry!” Enheduanna’s crisis is resolved through such praise, and through the creation of the poem itself, which is called “The Exaltation of Inanna.” In an astonishingly self-conscious passage, the work of writing is compared to the pains of childbirth. “This fills me, this overflows from me, Exalted Lady, as I give birth for you./ What I confided to you in the dark of night, a singer shall perform for you in the bright of day!”

Enheduanna’s nephew eventually put down the rebellion, and Enheduanna was restored to her office. She attributes her rescue to Inanna—“Be it known that you devastate the rebellious land!”—but the poem also suggests that Enheduanna, in exalting Inanna, played a role in Ur’s salvation. Goddess and priestess are closely linked, the priestess being in part the earthly representation of the divine. The poem is political, inscribing the relationship between power and language, but it’s also hauntingly 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 ascribed to her on stylistic grounds. Her 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 the Yale scholars William Hallo and J. J. A. van Dijk called a “major piece of Mesopotamian theology,” uniting the region’s many cults and deities and rendering Enheduanna “a kind of systematic theologian.” The cycle concludes with a postscript: “The compiler of the tablet is Enheduanna./ My King, something has been created that no one had ever created before!”

In ancient Mesopotamia, Enheduanna’s works were celebrated, and were even part of the curriculum in the edubbas, or scribal schools, which trained future priests and civil servants in cuneiform writing and Sumerian grammar. For hundreds of years, students learned by etching Enheduanna’s words onto clay tablets, and about a hundred of these copies of “The Exaltation of Inanna” survive. But since their discovery, in the mid-twentieth century, scholars have fiercely debated Enheduanna’s authorship. 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 try to give the priestess her due. “You ask anyone you know and they’ll say the first author is Herodotus or some other man,” Sidney Babcock, the show’s curator, told me. “It’s always amazed me. No one will ever come up with her.”

The city of Ur was first excavated in the eighteen-fifties. But much of it went unexplored until 1922, when a British archeologist, 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 the ancient pagan kings. (His account of the dig, “Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavation,” alludes to Genesis: “And Terah took Abram . . . and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees.”) Woolley’s great find was the royal cemetery, where his team unearthed the tombs of kings and queens, along with jewelry, weapons, pottery, musical instruments, and other treasures.

Ur was also, of course, the adopted home of Enheduanna. In 1927, five years into the dig, the excavators discovered the ruins of a temple. Inside, they found the defaced shards of a stone disk—the disk depicting Enheduanna—and, nearby, three other objects naming the priestess: cylinder seals belonging to her servants. Elsewhere in the temple were clay tablets covered in cuneiform script. “Here was definite proof that the priestesses kept a school on their premises,” Woolley wrote. But he missed the full import of the discovery, calling the temple a “nunnery” and a “harem.” Some of the tablets found in Ur were copies of Enheduanna’s texts, but Woolley, intent on Great Man history—political dynasties, Biblical patriarchs—seems to have taken no interest in the priestess, treating her as an inconsequential appendage of her famous father. His book doesn’t even name Enheduanna, referring to her merely as the daughter of Sargon.

In the years that followed, archeologists and looters unearthed other tablets with Enheduanna’s words, in cities such as Nippur and Larsa. But her body of work wasn’t transcribed, published, and attributed to her until the late fifties and sixties. In 1968, the first translation of her writing from Sumerian into English appeared. “We can now discern a corpus of poetry of the very first rank which not only reveals its author’s name, but delineates that author for us in truly autobiographical fashion,” Hallo and van Dijk wrote in their introduction to the translation. “In the person of Enheduanna, we are confronted by a woman who was at once princess, priestess, and poetess.” The pair acknowledged that the picture assembled by scholars might be incomplete. “We still do not know the full extent of Enheduanna’s literary oeuvre,” they wrote, “but so strong is the stamp of her style and her convictions in the poems that can definitely be attributed to her, that it may one day be possible to detect her authorship also in other, less well-preserved pieces.”

While Hallo and van Dijk were noting that Enheduanna might have written more than had been uncovered—Akkad, the capital of Sargon’s empire, has yet to be excavated—others were downplaying her claim. The British scholar W. G. Lambert raised the possibility of a ghostwriter, suggesting that at least one of Enheduanna’s texts could have been authored by a scribe. (Sumerian kings often had scribes compose for them.) “Our emotional response to ancient texts is not necessarily the best criterion of judgment,” he later wrote, in 2001. Other scholars questioned Enheduanna on the grounds that the surviving versions of her work, copied out by the students of the edubbas, date to five hundred years after her death; no copies from her own time survive, and, in a few instances, the texts contain place names and vocabulary that postdate her era. This could simply be the result of changes made in the process of scribal transmission—alterations commonly attend the reproduction of old narratives—but some see it as reason for skepticism. “She speaks in the first person, but that’s not the same as being the author,” Paul Delnero, a professor of Assyriology at Johns Hopkins University, told me. Enheduanna could be a cultic figure honored by later writers, her name invoked in the works to lend them authority.

