In this month’s essay for Plume, Barbara Hamby explores the mythopoeic origins of poetry in ancient Sumer, focusing specifically on the Sumerian high priestess Enheduanna’s poems that represent some of the oldest, if not the oldest extant texts of known writing. With consummate scholarly skills and an engagingly lucid style, Hamby brings to life Enheduanna’s timeless verse in a way that elucidates its diachronic profundity, its biblical influence, and its poetic freshness.
Girl Talk: How a Sumerian Princess Jumpstarted Poetry
When I was a girl, I’d fantasize about the lives of biblical women—Queen Esther, Ruth, Jezebel, Bathsheba, the Queen of Sheba, Mary Magdalene. These women rose out of the sea of men like angry mermaids and made them take notice. They were not just there to bear sons and serve dinner. They made things happen. The same went for Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth. They ate the world alive while they were in it. When I discovered Emily Dickinson, she was the first poet I knew of who was a woman. She blazed a place in the world by shutting it out and filling her trunk with poems. But there must have been other women who wrote. I loved the Brontës and George Eliot and Jane Austen, and then I discovered Sei Shonagon and Lady Murasaki who wrote in tenth century Japan. There were tantalizing fragments from an ancient Greek poet Sappho, but before her? It was a blank.
Little did I know that a woman was the first person to sign her name to a piece of writing. In 2300 BCE Enheduanna was sent by her father, the Akkadian king Sargon, to the Southern Sumerian city of Ur to be the high priestess of the Moon God Nanna. Akkad was located in what is now central Iraq, and Ur was in what is now south Iraq. At that time it was near the Persian Gulf though it is inland now. Every city in ancient Sumer was dedicated to a different god or goddess, each of whose temple or ziggurat dominated the center of the city. Sargon had conquered the lands to the south and north of Akkad, so it is thought that he sent his daughter to Ur to be the high priestess of the Nanna the moon god to consolidate his power but also to show that he respected the culture of the conquered states.
And what a culture it was. Sumer was the civilization that emerged in southern Mesopotamia from 6000 to 5000 BCE. It was here that writing was invented and with it, literature. The first great poems came out of Sumer, but when those cities fell, those poems were lost. Or were they? When the cities of Mesopotamia were excavated in the nineteenth century, archeologists made a startling discovery. Many of the stories they found on the cuneiform tablets were echoed in later Hebrew texts. The similarities included creation myths, great floods, and parallelism that were familiar to those in the Bible. A quick look at the map of the region shows how close Israel is to ancient Mesopotamia/Sumer. The Hebrews broke off from Sumerian culture around 2000 BCE, and it makes sense that they would use the rich language of Sumer to build their own literature.
And writing, or at least a form of it, may have existed even earlier. Luminous cave paintings have survived in Europe and in India, Somalia, Argentina, Indonesia, and probably those still hidden in dark caves unseen for thousands of years. The Altamira cave in northern Spain was painted 35,000 years ago. The Lascaux paintings in Southwest France have been dated at 17,000 years ago. The human drive to create art seems eternal, that drive to represent and perhaps understand our place in the world. But there is more to these paintings than depictions of hunters and animals. Anthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has collected 32 symbols in cave paintings that recur and may be the beginning of writing. We do not know what they mean, and we may never know. However, these abstract symbols seem to be the first human attempts to attach ideas to images.
But how did writing begin? The story going around is that writing was developed to manage inventory in the burgeoning empires of the Middle East. That’s a lovely fairy tale—the ugly duckling turning into a swan, Cinderella into a princess, an inventory for oil or wine turning into poetry. A more likely scenario is that business and poetic writing grew up together. Gods and goddesses had to be supplicated to supply the inventory that is to be recorded and counted.
Most historians agree that the Sumerians invented writing or at least the writing that we know. The Sumerian culture rose out of the prehistoric hunter gatherers irrigating the land between the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates and inventing agriculture. This enabled them to amass grain reserves and thus free some of their people from the tasks of raising food. The dependence of civilization on food led to a temple culture that worshipped nature gods and in Sumerian culture goddesses. The clay tablets found by the archeologists revealed a sophisticated writing system called cuneiform. Of the thousands of tablets discovered, many hundreds are poetry, magical spells, and hymns.
How did poetry begin? Before any poem or story was written down, before there was writing, it is not hard to imagine humans huddled around a fire or in caves listening to tales of a wild hunt or a battle for water. If a story was really good, you might want to remember it. But how? We know how Homer did it or the oral poets who came before him in telling the story of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s ten-year voyage home to Ithaka. The Homer poets had a metrical system that allowed them to get into a rhythmical groove much like today’s rappers. And there were phrases that were repeated. “Wine dark sea,” anyone? The written texts of The Iliad and The Odyssey are dated to the 8th century BCE, but they were based on a much older oral tradition. The Trojan war, whose events they recount, took place in the 12th or 13th century BCE or 500 years earlier, about the same amount of time between the early 21st century and Henry VIII.
