Enheduana: The Complete Poems of the World’s First Author 
by Sophus Helle.
Yale, 259 pp., £18.99, May 2023, 978 0 300 26417 3
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The​ earliest known author was married to the moon. In the 1920s, in the shadow of an anti-colonial uprising against British rule in Mesopotamia, the archaeologists Leonard and Katharine Woolley dug up the ruins of the ancient city of Ur in present-day Iraq. Near a ziggurat they unearthed evidence of the life and verse of the Sumerian priestess Enheduana. She was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, said to have created the world’s first empire around 2300 BCE, when he forced dozens of independent city-states, from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, to acquiesce to his rule. In an act of religious imperialism, Sargon installed his daughter as ruler over E-kishnugal, the temple in Ur dedicated to the moon god, Nanna. As was customary for the role, she was ritually married to Nanna and acted as the mortal embodiment of his wife, the astral goddess Ningal. Enheduana managed the complex affairs of the temple and wrote poems, among them a collection of temple hymns that sought to accomplish in verse what her father did with axes and spears: to unify the resistant cities of the new empire into a coherent whole.

The poems were repeatedly copied down in cuneiform on clay tablets by generations of scribes. During the Old Babylonian period, beginning in the 18th century BCE, they formed part of the curriculum for teaching the Sumerian language, which had by then become the dead language of erudition, sacred ritual and cultural prestige, with Akkadian as the living tongue. But after about 1400 BCE, the record goes silent, and we hear no more of Enheduana for more than three thousand years – until the Woolleys unearthed the site of the building where she lived, finding a limestone disc depicting her and three attendants, along with several tablets of hymns. Other manuscripts were found in the ruins of a schoolhouse in Nippur, including more than forty copies of her poems, in a trove of discarded homework. The cuneiform remained undeciphered until 1968, when the philologists W.W. Hallo and J.J.A. van Dijk quietly published a critical edition. Interest in Enheduana remained confined to the Sumerologists, though from the late 1970s feminist writers occasionally pointed out that the world’s first author was a woman.

She lived fifteen hundred years before Homer, and she was a real person, not a composite of probably illiterate bards. We know this because the Woolley expedition also found the tomb of her hair stylist, at a site named PG 503. (PG is short for ‘personal grave’.) Inside were the tools of the trade, buried for use in the afterlife, including blades, razors and a lapis lazuli cylinder seal, an ancient form of identity document, which read: ‘Enheduana, daughter of Sargon of Akkad: Ilum-palil is her hairdresser.’ The world’s first named poet precedes its first known lawmaker: the priestess died about two centuries before the king Ur-Namma, who instituted the world’s earliest known legal code. Enheduana survives in much bigger fragments than Sappho (and is older by 1700 years), but her writings haven’t received the kind of attention that would enshrine her among the immortals of world literature. In 2000, a Jungian analyst, Betty De Shong Meador, was inspired to publish the first translation of Enheduana for a general audience after a dream in which she dug the graves of two colleagues and placed palm fronds on top.

This neglect is beginning to lessen. Enheduana now stands at the threshold between total obscurity and origin myth. She is increasingly namechecked in the opening pages of books from poetry anthologies to studies of empire to the recent ‘family history of humanity’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore. These works tend to be rife with errors about her. With the appearance of Sophus Helle’s Enheduana: The Complete Poems of the World’s First Author, we finally have a good English translation, alongside several essays, rich in detail, concerning what we know about her and how. As Helle sets it out, the claim that Enheduana is our earliest known author rests on strong grounds. Philologists have trodden carefully, since the oldest surviving cuneiform tablets of her poetry date from five hundred years after her death. As they were copied out across the centuries by scribes, often working from memory, the Sumerian language was updated to correct archaic phrasings and spelling, and inconsistencies slipped in. It’s possible that Enheduana didn’t really compose the poems and that they were only later credited to her as a celebrated historical figure. Or it may be that she wasn’t their sole author. But what matters is the attribution of authorship: the identification counted for something among ancient Babylonian scholars. Her authorial voice speaks in the poems themselves:

I am Enheduana, I
am the high priestess.
I carried the basket
of offerings, I sang
the hymns of joy.
Now they bring me
funeral gifts – am I
no longer living?

