Enheduanna, a woman who lived in ancient Mesopotamia in the 23rd century BC, is widely regarded as the world’s first known author. Enheduanna is a remarkable figure: a “triple threat”, if you will, in ancient times. She was a princess, a priestess, as well as a poet.

Mesopotamia was in turmoil during the third millennium BCE. The conquest of Sargon the Great resulted in the formation of the world’s first great empire. Akkad grew to be one of the world’s largest cities, and northern and southern Mesopotamia were united for the first time in history. Enheduanna, Sargo of Akkad’s daughter, is a fascinating character in this historical setting. She served as the moon deity Nanna Suen’s priestess at his temple in Ur (in modern-day Southern Iraq). Her name, which means “Ornament of Heaven,” reflects the celestial nature of  her role.

Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad

Enheduanna wrote a number of works of literature, including two hymns to the Mesopotamian goddess of love, Inanna (Semitic Ishtar). She penned the myth of Inanna and Ebih, as well as 42 temple hymns. Scribal traditions in the ancient world were frequently regarded as a domain of male authority, but Enheduanna’s works are an important part of Mesopotamia’s rich literary history. Given the anonymity surrounding the works of even earlier authors, Enheduanna’s status as a named poet is significant. Despite this, she is almost entirely unknown today, and her accomplishments have largely gone unnoticed (a notable exception is the work of Jungian analyst Betty De Shong Meador). Her written works are deeply personal in nature, with numerous biographical elements.

Enheduanna’s cycle of temple hymns concludes with a claim to the work’s uniqueness and authorship: “En-hedu-ana was the compiler of the tablets. Something has been created that no one has ever created before, my king.”

Mask of Sargon of Akkad By Hans Ollermann CC BY-SA 2.0,

Enheduanna, while clearly asserting ownership of her work’s creative property, also comments on the difficulties of the creative process — apparently, writer’s block was a problem even in ancient Mesopotamia. She comments in her hymns on the difficulty of encapsulating divine wonders through the written word. She describes spending long hours at night working on her compositions, which would then be performed during the day. Her creations are dedicated to the goddess of love. Enheduanna’s poetry has a reflective quality to it that emphasises the divine muse’s superlative qualities while also emphasising the artistic skill required for written compositions.

Her written adoration for celestial deities has also been recognised by modern astronomy. Her descriptions of stellar measurements and movements have been referred to as early scientific observations. In fact, a crater on Mercury was named after her in 2015.

The “Disk of Enheduanna” at the Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) in Philadelphia

Enheduanna’s works were written in cuneiform, an ancient form of writing on clay tablets that has only survived in the form of much later copies dating from around 1800 BCE, from the Old Babylonian period and later. Some have questioned Enheduanna’s identification as the author of myths and hymns, as well as her status as a high-ranking religious official, due to a lack of earlier sources. However, the historical record clearly identifies Enheduanna as the author of ancient literary works, which is of course an important aspect of the legends surrounding her.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s