The Reading Room
Enheduana: The New Oldest Author
In the 2300s B.C., Sargon the Great united a disparate collection of city states located in Sumer in the southern portion of modern-day Iraq. By doing so, he created the world’s first empire, the Akkadian Empire. Having solidified political power, he ventured into the religious realm by appointing his daughter Enheduana* as high priestess of Ur. Enheduana composed hymns and poems about the Sumerian deities, particularly about Inana, the goddess of love, war, and chaos.
Enheduana may have become a mere footnote of history had she not identified herself as the author of her hymns. Of all the collected works from antiquity, no work can be attributed to an individual author before her. The Epic of Gilgamesh, texts from Ancient Egypt, and the Rig Veda were authored anonymously. Nearly all lists place Homer as the world’s first author.
Enheduana composed her hymns 1,500+ years before Homer.
Enheduana is a relative newcomer to the literary world. Whereas Homer’s works have been available since they were composed, Enheduana’s works were lost for thousands of years, only to be excavated and rediscovered in the last century. Evidence of the historical Enheduana was discovered in the late 1920s, then connected to cuneiform tablets bearing her name shortly after, and only fully translated and available in English in March 2023.
Most of what is known about the historical Enheduana comes from her hymns and the discovery of a sculpted disk identifying Enheduana as both the daughter of Sargon of Akkad and the wife of Nanna (a god, and the father of Inana). The high priestess was married to the god she represented.
The hymns of Enheduana were composed in the Sumerian language and inscribed on clay tablets using the cuneiform script. During Sargon’s rule, the spoken language shifted from Sumerian (an isolate) to Akkadian (a semitic language). Later on, students would copy texts like Gilgamesh and Enheduana’s hymns as a way to learn and practice the ancient Sumerian language, similar to how students copy Latin texts today. Many of the ancient clay tablets containing these works were discovered in buildings used as schools where practice tablets were arranged in rows, untouched since antiquity.
Three main works of Enheduana have survived in varying levels of totality: The Exaltation of Inana, The Hymn to Inana, and The Temple Hymns. The Exaltation is a petition to Inana to restore her position as high priestess after it has been forcibly taken from her by Lugal-Ane during this highly volatile period of history. The Hymn exalts the vast and complex nature of Inana and elevates her to a position above the other gods, a sort of Henotheism flirting with Monotheism. The Temple Hymns provide a fascinating look into the gods of the Akkadian pantheon and provide a sort of travel guide through Sumer with a visit to 42 of the temples, highlighting the city and god of each one. This had the side benefit of presenting the vast extent of her father’s empire.
The Temple Hymns close with this line:
The weaver of the tablet was Enheduana. My King! Something has been born which had not been born before.
Enheduana did not create something out of nothing. Instead, she wove existing strands into a new thing. This idea survives today in that the words in this article are called text, which is connected to textile, something woven together.
In addition to tying authorship to weaving, Enheduana acknowledges the author’s loss of control when presenting a finished work and how a community ensures its survival:
Queen, lady! For you, I have given birth to it: what I sang to you at dead of night, let a lamenter repeat at midday.
Could she have anticipated that the lamenter who first repeated her hymns would pass along her works to students in Mesopotamia a few hundred years later to archaeologists discovering those practice tablets thousands of years later to translators presenting them to a 21st century audience?
Questions abound around Enheduana and scholars are only beginning to plumb the depths of her works. There is debate around the authorship of the hymns. Did Enheduana actually compose them or were they later attributed to her (a similar debate persists around Homer)? As more people discover Enheduana, will she be added to the canon in the contested spot of world’s first author? If she is, how will that change our conception of world literature with a female hymn writer displacing a male epic war poet? And as more scholars are introduced to her work, will they discover Enheduana’s influence in other ancient texts, perhaps even in the Hebrew Bible?
The return of Enheduana has shaken the very foundation of literature and authorship. Her works present a relatable desire to please the gods and ask for help in a time of turmoil. She identifies herself as an author and yet goes further to define authorship and call on the community to preserve her works for future generations. She’s been resurrected from history’s rubble at a time yearning for different voices from other lands. What a joy that we are alive to witness this restoration.
*(En) High Priestess, (Hedu) who is the ornament, (ana) of heaven