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The World's First Author Was a Chill Priestess to an Even Chiller Goddess

Meet Enheduanna, the Mesopotamian princess and religious leader whose poetry celebrated a celestial goddess who could smash mountains and change people's gender.

by Dee Cunning
May 3 2018, 3:20pm

Illustration by Calum Heath

That man, Lugalanne, wipes his spit-soaked hand on Enheduanna's honey-sweet mouth. He gives her the ritual dagger of mutilation. He says, “It becomes you.” From her rooms in the great ziggurat of Ur, he casts her out among the dead, wretched and alone. But just you wait—the almighty goddess Inanna, floods and mountains at her feet, will dash his fate and restore her beloved priestess to her rightful place.

This personal account of exile was written by Enheduanna, the world’s first recorded author—a high priestess who lived from 2285 to 2250 BCE in Sumer, the earliest known Mesopotamian civilization in present-day southern Iraq. The Exaltation of Inanna tells of how Enheduanna was forced from her temple by a cruel usurper named Lugalanne, who seems to have existed in real life. (According to Sumerian scholars William W. Hallo and J.J.A. van Dijk, a man named Lugalanne or Lugalanna “played a role in the great revolt against Naram-Sin [the third successor and grandson of the legendary King Sargon]” in Uruk.) Ultimately Enheduanna is reinstated, thanks, she says, to her “Queen” Inanna.

It's one of six ingenious poems and 42 temple hymns written by Enheduanna that have survived, along with a number of other items including a carved disk, excavated in the late 1920s, that led to her rediscovery as a historic figure.

The stone’s shape was possibly intended to resemble the moon and “shows a procession of priests who are apparently giving offerings at the ziggurat of Ur [the central city of Sumerian civilization],” Penn Museum historian and expert William B. Hafford tells Broadly. The museum is exhibiting Enheduanna's disk as part of its new Middle East Galleries. "There are males and one female in the scene... and the woman is clearly shown larger and more ornately dressed than the men. She is Enheduanna, as we know from her headgear—typical of the entu [high priestess]—and from her name inscribed on the back of the disk.”


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On the disk, Enheduanna wrote that she was dedicating a dais to Inanna and identified herself as “daughter of Sargon,” who was the first leader to establish an empire in Mesopotamia. It was Sargon who appointed Enheduanna to the sacred position of the high priestess of the moon god Nanna in Ur, a shrewd political move to help him secure power in the south of his kingdom.

“The entu was a very powerful and important position,” Hafford explains. “It was typically occupied by the king's daughter, which lent additional power and importance, but it chiefly derived its importance from its duties. The entu tended the cult of the most important deities at Ur.’”

Although she was officially the high priestess of Nanna, Enheduanna felt a spiritual symbiosis with Inanna, using her writings to position the goddess as the foremost, and most powerful, of all the gods in the Sumerian pantheon. In fact, Enheduanna's influence was so strong that Inanna's prominence continued all the way through the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian periods, where she was later known as Ishtar.

When you get to know Inanna, she is easy to fall in love with. She was not only goddess of love, beauty, sex, desire, and fertility, but also war, combat, justice, and political power. She challenged gender norms with her explicit sexuality and her powers—she could smash mountains or change someone's gender at will. Enheduanna tells us that Inanna invented the sacred “head-overturning” rite for her new temple personnel, in which she turns “man into woman, woman into man.” And you certainly wouldn't hear the goddesses of ancient Greece or Rome singing songs like Inanna’s to her lover Dumuzi: “peg my vulva / my star-sketched horn of the dipper / moor my slender boat of heaven / my new moon crescent cunt beauty.”

The disk featuring Enheduanna (central figure). Photo courtesy of Penn Museum

According to the late Sumerian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer, the real-life celebrations of Inanna’s cult were just as wild and playful. There were “male prostitutes with special beribboned hairdos; heirodules [slaves or prostitutes in the service of a temple] of various categories; men and women carrying sword-belts and spears; devotees who dressed their right side in women’s clothing and their left side in men’s clothing; dagger-holding kurgarras [priests of ambiguous gender]; worshipers who kept sprinkling blood from their blood-covered daggers.”