The first real writing emerged 5000 years ago in Sumeria in the cuneiform script of the city of Uruk. However, that writing did not appear from the blue unless you believe in alien visitors. It developed over time, and the Sumerian cuneiform writing began as pictographs, as did later Egyptian and Chinese writing. The Sumerians were one of the earliest civilizations in the world along with those in Egypt, northern India, Peru, Crete, and China. The Sumerian culture was peaceful for the most part and developed a complex pantheon of gods and goddesses associated with nature. They built temples and cities and developed writing. In the second millennium they were conquered by the Semitic Akkadians from the north led by Sargon, who sent his daughter, as noted before, south to Ur to be the chief priestess at that city’s temple. There may have been a precedent for this, but by placing his daughter in a conquered city, Sargon began the assimilation of the south into his empire. Later there was a short resurgence of the Sumerians, but they were finally conquered by the Babylonians.
Enheduanna was high priestess of Ur from 2285-2250 BCE according to Sumerologist William Hallo. Some scholars think Enheduanna’s mother was Sumerian, so she grew up speaking not only her father’s language but also that of her mother. Sargon had conquered Sumeria, but he didn’t want the people to rebel against him. In the far south was the great city of Ur and the temple of Nanna, the moon god. Sargon sent his daughter to Ur to be the high priestess in the ziggurat of Nanna to show the Sumerians that he valued their culture and that their lives would go on much as they had for the past 3,000 years. This princess—we don’t know the name she was given at birth—traveled to Ur, and became the high priestess of Nanna or Enheduanna, which is the name we know her by, and means high priestess and ornament of the god An, who was the chief god in the Sumerian pantheon.
She was probably appointed by her father Sargon late in his reign and lived through the kingships of her two brothers, and ended her life under her nephew, Naram-Sin’s, reign. She was an intelligent and literate woman, and she wrote in the Sumerian cuneiform script. She wrote poems that were found four thousand years later by archeologists, and she signed her name to the poems she had written, the first person who did so in human history.
This sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. Enheduanna lived over 4000 years ago, and her writings were unknown until archeologist Leonard Woolley excavated the ancient city of Ur in the 1920s. In 1925 they found a small disc. On one side was a relief carving of a priestess in a ritual procession. On the other side was written in Sumerian cuneiform script “Enheduanna, true lady of Nanna, wife of Nanna, daughter of Sargon, king of all, in the temple of Inanna.”
This archeological dig and ones that followed unearthed tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets. In one city, Nippur, 30,000 tablets were found. Of those 2,100 are literature, and of those 47 were written by Enheduanna. Two were written to Nanna, the god of the moon, whose temple she presided over in Ur. Forty-two were temple odes. Every city in Sumeria had a temple dedicated to a god in the Sumerian pantheon. Each one of Enheduanna’s odes was written to the temple of a different god or goddess. These odes were based on earlier poems, but Enheduanna infused them with her genius for metaphor. All forty-two of the poems were inscribed on clay tablets and were kept in the temples.
Only a few of these tablets have been found that can be dated from Enheduanna’s time, but they were so beloved that they were copied and recopied by scribes from her era and into the time of the Babylonian empire. They were studied in edubba or schools where scribes went to learn how to read and write. You might say that they were the first writing programs. Most of the tablets that were discovered by archeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were later copies, but there were some from the time that Enheduanna was alive.
In these temple poems, she recreated the creation myths of Sumer and her gods and goddesses. The Sumerian pantheon was An, the supreme god of the sky; Ninhursag; mother goddess; Utu, god of the sun; Nanna, the moon god; Enlil, god of fate and divine decisions; Ishkur, god of storms and rain; Enki, god of wisdom, magic, and fecund waters; Nusku, god of fire and light; Inanna, goddess of love and war and sensuality; Eriskigal, queen of the underworld. Like the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, this pantheon was an ever-evolving group with many minor deities who were children of the major gods. Inanna was the daughter of the moon god Nanna and his wife Ningal She later became Ishtar in Babylonia.