‘The idea of authorship, the notion that a poetic text could be traced back to a named and identifiable individual rather than to a collective and anonymous tradition, was born when these hymns were ascribed to Enheduana, and that is true regardless of whether the attribution was correct,’ Helle writes. ‘It is in Enheduana’s poems … that authorship was born.’ Helle makes no attempt to think the unthinkable: that much has been lost from the human record, other poets from other civilisations whose words weren’t preserved on durable clay or are still buried. That we know of Enheduana at all is the gift of a chance survival. Helle’s comment that ‘the concept of authorship began with a woman’ has an Adam-and-Eve logic to it. Not proven in a biological sense, but true in a mythical way, if we, as readers and critics, let the idea take root: Enheduana is our literary Eve, who succumbed to the temptations of authorship at least a thousand years before the Book of Genesis was written down.

‘What would the history of Western literature look like,’ Helle asks, ‘if it began not with Homer and his war-hungry heroes but with a woman from ancient Iraq?’ There is a danger of projecting modern notions of race and gender onto Enheduana: Helle describes her as ‘a non-white woman’, as if anyone was white in 2300 BCE, and elsewhere calls her a ‘woman of colour’, though he admits he is being anachronistic. These labels map our own racial categories onto the Early Bronze Age, and make Homer complicit in the invention of whiteness, as father of the literary ‘West’. (When it comes to pronouns Sumerian didn’t differentiate between male and female, only person or non-person.) Enheduana is war-hungry too: ‘hatches crush heads,/spears eat flesh,’ she sings. The first author reveals herself as a power broker of ancient imperialism and as a mother of some of the longest-enduring literary tropes.

Dispatched by her father to colonise the space of divinity, Enheduana lived in the ĝipar, the communal residence of generations of priestesses. She took up the title of ‘High priestess (en), who is the ornament (hedu) of heaven (ana)’. (Her birth name is unknown.) Her husband, Nanna, was thought to herd the stars like cattle; his horns were the crescent moon. As a deity’s wife, she was forbidden from marrying a human male or giving birth to children. In ritually impersonating Ningal, Enheduana became ‘a kind of living cult statue for the goddess’, Helle writes, but she was a statue that also had to perform domestic labour, at least at the managerial level. One of her main daily occupations was feeding the gods, which meant the time-consuming work of preparing sacrificial feasts, including grilled meats, grains and beer. The inscription on the limestone disc found by the Woolleys reveals that it was carved to commemorate Enheduana’s construction of a new altar, the Table of Heaven, a dining table for the divine. The first author’s day job forged a primordial connection between the acts of writing and feeding, and its corollary, reading and snacking.

In the kitchen of the ĝipar, the living priestesses also prepared food for the dead priestesses who preceded them: ‘centuries of women’, Helle writes, buried under the floors of the house, a widespread practice in ancient Mesopotamia. The idea was common in the ancient Near East that people, much like gods, could be present in many ways: not only in their physical bodies, but also through the avatars of names, stories and images. Visual artefacts such as Enheduana’s limestone disc were not merely representations or portraits, but intended to summon the subject into actual existence, as the historian Zainab Bahrani has shown. (Soon after its discovery, the damaged disc was hastily restored with Enheduana wearing the wrong hat: a ‘distinctive rolled-brim cap’ was put in place of the original ‘high conical hat’, Joan Goodnick Westenholz has noted, conjuring to life a fashion mistake.)

Marriage to the moon was not a romantic but an imperialist gesture, an alliance meant to build the legitimacy of the Akkadian dynasty. Yet as a husband, Nanna proved inept. Enheduana’s best-preserved poem, ‘The Exaltation of Inana’, tells of a dramatic incident in which the cowherder of the stars failed to save her when she was violently evicted from Ur. King Sargon often had to contend with revolts across his empire, as did his successors, Enheduana’s brothers Rimush and Manishtushu, who were both killed while in power. In an event that hasn’t yet been firmly corroborated with archaeological findings but seems likely to have occurred during the reign of Enheduana’s nephew Naram-Sîn, a military leader called Lugale-Ane seized control of the temple, defiled it, and stripped Enheduana, possibly then in her mid-seventies, of her crown. He cast her alone into the rebel-controlled wilderness, riven by conflict caused by her family: ‘its rivers run with/blood – the thirsty/must drink it.’

