It is generally agreed upon among literary and historical scholars that the Akkadian/Sumerian author and poet Enheduanna (2285 BCE-2250 BCE) is world’s first known female writer. Many also think that she is world’s first literary author. This conclusion is arrived at based on archaeological and textual records/evidences. Texts are found inscribed on thousands of clay tablets and were written in cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script. They remained buried for thousands of years; but luckily they have remained well preserved.
Enheduanna is known by two other names: Enheduana and En-hedu-Ana or EnHeduAnna. Actually, Enheduanna is her title, not her name. ‘En’ means chief or high priest, ‘Hedu’ means ‘ornament or adornment’ and ‘Ana’ means ‘of heaven’. Enheduanna’s father was Akkadian and mother Sumerian. In our times, Enheduanna is honoured by naming a crater on Mercury after her. She is also the subject of the episodes “The Immortals” in BBC’s science television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.
Akkadians were Semitic people who inhabited the north Mesopotamia where as Sumerians were the ancient non-Semitic speaking inhabitants of Mesopotamia. Akkadian and Sumerian languages co-existed as vernaculars for about 1000 years. Sumer was the ancient name of the southernmost region of Mesopotamia, Akkad the part of Mesopotamia to the north of Sumer, and Assyria the northernmost part of Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia was a geographic region corresponding, approximately, to the present-day Iraq, the southeast Turkey, the northeast Syria and part of Iran. Mesopotamia comes from two Greek root words ‘meso’ meaning ‘middle’ and ‘potamia’ meaning ‘river’. So the word literally means “(land) between rivers”. The two rivers are the Tigris and Euphrates.
Enheduanna was a daughter of Sargon the Great or Sargon of Akkad (reign, ca.2270 BCE-2215 BCE). Her father appointed her to this powerful political-religious office of the high priestess of the most important temple of Sumer, namely, the temple of Sumeria’s moon goddess Nanna in the city-state of Ur. Though an Akkadian princess, Enheduanna wrote in Sumerian language which was then the language of religion, law and administration. In all her hymns, goddess Nindaba acted as her scribe.
Enheduanna was a poet and hymn writer and is best known for her works Ninmesarra (The Exaltation of Inanna, 153 lines), Inninsagurra (The Great-Hearted or Stout-Hearted Lady/Mistress, 274 lines), Inninmehusa (Goddess of the Fearsome Powers), The Temple Hymns or The Sumerian Temple Hymns, and Hymn to Nana. The Temple Hymns is a collection of hymns of varying length addressed to various temples. Its texts were reconstructed from 37 tablets.
In ‘The Temple Hymns’, she states, “My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”
Historian Bertman wrote, “The hymns provide us with the names of major divinities the Mesopotamians worshiped and tell us where their chief temples were located. The prayers teach us about humanity, for in prayers we encounter the hopes and fears of everyday mortal life.” The Vienna-born BBC TV producer and journalist-historian Paul Kriwaczek writes, “Her compositions, though only rediscovered in modern times, remained models of petitionary prayers. Through the Babylonians, they influenced and inspired the prayers and psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric hymns of Greece. Through them, faint echoes of Enheduanna, the first named literary author in history, can even be heard in the hymnody of the early Christian church. Her influence during her lifetime was as impressive as the legacy she bequeathed to literature.”
The royal inscription on a calcite disc, found by archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley, reads: “Enheduanna, zirrus-priestess, wife of the god Nanna, daughter of Sargon, king of the world, in the temple of the goddess Innana.” Her figure is so placed on the disc as to emphasize her power and influence on the culture of her time.
Of the total 42 hymns she composed, three hymns are dedicated to the Sumero-Akkadian moon god Nanna (also Su’en or Sin). The surviving tablets are copies of these hymns. Her hymns re-defined the gods of the people of the Akkadian empire under Sargon’s rule. They also brought out the underlying religious homogeneity of the Sumerian and the Akkadian gods.
In one hymn, the mythical Sumerian goddess of warfare, female fertility and sexual love Inanna (also written Inana) is described as a ferocious warrior goddess who defeats a mountain all by herself. In another hymn, she celebrates Inanna’s role in governance, civilization, and family matters. In the third hymn, she prays to the goddess for help in restoring to her the position of priestess of the moon god’s temple which was usurped by a male. She was reinstated.
In her composition ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’, Inanna is presented as both a ruler goddess and a personal goddess. By so doing, she introduced for the first time into human civilization the concept of a personal god who can be called upon personally by the individual devotee to protect him, give him wealth, prosperity and happiness; to bestow mercy, compassion on him/her. One can easily see in this the beginning of the cult of Bhakti (devotion), submission, surrender to an infallible, all-powerful, omnipresent entity called god who can grant favors, mercy, compassion, etc. Compare this concept of a personal god with that in Christianity, Hinduism, the teachings of Bible, Bhaagavata Purana, Krishna cult, ISKCON and such other organized religious groups.
By Dr. Sachidanand Das