Imagine Moses had a baby of his own—and that girl grew up to the first female poet known to us today. While not exactly true, it’s not too far off. The Mesopotamian king Sargon the Great did boast an autobiography remarkable similar to Moses’s origin story—an abandoned baby in a basket, picked up and reared by strangers–but he did the Exodus instigator one better. Sargon’s daughter, Enheduanna, became the first earliest author with a recorded name.
Sargon started from the bottom, and then he was there. He was a warrior king, now the ruler not only of his home city of Akkad, but also the city-states of Sumer, which were considered ancient even in his own time. Wondering how to unite all the different peoples he’d just conquered, Sargon began with religion, and what better way to get a foot in the temple door than by installing his daughter as one of the most important priestesses in the area? Sounds like someone was pretty eager to justify his conquest…
It didn’t hurt that Enheduanna wrote a lot about honoring Inanna. The Sumerian mother goddess was widely worshipped, and kings made a practice of installing their daughters as priestesses in Ur in order both to identify their families with local cults and to keep one toe in the religious sector. After all, if the gods chose the king’s daughters as their earthly representatives, then could that monarch be all bad?
How did the modern world come to know about Enheduanna? In 1927, the archaeologist Leonard Woolley undertook a series of digs at the city of Ur. In the giparu—a.k.a. the VIP residence of the High Priestess of Ur—Woolley found a disk that mentioned her name. Its round shape corresponds to the deity she worshipped there—the moon god, Nanna—and the disk shows Enheduanna herself making an offering to the lunar lord. Other seals corroborate her existence at that time period.
We can only identify a few poems that Enheduanna wrote herself, although the end of the collection of forty-two hymns states that she was the one who compiled those texts in one place. Enheduanna’s first famous work was the a poem praising the mother goddess Inanna—the aptly named Exaltation of Inanna, which goes on and on about how great that goddess is.
Another poem, dubbed the Hymn to Inanna, serves the same function. Then there are the forty-two fragments, the Temple Hymns, which discuss patron deities of various Sumerian city-states. This isn’t exactly the most exciting kind of literature, but it’s incredibly important—original literature whose author, a woman no less, is named.
Enheduanna herself probably learned to read and write from scribes in the temple, the center of learning in Sumer. While she is the first author whose name we know in all of history, literacy—especially for females—was hardly commonplace in ancient Mesopotamia. She had to have been one of the highest women in the land in order to learn these skills. Some women, though, held incredibly important positions in individual city cults, with responsibilities ranging from collecting tithes and taxes to administering to the gods’ statues.