Enheduana cries out to Nanna to intervene. Though the moon sees everything on the ground, he gives no reply:

is silent in my case,
and what do I care
if he speaks or not?

She turns instead to the true force behind the world: Nanna’s daughter Inana, also known as Ishtar, who appears in the sky as Venus and is twin sibling to Utu, the sun. In Sumerian literature, Inana takes on two natures, appearing sometimes as an ingénue in love with the shepherd Dumuzi, but more memorably as the fatal goddess of war, sex and metamorphosis. Other gods flee from her, Enheduana writes, ‘like bats fluttering/through ruins’. In this lethal form, Inana is the true object of Enheduana’s devotion. In Hymn 40 of the temple collection, she depicts the goddess as if getting ready for a night out:

She wears war, jubilant and beautiful, she lays out the seven maces,
washes her weapons for battle,
opens the door of battle and …

The rest of the line is cut off, inviting in the uncertainties of the fight.

Enheduana’s major poetic achievement is the long ‘Hymn to Inana’, which survives with a few missing segments. Its centrepiece is a volley of Inana’s attributes, a union of opposites that reveals the goddess as the apotheosis of paradox. The poem forms a cataphatic theology, a collision of contradictory affirmations which, taken together, demonstrate Inana’s power to be infinite. In his translation, Helle has broken the Sumerian lines in half to speed up the pace:

To destroy and
to create, to plant
and to pluck out
are yours, Inana.
To turn men into
women, to turn
women into men
are yours, Inana.
Desire and lust,
to gain goods, to
have a rich home
are yours, Inana.
Profit, absence,
poverty, wealth
are yours, Inana.

Among Inana’s powers is the ability to change the sex of humans at any moment. At her temples, the goddess received reverence from several types of gender-nonconforming priest. The gala, who performed lamentations, were treated in society as men but they would sing in a Sumerian dialect called Emesal (‘thin tongue’), which was spoken only by female deities. Other groups included the kurĝara, the saĝ-ursaĝ and the pilipili, women who carried lopped-off spears, ‘a broken emblem of maleness’. We find texts depicting processions to Inana, Helle notes, ‘in which the participants would wear female clothes on one side of their body and male clothes on the other’. As an Old Babylonian prayer said of the priests, ‘their ways are different, their work is strange.’ Inana was a ‘counter-ideal’, Helle writes: a figure who breaks all the rules ‘and by breaking them makes them visible’. In the hymn’s recitation of her powers, the phrase ‘are yours, Inana’ is repeated 25 times, until the sentences break down in a cascade:

laughter, fame and
insignificance, evil,
gloom, grief, glory,
light and darkness,
trembling, terror,
anguish, splendour
and frightful light,
triumph, military
leadership, shivers,
sleeplessness and
restlessness, gifts
and submission …

Near its end, the poem disappears for several lines. A plaintive word – ‘Advice’ – is suspended on the page in an abyss of missing text. When the words return, it is with a series of benedictions, including a passage in which Enheduana sweetly encourages Inana, after such an exhaustive enumeration of her talents, to lie down. ‘May/your holy bed say/to you: “Rest!”’

The word that Helle translates as ‘power’ in the Sumerian is me, literally meaning ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’. Power was understood to exist in object form: the me were conceived as physical items, things that could be loaded onto a boat and absconded with – as the Sumerian poem ‘Inana and Enki’ narrates. It tells of the goddess stealing a cargo of powers from the trickster Enki while he is drunk, including wisdom, weapons, justice, musical instruments and ‘old age’. The me ‘are both objects and rituals, powers and practices, elements and destinies’, Helle writes; they formed ‘the fabric of the human world’. Their theft is an enduring theme in mythology, appearing across ancient Greek and early Jewish and Christian sources, in which furtive gods or fallen angels come down to bring humankind the arts of survival and joy.