For some in the field, these claims are quite a stretch. “Why would the scribes look back and find a high priestess and say she wrote the texts?” Benjamin Foster, a professor of Assyriology at Yale, asked me. “There were lots of high priestesses. Why choose her?” Foster is impatient with the skeptics. “There’s a tendency in our field to regard it as a sign of wisdom not to take ancient texts at their word,” he said. “It’s not cool to be excited and emotional. You should keep a detached skepticism. But we have more evidence for her than we have for any other author in ancient Mesopotamia.” Foster, who has “no doubt” about Enheduanna’s authorship, cites the autobiographical content of the poems, the deeply intimate quality of the narrative voice. And then there are the peculiarly female markers of “The Exaltation”—the language of sexual violation, the metaphor of writing as childbirth, even the preference for the goddess rather than the god.

In many ways, the debate has become a battleground for competing theoretical paradigms. In the seventies, when second-wave feminism was booming, there was a push to affirm Enheduanna’s authorship; a similar movement occurred in the nineties. (Erhan Tamur, a co-curator of the Morgan exhibit, told me that doubts about Enheduanna’s achievement flowed from the “patriarchal nature of modern scholarship.”) Meanwhile, postmodern thinking encouraged skepticism, uncertainty, and the irrelevance of the author. Consensus was never reached. Today, many see the priestess not as a vital female poet but, as the British Assyriologist Eleanor Robson has called her, a “wish-fulfillment figure.”

The Morgan exhibition presents Enheduanna without the shadow of these doubts. Specifically, it places her in the context of other Mesopotamian women of the late fourth and third millennia B.C.: workers, rulers, priestesses, scribes, and the female deities to which they all prayed. No major exhibition has focussed on women’s lives in ancient Mesopotamia, and the artworks gathered—from London, Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere—build a picture of the economic, political, and cultural power they wielded.

There are images of women herding cattle; making pottery; and working at a loom, their hair flying behind them. There are scenes of women at the temple, directing male attendants. One image shows a man transferring lands to his daughter. (Unlike in many later societies, the women of ancient Mesopotamia could inherit property.) There’s the elaborate headdress of Queen Puabi—uncovered by Woolley in the nineteen-twenties—and her accompanying seals, which identify her not in relation to a father or a brother but in her own right, suggesting that she ruled alone. Of particular note is a statue of a woman with a tablet in her lap—evidence of women’s literacy and engagement with writing. (When it was first discovered, in the early twentieth century, the German scholar Otto Weber reported, “Our specimen carries a tablet on her knees. Its meaning is not clear to me.”) The statue and others like it have been ignored in the academic literature, Babcock told me. “If this was a man with a tablet in his lap, there would be twenty articles about it.” Such artifacts upend long-held assumptions—about literacy as the preserve of élite male scribes, and about Middle Eastern women as being confined to the domestic sphere.

The show also features the disk of Enheduanna; the cylinder seals of her servants; and a tablet inscribed with lines from “The Exaltation of Inanna.” The tablet is paired with intricate engravings that may be illustrations of Enheduanna’s text, showing the gods in their mythological settings. “All of the evidence is there,” Zainab Bahrani, a professor of ancient Near Eastern art and archeology at Columbia University, told me, ticking off the various records that support Enheduanna’s authorship. “If you think about it, it makes perfect sense that an élite woman would be the first poet. She had a comfortable life, space to read and think, a place to write. She didn’t have to work in the fields or fight wars. Why wouldn’t she have been able to write?” Bahrani compares Enheduanna’s poetry to the votive offerings of the time—the statues, sculptures, and other artworks that women gave to temples, inscribed with their names. It was this kind of tradition that may have inspired Enheduanna to identify herself, making a work like “The Exaltation” both a kind of prayer-poem and an offering to the goddess.

In 1929, the same year that Woolley published “Ur of the Chaldees,” omitting Enheduanna’s name, his countrywoman Virginia Woolf published her essay “A Room of One’s Own.” Searching her shelves for books by and about women—books that were not there—she observed that history “seems a little queer as it is, unreal, lop-sided. . . . history is too much about wars; biography too much about great men.” She suspected that the women who had written had left their work unsigned. Woolf did not live to learn of Enheduanna, but she articulated the longing for a lost literary tradition.

For today’s writers, Enheduanna has become a personification of creative power, regardless of the academic debate. In the West, she’s inspired poetic works like Alice Notley’s “The Descent of Alette” (1992) and Annie Finch’s “Among the Goddesses” (2010). She’s a particularly compelling figure for Iraqi artists—a woman who speaks to their modern experience of mourning, exile, and displacement. (After the poet Amal al-Jubouri fled Iraq, in 1998, she published a collection titled “Enheduanna, Priestess of Exile.”) She’s even left a mark on the field of astronomy, winning recognition as an early female observer of the skies. Her temple hymns describe the measuring of celestial movements: “In . . . the priestesses’ rooms/ That princely shrine of cosmic order/ They track the passage of the moon.” These observations likely formed the basis of calendar-keeping, one of her temple responsibilities:

The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom,

She consults a tablet of lapis lazuli,

She gives advice to all lands. . . .

She measures off the heavens,

She places the measuring cords on the earth.

Somewhere in those temple rooms, it is possible to imagine the woman of wisdom setting aside her lapis-lazuli tablet, finished with the day’s measuring, and turning to her own project. She searches about for her reed stylus. Then she raises her instrument, pauses to mutter to herself, and starts to press her words into the clay. 

(By Elizabeth Winkler for the New Yorker)

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