The World’s First Author

Anna Della Subin at the LRB: 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.

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

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?

…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. Read all of it here.