In the ‘Exaltation’, Enheduana concedes that Inana was ‘born to be a second-rate ruler’, and was not commonly regarded as omnipotent. Yet with his silence, Nanna had abrogated his authority, leaving a void for Inana to fill. Enheduana’s verse arms her with the powers – it’s as if the priestess has stolen them to give to the goddess. Inana is, in Enheduana’s phrase, nin me šara, or ‘queen of all the me’, with the priestess bringing that supremacy into effect through the language of the hymns. As author, she plays kingmaker in heaven. Writing emerges as capable of shifting the balance of celestial power and – more significant – of warding off tragedy on earth. In exile, Enheduana furiously declares:

This city: let
An crush it. This city:
let Enlil curse it. Let its
mothers not comfort
their crying children.
But when they sing
their lamentations,
my queen, then sail
your boat of sorrow
to another shore.

To string words together with style is an apotropaic skill. Enheduana’s hymns share in the genre of the lament, which priests such as the gala would perform not to express mourning but to avert future catastrophe. It was thought that the gods might rain misfortune on men ‘simply to prove how powerful they were’, Helle writes. To avoid this, the lamenter would show the gods that he recognised their fearsome powers by inventing horrific scenarios for them to inflict on humans. Ritual grieving would follow, ‘making a future show of force unnecessary’. Through a pageant of submission and surrender, humans might gain some control over the gods. ‘I will let my/tears stream free to/soften your heart, as if they were beer,’ Enheduana says. The gods get drunk on human sadness, and in their hour of intoxication poetry triumphs. The ‘Exaltation’ concludes with the revelation of its own success. Inana, delighted by the hymnic offering, rescues the priestess, who has stepped into the third person: ‘the/temple’s thresholds/welcomed her home.’

In​ the 17th century CE, the idea was commonplace that the ovaries of Eve had contained in miniature all the future generations of humans that would be born. Just so, in the poetry of Enheduana we already find many of the most familiar tropes of literary creativity – such as childbirth, weaving and writer’s block. In the ‘Exaltation’, the priestess uses the language of birth to show how the delivery of the poem came about, under the darkness of night. The hymn is ‘a sort of substitute child’, Helle writes, born to a priestess barred from pregnancy. It is birthed in a moment of agony and of intimacy with the divine:

Queen, lady! For you
I have given birth to
it: what I sang to you
at dead of night, let
a lamenter repeat at

Enheduana’s ‘Exaltation’ captures the birth of eloquence, but also its miscarriage. Earlier in the poem, desperate for her petition to be heard by the gods, words fail her. ‘My honey-mouth/is full of froth,’ the priestess despairs in her exile. The word Helle translates as ‘froth’ resembles a stammer in its Sumerian transliteration: uh2, meaning saliva, mucus or drool. The line marks the oldest surviving description of writer’s block. You could say that in Enheduana’s work we also find the earliest appearance of autobiographical writing, as the poems seem to recount her experience first-hand. After she asks the lamenter to repeat her song, Enheduana abandons the first person for the third, as if handing over her work to someone else. ‘That,’ Helle argues, ‘is the moment she becomes an author.’ Authorship only begins when one’s words can be shared, heard, read and copied by another, and it requires surrender, owed to gods and readers alike. A writer at night, she becomes an author in the light of midday.

In the Old Akkadian period, the goddess of writing was Nisaba, patron of scribes. She had begun her divine career as the goddess of grain and agriculture, which then gave rise to the need for accounting and the birth of writing. Mathematicians revered her ability to quantify the heavens. In the temple hymns, where each poem describes a different temple in the subjugated city-states of the empire, the final poem is dedicated to Nisaba’s house. It ends with a revelation of its creator:

The weaver of the tablet was Enheduana.

My king! Something has been born which had not been born before.

Enheduana herself is, it seems, insisting that ‘the concept of authorship began with a woman.’ The line enshrines the birth of something unprecedented, along with a kind of literary hubris that befits the writerly spouse of a god. Authorship begins with reference to something supra-human, or transcendent of the human condition, centuries before the ancient Greek muses appear on the scene. The name of the author becomes a secret pact with the reader, who must take it on trust that the juxtaposition of the text and name have some mystical relationship, which the reader can only imagine and never fully grasp. In another temple hymn, to the goddess of birth and motherhood Ninhursanga, Enheduana speaks directly to the deity’s personified temple. ‘Your brickwork is your birthing,’ she proclaims. In the ancient Near East, it was common for women to give birth while standing on top of two large bricks, perhaps left over from construction sites. The hymn, Helle notes, ‘reads this association back onto the brickwork of the temple … the whole temple becomes a site of creation.’

