The Struggle to Unearth the World’s First Author

About 430 years ago, in what we now call Iraq, a sculptor carved on a white limestone disc the image of a woman presiding over a temple ritual. She is wearing a long ceremonial dress and a headdress. There are two male ministers behind him, and one in front, pouring offerings on the altar. On the back of the disc, there is an inscription identifying her as Enheduanna, a high priestess and daughter of King Sargon.

Some scholars believe that the priest was also the world’s first recorded author. The clay tablet preserves the words of a long narrative poem: “I took my place in the sanctuary, / I was the high priestess, I, Enheduanna.” In Sumer, the ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia where writing originated, writing was unknown. If Enheduanna wrote those words, then he marks the beginning of writing, the beginning of rhetoric, even the beginning of autobiography. To put his introduction into perspective, he lived 1500 years before Homer, 1700 years before Sappho, and two thousand years before Aristotle, who is traditionally known as the father of the rhetorical tradition.

The poem, written in cuneiform script, describes a difficult period in the priest’s life. Enheduanna’s father, Sargon, united the city-states of Mesopotamia to form what is sometimes called history’s first empire. Its domain stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, including modern-day Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, including more than sixty-five cities, each with its own religious tradition, system of governance, and local identity. Although Sargon ruled from Akkad, in the north, he installed his daughter as high priestess at the temple of the moon god in the southern city of Ur. The position, although outwardly religious, was in practice political, helping to unite the different parts of the empire. After Sargon’s death, the kingdom was torn apart by rebellion; the throne went briefly to Enheduanna’s brothers, and then to his nephew. In the poem, a usurper named Lugalanne—a military general who probably led a rebellion in Ur—drives Enheduanna from her place in the temple.

“He has turned that temple into a house of infamy./ By forcing his way in as if he were right, he dared to approach me with his desire!” Enheduanna says. Thrown out of the city, he wanders in the wilderness. “He walked me through the land of thorns. / He removed the honorable turban of my sacred office, / He gave me a sword: ‘This is right for you,’ he said. The full significance of the rapist’s crime is lost in literal translation, but the language suggests a sexual violation. (Those verbs, one translator has noted, are the same ones used elsewhere to express sexual desire.) They also suggest suicidal urges. Giving him a dagger, Lugalanne urges him to kill himself. “This is fine with you.”

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Enheduanna’s salvation depends on her speaking skills, but she finds that her powers have dried up. “My mouth that was once honeyed is now foam,/ My ability to delight hearts is turned to dust,” he says. To cross this area, he first prays to the moon god, but he ignores him: “My moonlight does not care about me! / He leaves me to perish in this place of hope when I was deceived.” He then turns to Inanna, the goddess of love, sex, and war, offering an extended paean to her glory: “My lady! This country will bow again to your battle cry!” Enheduanna’s conflict is resolved through such attributes, and through the creation of the poem itself, which is called “The Exaltation of Inanna.” In a striking passage of self-awareness, the task of writing is compared to the pains of childbirth. “These fill me, these overflow from me, Blessed Lady, as I bear you./ What I believed in you in the dark of night, the singer will do for you in the light of day!”

Enheduanna’s nephew eventually put down the rebellion, and Enheduanna was returned to his office. He attributes his salvation to Inanna—”Let it be known that you destroy the rebellious land!”—but the poem also suggests that Enheduanna, in raising Inanna, played a part in Ur’s salvation. The goddess and the priest are closely linked, the priest being in part the earthly representation of the divine. The poem is political, documenting the relationship between power and language, but it is also personal.

In addition to “The Exaltation,” two other texts have been attributed to Enheduanna: “The Song of Inanna,” which mentions Enheduanna by name, and “Inanna and Ebih,” which has been attributed to her on stylistic grounds. His claim is also accompanied by a collection of forty-two religious poems—songs addressed to the temples of the various city-states. Taken together, the hymns form what Yale scholars William Hallo and JJA van Dijk called “a major piece of Mesopotamian theology,” uniting the region’s many cults and deities and making Enheduanna “a sort of systematic theologian.” The cycle ends with the text: “The collector of the tablets is Enheduanna./ My King, something has been created that no one has ever created before!”

