When I reviewed Sophus Helle’s new translation of Gilgamesh I made the point that Helle brings a highly unusual mix of talents to the task. He’s familiar with the literary world, and learned wordsmithing from his father who is one of Denmark’s foremost poets. But he is also an Assyriologist who can read Sumerian and Akkadian in their native cuneiform, and who has an excellent grasp of the cultures from which works such as Gilgamesh originated. This makes him the ideal person to also produce a translation of the first works of literature in human history to have been credited to an individual author. Hence, to give the book its full title: The Complete Poems of Enheduana, the world’s first author.

Enheduana was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (the real one, not the far-right troll who uses that name on social media), a man who also staked his claim in history by becoming the world’s first emperor. It was Sargon who united the fiercely independent city-states of Sumer under his control, and who began the linguistic shift to the use of Akkadian rather than Sumerian as the principal language of the region.

Religion was a key instrument of social control at the time, so Sargon gave his daughter the key post of the High Priestess of the city of Ur. While the Sumerians broadly worshipped the same pantheon of gods, each city had a chief god to whom the main temple was dedicated. As High Priestess of Ur, Enheduana’s first duty was to Nanna, the god of the Moon. But she also seems to have had a particular fondness for Inana, the wild and unpredictable goddess of love and war (better known by her Akkadian name of Ishtar).

One of Enehduana’s surviving works is a lengthy hymn of praise to Inana. This is the work in which she describes the various powers of the goddess, including the ability to turn men into women, and women into men. Enheduana’s works make it clear that gender ambiguity was a key facet of Inana’s cult.

But the work for which Enheduana is most famous, because we have a complete copy of the text, is the one we now call “The Exaltation of Inana”. We have that copy because, 500 years after her death, Enheduana’s works were a key element of the curriculum in the schools of the Old Babylonian Empire. An archaeological excavation in Babylon chanced upon a building that must have housed a scribal school, because multiple, inexpertly written copies of the Exaltation were found there.

Because she was governing a Sumerian city, and was serving as High Priestess of a Sumerian god, Enheduana wrote her poems in Sumerian. That in itself is remarkable. The world’s first known author wrote her best-known works in her second language. But, in much the same way as Latin became the language of the church in mediaeval Europe, Sumerian was preserved as the language of religion for the Babylonians. And they trained their scribes on the work of the best known writer from (their) antiquity, who was a woman.

One of the benefits of having Helle write this book is that he is able to explain just how good a poet Enheduana was, because he is familiar with the language in which she was writing.

The Exaltation is not just a hymn of praise for a goddess. It is also autobiographical. Indeed, the fact that it needed to be may have been what prompted Enheduana to insert her name into the text. The Sumerians were not exactly happy about having been conquered by Sargon. In Ur, a rebellion led by a man called Lugal-Ane deposed Enheduana and forced her into exile. Having appealed to Nanna for help in vain, Enheduana turned to her favourite goddess instead. And that appeal is what the Exaltation is all about.

Our knowledge of the history of those times is inevitably sketchy, but we have a limestone disk showing an image of Enheduana performing her religious duties and inscribed with her name. It was found by Katharine Wooley, who oversaw much of the excavation of the city while her husband, Sir Leonard, was off giving lecture tours about how he discovered the birthplace of Abraham. We have also found the graves (identified by their personal seals) of her hairdresser, her steward, and one of her scribes. Her tomb, if it was in Ur, was probably looted and destroyed, because Ur was sacked by the Elamites after Sargon’s empire collapsed some decades after his death. Enheduana was most definitely a real person.

I’ve gone on a bit, but there are a few other things I would like to highlight. Firstly, at one point during the Exaltation, Enheduana says:

“Inana: I will let my tears stream free to soften your heart, as if they were beer.”

Ah, Sumerians, they did so love their beer. But, as Helle points out, there is also the implication that Inana finds human suffering intoxicating. Gods are weird people.

Next up, Helle notes that Enheduana describes the action of authorship as a form of weaving with words. He goes on to explain that, in the ancient world, originality was less valued than it is today (and copyright didn’t exist). What was valued was taking existing strands from well-loved works and weaving them into new and different forms. In other words, fanfic was a common form of literary expression (and The Aeneid is totally Homer fanfic).

What Helle doesn’t say is that weaving is, and pretty much always has been, women’s work. And if authorship is a form of weaving, that to me suggests that it too was probably practiced mostly by women.

Finally there is the question of Enheduana’s position in the annals of feminism. There is no doubt that, today, the fact that she is the world’s first known author is of great importance to women. However, Helle states that reading the Exaltation as a proto-feminist text would not make sense because, at the time of writing, “feminism had not yet been born.” I’d like to unpack that a little.

Comments like that always remind me, uncomfortably, of the people who claim that trans folk cannot have existed in the past because being trans had not been invented then. But that claim is heavily dependent on a definition of being trans that they, and generations of cisgender doctors, have created.

So when was feminism born? And who birthed it? Was it Mary Wolstonecroft? Margaret Cavendish? Christine de Pizan? Hypatia?

If we follow Marie Shear and define feminism as, “The radical notion that women are people,” then feminism will have existed as long as men have looked down on women as lesser beings. That, I suspect, takes us back well before Enheduana’s time. Helle himself notes that neither Inana nor Enheduana are typical of Sumerian womanhood:

“Women were expected to look after the house, cook, clean, wave, mash, manage the domestic expenses, and look after the children. They were supposed to be healthy, humble, caring, quiet, and attractive to look at.”

It is entirely true that Enheduana’s outrage at being deposed and exiled by Lugal-Ane is the outrage of the daughter of an emperor who has been rebelled against by one of the conquered. But we laud the suffragettes as feminist despite the fact that most of their leaders (Sylvia Pankhurst excepted) were not keen on allowing working class women the vote. They were not too keen on women of colour either, save for the fantastically wealthy princess Sophia Duleep Singh.

So my view is that Enheduana was doing the sort of feminism we might expect from an elite woman who had been deposed by a man of inferior status who very probably had told her that she, being a woman, had no right to rule over him. Also she suggests that he insulted her by claiming that she was not behaving as a woman should, but rather like that awful Inana of whom she was so fond.

In Enheduana’s time, poems did not have titles. They were known by the first line of the text. The Exaltation was therefore known as “Nin me ŝara.” That translates literally as “Queen of all the me,” where me is a Sumerian word meaning a skill or power. So metalworking, weaving and writing are me, but so are wisdom and justice. Weirdly the Sumerians seem to have believed that, at least in the divine realm, me took physical form and could be stolen by one god from another. Which is how Inana managed to steal a whole bunch of me from a male god called Enki, including the me for giving blow-jobs. I want to know what Enki was doing with it in the first place.

Helle translates the first line of the Exaltation as “Queen of all powers”, which is a good attempt to render me in a way that is understandable to modern readers. I would have rendered it as, “All-powerful Queen,” because Enheduana goes on to state that Inana is not just one god among many, she is the most powerful god of all. And claiming that the supreme god is female is, I submit, a profoundly feminist statement.

If anyone thinks that I need support from a professional Assyriologist, I note that Julian Reade suggested that Sennacherib might be a feminist.

That quibble aside, Enheduana is a wonderful book containing beautifully executed translations of Enheduana’s works, and insightful essays about them and their place in human and literary history.

book cover
Title: Enheduana
By: Sophus Helle
Publisher: Yale University Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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