Enheduana speaks of herself as ‘weaver’. The metaphor is woven into the English word ‘text’ and its cognate ‘textile’, from the Latin texere, ‘to weave’. In ancient Mesopotamia, weaving was generally women’s work, a further binding of the concept of authorship to the female. In cuneiform texts, the interlacing marks visibly impart a woven basket texture to the surface of the clay tablets. (The styluses used for writing were, like baskets, made from reeds.) The action of weaving captures the kind of authorship that Enheduana’s poems inaugurate, a knitting together of many different voices, from lamenters to translators. It is unconcerned with the distant future’s notions of intellectual copyright. Though the poem declares that something new has been born, some of the temple hymns are repetitions of older hymns dating to two centuries before Enheduana’s lifetime, revealing the priestess to have been not only a composer but also a compiler of pre-existing verse. A few other hymns in the collection are clearly later additions written in her name, describing temples built after her death.

In the Old Babylonian period, teachers and pupils actively worked to invent a classical Sumerian past. In the city of Nippur, around a hundred miles south of present-day Baghdad, archaeologists in the 1950s unearthed 1300 school slates that show the process in action. Nippur had once been a flourishing centre of religious power, but by the 1740s had fallen into decay, in the wake of a failed uprising and years of economic hardship, and most of the school tablets preserving Enheduana date from that time, when the Old Akkadian empire was taught in classrooms as a golden age. In many ways ‘Sumerian culture’ had never existed at all, since in Enheduana’s era each city-state was its own independent cultural entity. People identified themselves by their place of residence, never as ‘Sumerian’. Yet amid social decline, the Babylonian period reimagined the Sumerian world as a united and mighty empire that formed part of their own illustrious heritage. The capital city that Sargon had built, Agade, towered in legend; it overflowed with precious metals and memorable food. Enheduana’s verse, Helle argues, was well suited to this agenda. In the ‘Exaltation’, the poet uses her command of Sumerian as her own salvation, and then steps outside the poem to hand it over to succeeding generations as a power they can use. In turn, Enheduana’s authorship survived, saved by her usefulness to the ideological projects of the deep future.

‘Ieliminated enmity, violence and cries for justice,’ the first legislator, Ur-Namma, declared, in a bit of lyric fiction from the earliest surviving set of laws. Two centuries after Enheduana’s death, the lawmaker built a home for the moon god at Ur in the form of a ziggurat, a stepped temple that would lend its shape to later myths of the Tower of Babel. The mud brick structure was held together with bitumen, the earliest form of petroleum used by mankind. Ur-Namma’s ziggurat still stands: its imposing façade was reconstructed under Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. Its ruins, and those of Enheduana’s ancient city of Ur, lie inside the security perimeter of what is now Nasiriyah Airport, once a military base. It was bombed on the second day of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, and again in 1991 during the Gulf War. During the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the base was taken over by US armed forces with a name evocative of Genesis: Camp Adder. The army installed a Burger King on the site, and in May that year, US marines reportedly defaced the ziggurat with graffiti pledging allegiance (‘Semper fi’) to a power other than the moon.

In her ‘Hymn’, Enheduana had left it to the goddess to pick up the pieces of war:

… To
gather the exiled
and bring them
are yours, Inana.

The historian Eleanor Robson has called Enheduana a ‘wish-fulfilment figure’. Yet the priestess seems rather more like a perfect myth, a story that is also a theory of how things came to be, and what the future holds. She has inspired contemporary Iraqi poets in exile such as Dunya Mikhail, who describes democracy as a state in which the dead are granted freedom to wander. Helle mentions the work of the poets Amal al-Jubouri and Meena Alexander, in which Enheduana sometimes appears as an ancient character looking out over a landscape in which humans have entirely wiped one another out. Enheduana’s discovery had seemed to evoke a future in which literature restores many more ‘lost’ female authors from across the world, birthing a new canon. But what really lingers from her poems is a conviction in the desolation of war. In a vanished section of the ‘Hymn’, a single word – ‘Calamity’ – floats in a wreckage of ellipses, as a blank for us to fill in. By becoming the first, Enheduana raises the question of the last, at a time when the gods look out onto a quieted earth and can find no new wives.

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