Enheduanna became infatuated with Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and war. She wrote three extraordinary poems to Inanna. In the first one she makes Inanna the chief god of the Sumerian pantheon. Before Enheduanna, An, the god of the sky, was the ruler of creation, but in Enheduanna’s poem Inanna takes An’s power and makes it her own. In the second poem, Enheduanna praises Inanna in her role as the queen of the gods, and finally she writes about being driven out of her temple by a rebel and her exile from Ur, begging Inanna to reinstate her. These three poems are the work of a woman trying to express and find a way to live with the dissonance between the beauty and terror of the world and her conscious appraisal of it.
If the ode is a poem of praise, then the middle poem in Enheduanna’s Inanna sequence is an ode to the goddess. This was not the first praise poem written in Sumer. Praise poems written three hundred years before Enheduanna’s birth have been found by archeologists in the ancient city of Abu Salabikh near, Nippur, the religious center of Sumer. However, Enheduanna’s ode to Inanna is a stunning piece of work, and it sets up a complicated form of praise that will play out for the next 4,000 years in poetry.
This poem of praise for Inanna is not simply an attempt to butter up a powerful goddess. The questions that Enheduanna asks are ones that have perplexed human beings forever. The world is glorious and yet at the same time it is filled with horror and suffering. Why? And what is our place in this world? Our lives are short. We come into the world and then we leave it, and most of us are forgotten, or we are only remembered until those who loved us are also dead. In the Inanna poems, we see Enheduanna grappling with these questions. According to Betty de Shong Meador, one of her translators, she is also witnessing a shift from the matriarchal goddess worship that came out of the Paleolithic era. With the beginning of the bronze age, the world was changing. Kings could muster armies of men with spears and shields. The relatively peaceful days of city-states were ending. Enheduanna’s father, Sargon, was an agent of this change, and his daughter was helping him build his empire.
But Enheduanna was a woman, and in her poems to Inanna, she looks back to the matriarchal goddess worship based on natural cycles that were the basis of the agricultural groups that formed around 6000 BCE and grew into the city-states of Sumer. That world was fading as men like Sargon vied for power.
In her praise poem to Inanna, “Lady of Largest Heart,” she addresses the question of why there is suffering in the world. Inanna is usually characterized as the goddess of love and war, but that is a gross simplification. She is the beauty of the natural world, the source of its abundance, the fields of grain, the fruit trees, the songs of birds, the tenderness of a mother for her child, the erotic dance that repopulates the world. She is also the terror, the source of destruction, dry winds that obliterate crops and dry rivers, the predation of vultures and birds of prey, battles of marauding armies that rape and destroy whole cities. All exists in one divine being. In a sense, Enheduanna is setting up the zeitgeist for monotheism. This movement will come to its fruition in the Hebrew Yahweh or Jehovah, but 200-500 years later. There is little doubt that Abraham would have known about Inanna since he had been exposed to Canannite temples during his youth.
Like Jehovah, Inanna is a force to be reckoned with. Enheduanna’s picture of Inanna has her in a cloak on which is embroidered the design of life. I picture it as one of those sci-fi couture creations that from a distance looks solid but once you get close you see the movement of the winds and the rivers and the seasons with their storms and spring breezes. There is a carved image of Inanna that is now in the Louvre in which she is naked, wearing only a hat and her cape pulled back to expose her high firm breasts and her delta of Venus. She brings to mind Lucas Cranach’s erotic paintings of Venus in which the goddess of love is lolling about naked but with elaborate hats and jewels, not to mention elaborate hairdos. She also reminds me of Madonna in her prime, half-naked and singing, “It’s a material world, and I’m a material girl.”
The middle poem in Enheduanna’s three-poem Innana sequence begins, “Lady of the largest heart, keen-for-battle queen.” Right away Enheduanna presents her goddess as embracing two opposing qualities. She has the largest heart and all that organ stands for: compassion, motherly love, erotic love. Yet she is ready to do battle. The first two images of this poem set the stage for the poem that follows.
Lady of the largest heart and battle queen,
joy of the council of the great gods,
eldest daughter of the Moon, in all lands
supreme power among great rulers.
Queen of rare deeds, she gathers the me
from heaven and earth,
greater that An, the god of the sky
Inanna is a formidable power. In her first Inanna poem, Enheduanna has set up the goddess as the greatest of the gods. She’s reminded us of it here at the beginning of her great ode. But what is that word “me” (pronounced “may”) in line five? Ah, it is one of those untranslatable words that every language has to describe something so complex that you either have to go on and fill books or use a two-letter word. Russian is especially full of words like this. One of my favorites is “toska,” the feeling that what you most want is denied you and perhaps doesn’t even exist. At the end of the opera Eugene Onegin, Onegin cries out “toska” when he realizes Tatiana is lost to him. At one time she threw herself at his feet, but he spurned her. Now she is a beautiful, sophisticated woman but married to another man. She still loves Onegin, but she won’t betray her husband. Onegin’s outcry is usually translated into English as “misery,” which is not wrong, but it’s just skimming the surface of “toska.”
