The Struggle to Unearth the World’s First Author

About forty-three hundred years ago, in a country we now call Iraq, a sculptor carved into a white stone disc the image of a woman ruling over a temple worship. She wears a long ceremonial dress and a headdress. Two ministers were behind him, and one in front, pouring the drink on the altar. On the back of the disc, Enheduanna, a high priestess and daughter of King Sargon, appears.

Some scholars believe that the priestess was the first writer in the world. The clay plaque holds the words of a long folk song: “I have taken my place in the sanctuary, / I am the high priest, I am Enheduanna.” In Sumer, the ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia where writing was developed, texts were anonymous. If Enheduanna writes those words, then he marks the beginning of the writer, the beginning of the speech, the beginning of the autobiography. For comparison, he lived fifteen hundred years before Homer, seventeen hundred years before Sappho, and two thousand years before Aristotle, who is considered the father of civilization. rhetorical.

The poem, written in cuneiform, describes a difficult period in the life of a priestess. Enheduanna’s father Sargon united the city-states of Mesopotamia to form what is sometimes called the first empire in history. Its territory stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing today Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, more than sixty-five cities, each with its own religious traditions, systems management, and local knowledge. While Sarkon ruled from Akkad, in the north, he appointed his daughter as high priestess at the temple of the moon god in the southern city of Ur. The position, although outwardly religious, is a political act, helping to unite the various parts of the government. After the death of Sargon, the government was torn apart by rebellion; The throne passed briefly to Enheduanna’s brothers, then to his brother. In the poem, Enheduanna called Lugalanne—a soldier who led a rebellion in Ur—is forced to oust Enheduanna from her place in the temple.

“He made that temple an infamous house. Said Enheduanna. He was driven from the city, he wandered in the desert. “He made me go to a rough land. / He took away the crown of my holy office, / He gave me the sword: This is good for you, he said. The full weight of the thief’s crime is lost somewhere. literal translation, but the language refers to sexual immorality. one inciting murder. Handing him a knife, Lugalanne encouraged him to kill himself. “This suits you.”

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Enheduanna’s life depended on her oratorical skills, but she found that her power had dried up. “My first mouth of honey has turned to madness, / my power to soothe the heart has turned to dust,” he said. To overcome this obstacle, he first complained to the moon god, but he ignored him: “My moonlight does not care about me! / He let me die in this place of false hopes.” He then turned to Inanna, the goddess of love, women, and war, giving a long paean to his beauty: “My wife! This land will again bow to your battle cry!” Enheduanna’s problem is resolved through that blessing, and through the creation of the song itself, called “The Exaltation of Inanna.” In a a wonderfully educational passage, the act of writing is compared to the pangs of childbirth. “This is full of me, this is full of me, O High Lady, when I give birth to you./ O What I trust in you in the dark of the night, the one who sings for you in the light of day!”

Enheduanna’s son put down the rebellion, and Enheduanna was returned to his office. He mentions his rescue of Inanna—“Know that you have destroyed the rebellious land!”—but the poem also describes Enheduanna’s role, in raising Inanna, to the life of Ur. The goddess and the priest are closely related, the priestess is part of the divine world. The poem is political, documenting the relationship between power and language, but it is also personal.

In addition to “The Exaltation,” two other texts are attributed to Enheduanna: “A Hymn to Inanna,” which mentions Enheduanna by name, and “Inanna and Ebih,” which is attributed to her on stylistic grounds. His role also included the collection of forty-two hymns—hymns addressed to the temples of various states. The hymns form part of what Yale scholars William Hallo and JJA van Dijk call “a large body of Mesopotamian theology,” uniting the region’s many religions and deities and translating Enheduanna as “a form of systematic science.” The cycle ends with an inscription: “Enheduanna was the one who connected the tablet.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the deeds of Enheduanna were celebrated, and were part of the curriculum in the edubas, or scribe schools, which taught future priests and civil servants cuneiform writing and Sumerian grammar. For hundreds of years, students learned by carving Enheduanna’s sayings on clay tablets, and about a hundred of these copies of “The Exaltation of Inanna” survive. But since their discovery, in the middle of the twentieth century, scholars have vigorously debated the authorship of Enheduanna. Did the female priest really write these works? Is the concept of women at the beginning of written culture – two thousand years before the golden age of Greece – too good to be true? This winter, an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia,” will try to give the priestess what she was. “You ask anyone you know and they’ll say Herodotus was the first author or someone else,” said Sidney Babcock, the curator of the show. “It always amazes me. No one will go with him. “

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The city of Ur was first excavated in the eighteen fifties. But much of it was not discovered until 1922, when a British geologist, Leonard Woolley, led a joint expedition 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: An Account of the Seven Years of Excavation,” refers to Genesis: “And Terah took Abram … and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; came with them from Ur of the Chaldees.”) Woolley’s greatest find was the royal tomb, where his team excavated the tombs of kings and queens. , including jewelry, weapons, pottery, musical instruments, and other treasures.

Ur was also, of course, Enheduanna’s foster home. In 1927, five years into the excavation, the excavators discovered the ruins of a temple. Inside, they found the broken pieces of a stone disc—the disc representing Enheduanna—and nearby, three other items naming the priestess: cylinder seals for her servants. Elsewhere in the temple are clay tablets covered with cuneiform writing. “Here is clear evidence that priestesses kept a school in their house,” Woolley wrote. But he missed the full inclusion of what he saw, calling the temple a “nunnery” and a “harem.” Some of the tablets found at Ur were copies of Enheduanna’s texts, but Woolley, who considered the history of Great Men—political kings, biblical patriarchs—seemed uninterested. to the priestess, treating her as an unworthy appendage of her famous father. Her book was not called Enheduanna, referring to her as Sargon’s daughter.

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In recent years, archaeologists and archaeologists have discovered other tablets with the words of Enheduanna, in cities such as Nippur and Larsa. But his body of work was not written, published, or transmitted to him until the late fifties and sixties. In 1968, the first translation of his text from Sumerian to English appeared. “We can now see a musical composition of the first rank that not only reveals the name of its author, but describes that author for us in a truly autobiographical way,” he wrote. Hallo and van Dijk when they started the translation. “In the person of Enheduanna, we stand with a woman who became a queen, a priest, and a poet.” They both agree that the picture compiled by scholars is incomplete. “We still do not know the full extent of Enheduanna’s literary work,” they wrote, “but the strongest evidence of his personality and faith is in the poems that can be attributed to him. , so that one day he could see his writing in other areas that were neglected.

While Hallo and van Dijk note that Enheduanna wrote earlier than is known – Akkad, the capital of Sargon’s empire, has not been excavated – others downplay his role. British scholar WG Lambert has raised the possibility of ghost writing, suggesting that some of Enheduanna’s texts may have been written by a scribe. (The Sumerian kings often had their own scribes.) “Our emotional response to ancient texts is not the best source of judgment,” he later wrote. in 2001. Some scholars have questioned Enheduanna on the basis of the existence of his work. copied by students of the edubas, up to five hundred years after his death; No copies from his own time survive, and, in some cases, the texts contain place names and words related to his time. This may be the result of changes made in the process of scribe transmission—changes often go hand in hand with the reworking of old records—but some see reason for doubt. “He’s speaking in the first person, but it’s not like the author,” Paul Delnero, a professor of Assyriology at Johns Hopkins University, told me. Enheduanna can be a religious figure honored by later writers, whose name is invoked in the works that give them power.

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