Up Close – A Tapestry of Poetess’s: The First Written Bones (part 1)

Some 4300 years ago, more or less, in the cradle of the Sumerian civilization, a daughter was born to King Sargon I. The reason why she will be the subject of this article today is not her royal ascendancy, but the fact that she is, from what has been discovered so far, the earliest known writer in history.

Born from a father who was king, and from a mother who was supposedly a priestess, the little princess was raised and educated to become at her turn the high priestess of goddess Nanna in the city of Ur. When appointed by her father at the temple of the Moon god, she was named En-hedu-anna, which means “Chief Priestess of the ornament of heaven (i.e. the moon)”, and under this name we find her presence in history.

Highly sophisticated and intelligent, En-hedu-anna’s life unfolded during a time when religious changes took place, and she became a respected and powerful spiritual leader. More of a prophet than of a politician, she dedicated her life to the growth of The Great Goddess Inanna’s cult, being assumed that her contribution in merging the Akkadian goddess Ishtar with the Sumerian goddess Inanna was by no means little.

Legends claim that during a rebellion led by a certain Lugal-Ane, En-hedu-anna was banished from her religious position in Ur and also the Eanna temple at Uruk had been desecrated. Naram Sin, the nephew of En-hedu-anna, managed to stop the rebels and as a consequence, he united Sumer and Akkad for several years.

Restored as priestess of Nanna, En-hedu-anna captures this legend in a beautiful manner in one of her most known hymns, the Nin-me-sharra, which was long revered as a sacred text in the Sumerian literature. Proofs of its popularity stand the clay tablet copies (more than 100) which were found at the archeological sites.

En-hedu-anna’s creation managed to cross millenniums in order to reach our knowledge. Aside the Nin-me-sharra, it is composed from several other hymns, prayers, stories and incantations, but from which the most renowned are two other religious texts, the In-nin-me-hush-a (or “Lady of the fearsome divine powers”, presenting the definitive account of Inanna’s battle with the Dragon of Kur) and the In-nin-sha-gurra (or “Great-hearted lady”).

While talking about the three above-mentioned hymns, Jone Johnson Lewis was saying that they “illustrate three quite different themes of ancient religious faith. In one [the In-nin-me-hush-a], Inanna is a ferocious warrior goddess who defeats a mountain even though other gods refuse to help her. A second [the In-nin-sha-gurra], thirty stanzas in length, celebrates Inanna’s role in governing civilization and overseeing the home and children. In a third [the the Nin-me-sharra], En-hedu-anna calls on her personal relationship with the goddess for help in regaining her position as priestess of the temple against a male usurper.”

Another important thing that is worth mentioning is the fact that her hymns are the first texts written in the first person. This way we assist at a splendid celebration of the personal relationship between the author and the gods.

Experts nowadays admit that En-hedu-anna’s writings represent an excellent proof of the author’s sharp sense of observation and deep knowledge of human psychology, many considering her to be the “Shakespeare of the Sumerian literature”. She not only represents a very important historic personality, but also occupies a significant place in the history of literature, being the world’s oldest known by name author.

Giving thanks to Oxford University’s Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, we can provide you with a brief translated excerpt of Enheduanna’s writings, more precisely the beginning of Nin-me-sharra – The exaltation of Inanna:

Lady of all the divine powers, resplendent light, righteous woman clothed in radiance, beloved of An and Urac! Mistress of heaven, with the great pectoral jewels, who loves the good headdress befitting the office of en priestess, who has seized all seven of its divine powers! My lady, you are the guardian of the great divine powers! You have taken up the divine powers, you have hung the divine powers from your hand. You have gathered up the divine powers, you have clasped the divine powers to your breast. Like a dragon you have deposited venom on the foreign lands. When like Ickur you roar at the earth, no vegetation can stand up to you. As a flood descending upon (?) those foreign lands, powerful one of heaven and earth, you are their Inana.”


3 thoughts on “Up Close – A Tapestry of Poetess’s: The First Written Bones (part 1)

  1. An incredible story of a woman marking the first steps in writing. I can’t believe I have never heard of her before this time. I wonder how many other stories of incredible woman have never been heard… Wow the first known writer by name was a woman and not just a woman a priestess. 🙂

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