Fight to discover the world’s first author | Tech Reddy
About forty-three hundred years ago, in what we now call Iraq, a sculptor carved a white limestone disc depicting a woman presiding over a temple ritual. He wears a long ceremonial robe and a headdress. Behind him are two male attendants, one in front of him is pouring lye into the altar. An inscription on the back of the disc states that she is Enheduanna, the high priestess and daughter of King Sargon.
Some scholars believe that the priestess was the world’s first recorded writer. The clay tablet contains the words of a long narrative poem: “I took my place in the sanctuary, / I was the high priest, I, Enheduanna.” In Sumer, the ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia where writing originated, texts were anonymous. If Enheduanna wrote these words, it marks the beginning of authorship, the beginning of rhetoric, and even the beginning of autobiography. To put his preeminence in perspective, he lived fifteen hundred years before Homer, seventeen hundred years before Sappho, and two thousand years before Aristotle, traditionally regarded as the father of the rhetorical tradition.
The poem, written with the wedge-like effects of clinopasia, describes a period of crisis in the life of a priestess. Enheduanna’s father, Sargon, united the city-states of Mesopotamia and created what is sometimes called history’s first empire. His domain stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and included 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 as high priestess at the temple of the moon god in the southern city of Ur. Although this position was outwardly religious, it was actually political and helped unite the various parts of the empire. After Sargon’s death, the kingdom was torn apart by rebellion; the throne briefly passed to Enheduanna’s brothers and then to her nephew. In the poem, a usurper named Lugalanna – the military general who led the rebellion in Ur – drives Enheduanna from his place in the temple.
“He turned that temple into a house of infamy./ He forced his way in like an equal, and dared to approach me with lust!” Enheduanna says. Driven out of the city, he wanders in the desert. “He walked me through thorny ground. / He took away the precious diadem of my sacred cabinet, / He gave me a dagger: “It suits you,” he said. The full meaning of the usurper’s crime is lost in literal translation, but the language suggests sexual assault. (As one translator points out, the verbs are used elsewhere to express sexual acts.) It also suggests a suicidal urge. Giving him a dagger, Lugalann encourages him to kill himself. “It suits you.”
Enheduanna’s salvation depends on her rhetorical skills, but she finds her powers withering away. “My mouth, which was once honey, has now turned to foam, / my power to delight hearts has turned to dust,” he says. To overcome this barrier, he first appeals to the moon god, but he ignores him: “Moonlight cares nothing for me! / He allows me to perish in the place of this deluded hope.” Then he turns to Inanna, the goddess of love, sex, and war, and offers a lengthy paean in her praise: “Lady! This country will still pay tribute to your war!’ Enheduanna’s crisis is resolved through such praise and through the creation of the poem itself, known as The Rise of Inanna. In a surprisingly self-aware passage, the act of writing is compared to the pain of childbirth. “It fills me, it overflows me, Great Lady, as I give birth to you./ What I tell you in the dark night, the singer sings to you in the bright day!”
Eventually, Enheduanna’s nephew put down the rebellion and Enheduanna was reinstated. He attributes his salvation to Inanna — “Know thou hast destroyed the rebellious land!” — but the poem also mentions that Enheduanna played a part in the salvation of Ur in the glorification of Inanna. The goddess and the priestess are closely related, the priestess being the earthly representative of semi-divinity. The poem is political in nature, reflecting the relationship between power and language, but it is personal in nature.
In addition to the Above, two other texts have been attributed to Enheduanna: the Hymn to Inanna, named after Enheduanna, and Inanna and Ebih, which is stylistically attributed to her. His claim is also attached to a collection of forty-two religious hymns—hymns dedicated to the temples of various city-states. Hymns Compiled hymns that Yale scholars William Hallo and J. J. A. van Dyck called “the core of Mesopotamian theology,” unifying the many cults and deities of the region, calling Enheduanna “a kind of systematic theologian.” The cycle ends with the following inscription: “The creator of the tablet is Enheduanna./ My king, something has been created that no one has created before!”