Inanna was the personification of the paradoxes of Sumerian existence. “She exists between blessing and curse, light and dark, plenty and want, goodness and malevolence, life and death,” writes author and Jungian analyst Betty De Shong Meador in her beautiful translation of Enheduanna's three epic poems, Inanna, Lady of the Largest Heart. Enheduanna understood this well, praising Inanna for her ruthlessness as much as her tenderness—even when she felt personally victimized by the goddess herself.

Lady of the Largest Heart is perhaps the most compelling of all of Enheduanna’s poems. In the long first section, the priestess describes the goddess as an enraged “keen-for-battle queen” of whom the gods shake in fear, and a “whirlwind warrior” who “tears the king's robe.” But “on the seventh day when the crescent moon / reaches its fullness,” her temper finally cools and she becomes a gentle builder of houses, a furnisher of women's rooms, and a kisser of a baby's lips.

Some believe that Enheduanna’s reference to the lunar cycle, together with Inanna’s destructive and creative force, is a metaphor for menstruation. “By joining the menstrual cycle to the moon's cycle in a monthly ritual,” dramatist Diane Wolkstein writes, “the wild, frightening, and disorderly parts of life are subsumed into a predictable and reassuring order.”

A relief of Inanna (also known as Ishtar)

Toward the end of the poem, Enheduanna makes it clear that she wishes to be delivered from her own suffering: “I say STOP / the bitter hating heart and sorrow,” she laments to her chosen goddess. “I am yours / why do you slay me.” Enheduanna's impassioned lines read like the internal dialogue we all have in times of woe. As Meador asserts, Inanna exists both in the realm of the gods and the realm of the individual soul. “Enheduanna's writing is a poetic description of the full range of femaleness,” she writes. “Her work has archetypal dimension, and therefore it does not portray any one woman. She gives us the whole complex range of possibilities that occupy the vast reaches of the unconscious.”

Feminist poet, author, and professor at large Judy Grahn, who penned the preface to Meador’s book, believes that women today can still find meaning in Enheduanna’s life and her millenia-old poetry. It all comes down to its reliance on still-relevant archetypes, she explains.

“These archetypes are warrior, priestess, lover, and androgyne,” Grahn says. “The warrior aspects of Inanna are very developed in Enheduanna's portraits of her, in fearlessness, love of fighting, and fierce protectiveness of those who love her. The priestess archetype is Enheduanna herself, who was high priestess of the earliest empire. Enheduanna used her skill as a poet to help unite the contentious city-states of Sumer. And the androgyne archetype shows up in Inanna's literature as cross-gendered persons, the 'head-overturned,' who hold shamanic office within her sacred precinct.”

Seen through modern eyes, these images are just as striking. “In our current time, as increasing numbers of women step forward to run for political office, shouldering responsibilities for running often vast and divided countries, the warrior archetype needs to be with them, along with the compassionate heart of the lover,” says Grahn. “In an age of changing gender definitions and occupations, the androgyne archetype can ease the passages. As the #MeToo movement raises questions of how best women can both guard and assert sexuality, the lover archetype can serve us, especially if joined with the warrior’s protection.”

It is precisely this archetypal dimension that makes Enheduanna's vision of Inanna so captivating. Never surrendering to any greater principle, the goddess is the greater principle, free from the bounds of body, society, convention, responsibility or judgment.

As testament to her incredible work, Enheduanna’s influence ensued in Mesopotamia for centuries after her death. Following Enheduanna’s stellar example, the tradition of the king’s daughter as the high priestess at Ur continued for five hundred years. According to Penn Museum, Enheduanna’s disk was revered for several centuries and her hymns—still credited to the priestess—were still being copied down and sung a thousand years later. Fast forward over four millennia and Enheduanna, like the famous Gilgamesh, lives on.

“[Enheduanna] can guide us in asserting appropriate relationships, of intimacy based in love, of community and family, and of interactions among diverse peoples as well as with nature,” Grahn concludes. “Because as much as Inanna is human in form, feelings, and personality, she is also, perhaps beyond all else, the multiple forces of nature. And nature wins. Every time.”