In ancient Mesopotamia, the works of Enheduanna were celebrated, and were even part of the curriculum in edubbas, or schools of scribes, which trained priests and civil servants of the future in cuneiform writing and Sumerian grammar. For hundreds of years, students learned by inscribing the words of Enheduanna on clay tablets, and about a hundred of these copies of “The Exaltation of Inanna” survive. But since their discovery, in the mid-twentieth century, scholars have fiercely debated the authorship of Enheduanna. Did a priestess really write these works? Is the idea of ​​a woman at the beginning of the written tradition—two thousand years before Greece’s golden age—too good to be true? This winter, an exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and the Women of Mesopotamia,” will try to give the priestess her due. “You ask anyone you know and they’ll say the first author is Herodotus or someone else,” Sidney Babcock, the show’s curator, told me. “It always surprises me. No one will come with him.”

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The city of Ur was first excavated in the eighteen-fifties. But most of it was not explored until 1922, when the British archaeologist, Leonard Woolley, led a joint expedition sponsored by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. Wooley was drawn to Ur as the Biblical home of Abraham and ancient pagan kings. (His account of the excavation, “Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavations,” refers to Genesis: “Terah took Abram . . . and Sarai his son-in-law, Abram’s wife his son; he went out with them from Ur of the Chaldees.”) The great discovery of Woolley was the royal tomb, where his team excavated the tombs of kings and queens, along with precious stones, weapons, pottery, musical instruments, and other treasures.

Ur was also, of course, Enheduanna’s adopted home. In 1927, five years into the excavation, the diggers discovered the ruins of the temple. Inside, they found damaged fragments of a stone disk—a disk depicting Enheduanna—and, nearby, three other objects that mention the priestess: the jar seals of her servants. Elsewhere in the temple were clay slabs covered with cuneiform writing. “This was clear evidence that the clergy kept schools on their premises,” Woolley wrote. But he missed the full meaning of the discovery, calling the temple “a house of nuns” and “a house of nuns.” Some of the tablets found at Ur were copies of Enheduanna’s writings, but Woolley, intent on the history of the Great Man—political genealogies, Biblical ancestors—apparently took no interest in the priestess, regarding her as an unfit assistant to her illustrious father. His book does not even mention Enheduanna, only referring to her as Sargon’s daughter.

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In the following years, archaeologists and looters unearthed other tablets with Enheduanna’s words, in cities such as Nippur and Larsa. But his work was not copied, published, and attributed to him until the late fifties and sixties. In 1968, the first translation of his writings from Sumerian to English appeared. “We can now recognize a collection of first-rate poetry that not only reveals the name of its author, but defines that author for us in a real-life way,” Hallo and van Dijk wrote in their introduction to the translation. “In the person of Enheduanna, we face a woman who was at once a princess, a priestess, and a poetess.” The two agreed that the picture compiled by scholars may not be complete. “We still do not know the full extent of Enheduanna’s literary skill,” they wrote, “but the stamp of his style and his conviction in poetry is so strong that it can certainly be attributed to him, so that one day it may be possible to discover his writing also in pieces others, which are not well preserved.”

While Hallo and van Dijk were pointing out that Enheduanna may have written more than what has been revealed—Akkad, the capital of Sargon’s empire, has yet to be excavated—others were dismissive of his claim. British scholar WG Lambert raised the possibility of a ghostwriter, suggesting that at least one of Enheduanna’s texts could have been written by a writer. (Sumerian kings often had scribes compose for them.) “Our emotional response to ancient texts is not necessarily the best criterion for judgment,” he wrote later, in 2001. Other scholars doubted Enheduanna on the grounds that the surviving versions of his work, has been copied by the students of that school edubbas, the date five hundred years after his death; no copies from his time survive, and, in a few cases, the texts contain place names and vocabulary that followed his era. This may simply be the result of changes made in the author’s submission process—changes usually attend the publication of older narratives—but some see it as cause for doubt. “He’s speaking in the first person, but that’s not the same as being a writer,” Paul Delnero, professor of Assyriology at Johns Hopkins University, told me. Enheduanna may have been a cult figure revered by later writers, his name used in works lending them authority.

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