Influential Women: Enheduanna – High-Priestess, Astronomer, First Known Author

File:Disk of Enheduanna.JPG from Wikimedia Commons – Author: Mefman00CC0

Daughter of Sargon

The world’s first known author is widely attributed to have been the daughter of Sargon (1) of Akkad in the 23rd century BC.  We know her today as Enheduanna, which may have been a title of office, in which case her real name is unknown.  She was the High Priestess of Nanna-Suen, a moon deity of Mesopotamia presiding over his temple complex in the city of Ur.  The “En” part of her name signifies “leadership” and “ heduanna,”  means “Ornament of Heaven” reflecting the divinity she served.

Clearly, she was of very high status in the society of her time and her writing was greatly influential then and in later times.  Considerable parts of her work still exist in her original poetic form which has been influential in various religious systems throughout history.

Enheduanna lived through tumultuous times as her father, also known as Sargon the Great,  forged the Akkadian-Sumerian empire which many consider the world’s first great empire.  During this period the northern and southern parts of Mesopotamia were united and the city of Akkad became one of the largest known cities in the world.

Sargon needed someone loyal with the intellectual and creative ability to combine the two main religions of his empire.  His  appointment of her as the first High-Priestess of Nanna-Suen of the city of Ur was a master-stroke as she seems to have had considerable success in this.

Cunieform

The early form of pictorial writing that Enheduanna used was believed to have originated in about 3,400 BC.  This was etched into tablets damp clay and known as Cuneiform.  Although these tablets may look primitive, modern literature and administration systems evolved from them.  They carry the thoughts, philosophy, religious knowledge and records of everyday life of the ancients carefully etched upon them.  A large number of these cuneiform tablets have been found that were designed to teach the arts of the scribe to future generations. Many examples have been discovered in the Sumer region carrying a great variety of information. 

In this way we have access to the thoughts of Enheduanna, a woman who lived about 4,300 years ago and other ancient people through the ages.

First Named Author

In her work as High Priestess, Enheduanna composed a canon of important literature.  These included two hymns to the goddess, Inanna, later known as Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love as well as the myth of Inanna and Ebih and 42 temple hymns.  She was thought to have composed them herself and dictated them to scribes.  

We know she wrote them because she claims authorship in the inscriptions and her seals are used as her stamp of authority.  Although there were earlier writers she is the first named author claiming responsibility for her work that has so far been identified in the world.  Her works come across as deeply personal including biographical information and her role as High-Priestess.  Her temple hymns are finished with the following declaration: 

The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”

In providing this she is asserting they were produced from her own intellectual creativity and effort in a similar way copyright is claimed by an author today.  Her’s is the earliest known claim of authorship yet to be found.

She appears to have worked diligently and intelligently often through the night  in creating her compositions to be performed the next day.  Her works were performed to a live audience though it is uncertain if she performed them herself or someone else stood in.

Her poetry contains the first religious belief system and these works were studied and performed some five hundred years after she died.  It also contains personal information such as a power struggle with a usurper which saw her banished from the temple of Ur for a period.

Her works reveal the challenges she had in creating them and finding ways to express her thoughts.  From what she explains she appears to have sometimes suffered from writer’s block which shows it is not a phenomenon of the modern age!

Role in Society

As well as being the first recognised writer and one of the earliest scientists she was also the first in a long line of High-Priestesses of Nanna-Suen.  Over the following five hundred years the king’s daughter was appointed this highly influential role that would have required someone of high education and intelligence to fulfill.

Her role included more than that of a High-Priestess; she also controlled the administration of the temple and agricultural complexes.  Her religious ceremonies required accurate reading of the celestial sky as did her agricultural duties and she needed to articulate this information in ways that others could understand.   

She is also believed to have built into her works astronomical principles that were relevant to the celestial divinities of her religion.  In doing so she appears to have engaged in astronomy and mathematics as her observations and calculations  are regarded as accurate today and considered as one of the earliest known scientists.

Astronomy and Mathematics

Her eighth hymn is believed to give clues as to her role as High-Priestess and astronomer,

      ” in the gipar the priestesses’ rooms

        that princely shrine of cosmic order

        they track the passage of the moon.”

The private and sacred apartment of the High-Priestess was called the “gipar”.  This verse tells that this was the place or observatory where the movements of the moon in the night sky was observed and recorded.

As the High-Priestess of Nanna-Suen, the moon deity she needed to practice astronomy for both practical and ceremonial purposes.  Observing  the phases of the moon and movement of stars was important for practical purposes such as keeping track of the year and for agriculture and animal breeding. 

The modern liturgical calendars evolved from observations and calculations that Enhedaunna and other early priest astronomers observed and recorded. 

Enheduanna the Scientist

From her poetry we gain a really good insight into who she was and what her role was.

“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.”

(3)

This provides a good description of her role as scientist and High-Priestess making observations and calculations and distributing the information and conclusions she reaches.  Lapis lazuli is a blue rock but some people think she is referring to the blue sky as it fits with her role as astronomer.

Exile

In what must have been a period of great anxiety and despair for Enhedaunna she was exiled during  one of the many uprisings by a revolutionary named Lugal-Ane.

She pleaded to the god Nanna-Suen for restoration but he appeared to ignore her despite her being his High-Priestess.  Therefore, she appealed to the goddess of love, procreation, fertility and war, Inanna, also known as Ishtar, for succour and was eventually restored to her position.   These events are recorded in her poetry which tells how she was ignored by Nanna-Suen but succoured by Inanna.  Her reverence and gratitude is shown in her hymn“The Exaltation of Inanna”(4),  a deeply personal account of her banishment and restoration.

Modern Society

She is considered as the first  known author and poet and considered one of first among the earliest of astronomers, mathematicians and scientists.  Her works are an important part of the rich history of Mesopotamia and her achievements have shone out through the centuries.  The  influence this remarkable woman had on modern society has been immense and we have much to thank her for today.

© 29/07/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 29th, 2020, zteve t evans

9 thoughts on “Influential Women: Enheduanna – High-Priestess, Astronomer, First Known Author

  1. Thank you for covering Enhedaunna in such detail! I ran across a reference to her not long ago, and I was amazed by her accomplishments, but I didn’t know she was exiled or that her writing shows evidence of writer’s block. The picture you paint of her is so human yet no less impressive for that.

  2. Pingback: Influential Women: Enheduanna – High-Priestess, Astronomer, First Known Author — Under the influence! (Reblog) – The Midlode Mercury

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.