In ancient Mesopotamia, Enheduanna’s works were celebrated and even became part of the curriculum in 2010. Edubbas, or scribal schools that trained future priests and civil servants in cuneiform writing and Sumerian grammar. For hundreds of years, students learned Enheduanna’s words by inscribing them on clay tablets, and about a hundred copies of The Rise of Inanna have survived. But since their discovery in the mid-20th century, scholars have hotly contested the authorship of Enheduanna. Did the priest really write these works? Isn’t the idea of a woman at the beginning of a tradition dating back two thousand years to the Greek Golden Age untrue? This winter, an exhibit at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, “She Wrote: Enheduanna and the Women of Mesopotamia,” tries to give the priestess her due. “If you ask anybody, they’ll say the first author was Herodotus or someone else,” Sidney Babcock, the show’s curator, told me. “It always amazes me. No one will go out with him.”
The city of Ur was first excavated in the 18-50s. But much of it remained unexplored until 1922, when British archaeologist Leonard Woolley led a joint expedition sponsored by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. Wuli Urga is depicted as the Biblical home of Abraham and ancient pagan kings. (In his account of the excavation, Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavation, Genesis explains: “Terah took Abram . . . and Sarah his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abram. He went out with them from Ur of the Chaldees.”) Woolley’s largest The discovery was a royal cemetery, where his team uncovered the tombs of kings and queens, as well as jewelry, weapons, pottery, musical instruments, and other treasures.
Ur was also, of course, Enheduanna’s adopted home. In 1927, after five years of digging, excavators found the ruins of the temple. Inside, they found the broken fragments of a stone disc—the one with Enheduanna’s image—and nearby three other items bearing the priestess’s name: cylinder seals belonging to her attendants. Elsewhere in the temple were clay tablets covered with cuneiform writing. “Here is clear evidence that the priests kept a school on their premises,” Woolley wrote. But he misses the full meaning of the revelation, which calls the temple “monks” and “harem.” Some of the tablets found at Ur were copies of Enheduanna’s texts, but Woolley, who pursued the history of the Great Man—political dynasties, biblical patriarchs—seems to have had no interest in the priest, seeing him as an unimportant appendage of his illustrious father. His book does not even mention Enheduanna by name, calling her Sargon’s daughter.
In later years, archaeologists and looters found other tablets with Enheduanna’s words in cities such as Nippur and Larsa. However, his works were transcribed and published until the end of the 50s and 60s and were not attributed to him. In 1968, the first Sumerian to English translation of his writings was published. “We can now trace a first-rate corpus of poetry that not only reveals the name of its author, but describes that author for us in truly autobiographical form,” Hallo and van Dijk wrote in their introduction to the translation. “In the image of Enheduanna, we are faced with a woman who is simultaneously a princess, a priestess and a poet.” The pair acknowledged that the picture they have assembled may not be complete. “We still don’t know the full extent of Enheduanna’s literary output,” they wrote, “but the stamp of his style and the convictions of his poems are so strong that they can certainly be attributed to him.” determines his authorship from other, less well-preserved works.”
Although Hallo and van Dijk note that Enheduanna may have written more than has been discovered (Akkad, the capital of Sargon’s empire, has yet to be excavated), others have rejected his claim. British scholar WG Lambert has raised the possibility of a ghostwriter, suggesting that at least one of Enheduanna’s texts may have been written by a scribe. (Sumerian kings often wrote letters for them.) “Our emotional response to ancient texts is not necessarily the best criterion for judgment,” he later wrote in 2001. Other scholars wrote to Enheduanna that surviving versions of his work were copied by his students Edubbas, the date five hundred years after his death; No copy from his time survives, and, in a few cases, the texts contain place names and vocabulary that postdate his time. This may simply be the result of changes in the process of transmission of records – changes usually occur when reproducing older narratives, but some see this as cause for skepticism. “He’s speaking in the first person, but that’s not the same as being the author,” said Paul Delnero, professor of Assyriology at Johns Hopkins University. Enheduanna may have been a cult figure honored by later writers, whose name was mentioned in works to give them authority.