“Me” is another of those words. Meador translates it as “cosmic powers,” and that is not wrong, but “me” is so much more. In Sumerian mythology the chief god An gathered all the me and distributed it to the other gods. Lists have been found of the me’s, but they are fragmentary. They cover all areas of human and divine discourse from godship, kingship, and priestly duties, to law, destruction of cities, and the arts of weaving and music. A major god would be in charge of the wind, while a minor god might be in charge of basket making. “Me” might be translated as “mojo,” but without the funk and amped up a thousand decibels.
One of the major parts of “Lady of the Largest Heart,” is a recitation of Inanna’s me’s, ones that she has stolen from the other gods to cement her place as the Queen of the Universe. Enheduanna uses the repeated phrase “are thine, Inanna” to punctuate the poem. In many of the verses she portrays the dual nature of Inanna.
To straighten the footpath, to make firm the cleft place
Are thine, Inanna.
To destroy, to build, to lift up, to put down
Are thine, Inanna.
To turn man into woman, woman into man
Are thine, Inanna.
Beauty, ardent kisses, kitchen pans, children
Are thine, Inanna.
She pays special attention to women in this poem and to the dual nature of desire, to want the lusty pleasures of sex and at the same time to want a settled life. “To have a husband, to have a wife / to thrive in the goodness of love, Are thine, Inanna.” Inanna encompasses everything. She musters armies; she makes a bird’s nest. “To be all knowing / Is yours Inanna,” Enheduanna says near the end of this part of the poem, but nothing prepared me for the last lines— “Setting free / Is yours Inanna.” To know that the world is made up of beauty and discord, vigorous health and pandemic plagues and to accept it—this will set you free. Almost two thousand years later, the Buddha said much the same thing. And the lyric repetition in this part of the poem is a technique that would be taken by the Hebrew poets and used to great effect in the poetic books of the Old Testament and then by American poets Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.
Enheduanna’s poems and others speak of the rituals of the ziggurat temples at the center of Sumerian/Akkadian cities. There is a lot of disagreement between scholars about the erotic nature of the rituals. There is just no way to know until the Pepys diary of Ancient Sumeria is found, but we do know that at there were festivals with great banquets and that the biggest festival was at the new year which was celebrated after the harvest. At that celebration the king married Inanna, represented by the high priestess.
Whether the marriage was consummated is unknown. Scholars from the earlier part of the twentieth century say no, but those who experienced the sexual revolution of the sixties say probably yes. Herodotus, when commenting on Babylonian temple rites says that all women had to serve time as temple prostitutes. However, the dates of the Babylonian Empire are from 1895-539 BCE, and Herodotus lived from 484-425. At best he was writing about rituals that took place over a hundred years before he was born. And there are 500 years between Enheduanna’s time and that of the beginning of the Babylonian Empire. Who’s to know?
In the excavation of one temple, the archeologist involved said his first thought when they uncovered a platform in the center of the temple, “Oh, that’s a bed.” A perfect place for the ritual consummation between the king and the high priestess. What is known is that there was a lot of gender-bending in the temple personnel. Again, translation is a problem. When we read cuneiform tablets about temple workers and the words are translated as “eunuchs” or “temple prostitutes,” but we don’t really know what their duties were. We do know that in some rituals the temple employees had robes that were those of a woman on one side and a man on the other. And in “Lady of the Largest Heart” she describes Inanna’s embrace of a more fluid sexuality.
Inanna, dressing as a maiden within the women’s rooms,
embraces with a full heart the young girl’s
manly bearing. The maid, a woman evilly spurned,
taunted to her face, sways beneath the wrath
thrown on her everywhere, her only path a wanderer
in dim and lonely streets, her only rest
a narrow spot in the jostling marketplace where
from a window a mother holds a child and stares.
In this part of the poem Enheduanna describes a ritual in which the manly woman is taken into the temple and performs in a ritual called “head-overturning” in which Inanna turns a woman into a man and a man into a woman. At the very least this seems to be an acceptance of a wide range of sexual orientation. Those who might be considered on the outside of normal behavior in the larger society are embraced and made part of a more sophisticated milieu in the temple culture. So what was temple life like—austere and formal or a rolling debauched party? Perhaps both—a highly stylized ritual life that broke out into wildness during festivals.
What we do know is that this remarkable woman—Enheduanna, daughter of a king, high priestess of Nanna in the temple at Ur, and poet-devotee of the goddess Inanna—wrote her poems and was confident enough of her place in the world to tell us that she had written them.
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