Enheduanna, the Akkadian priestess considered the first known writer

Some time ago we published here an article dedicated to the reopening of Carchemish, an ancient city discovered by the archaeologist George Smith in 1876 and excavated by Leonard Woolley in 1911 with the help of Lawrence of Arabia, before he achieved prominence in the First World War by uniting the Arab nations in arms. Well, Woolley’s other work was in Ur, where in 1927 he found a singular piece: a stone disk whose main interest is that it contains an allusion to Enheduanna; It won’t mean anything to most, but it turns out that it is one of the first documented female names in all of history.

Woolley is considered the first modern archaeologist because during his excavations in the Sumerian city Ur, carried out between 1922 and 1934, he found geological evidence of a great flood that appeared in the Epic of Gilgamesh (an epic narrative from more than four millennia ago about the homonymous character) and that inspired the Biblical story of the Universal Flood.

He was also the one who brought to light the Sumerian royal necropolis and the famous royal banner, a kind of wooden box whose panels are decorated with warlike and costumbrist friezes. But, in addition, among the objects recovered for the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania, there was the circular piece that we mentioned before and that today is known as the Enheduanna Disc.

It is a limestone votive disk (first it was said to be made of calcite and then translucent alabaster) measuring 25.6 centimeters in diameter by 7.1 centimeters thick that was buried in the Giparu area, the temple complex of Sin- Luna (sanctuary), very close to the famous ziggurat of Ur.

It was not in good condition and it seemed that it had been deliberately destroyed in its time, so it was necessary to put it back together piece by piece. The result of this patient and meticulous work resulted in the visibility of two faces, one of which shows the representation of some kind of religious ceremony with four figures making an offering to the moon god Nannar-Sin (Nannar in Sumerian, Sin in Akkadian), the son of the almighty Enlil.

One such figure has been identified as the priestess Enheduanna, standing behind a priest and ahead of a servant and scribe. She appears highlighted in size to show her importance, wearing a dress with woolly flounces and a diadem (it cannot be seen if it is the typical one with horns, a divine symbol), from which braids come out. On the other side of it there is an inscription of her with her name: “Enheduanna, priestess zirru, wife of the god Nanna, daughter of Sargon, king of the world, in the temple of the goddess Innana”.

Perhaps because her tomb was not found, Enheduanna was not given greater importance until the late 1950s, when, after finding more sources (an alabaster disc, cylinder seals), the authors began to dedicate articles and publications to her. to the mysterious but suggestive character.

It is easy to deduce that it was not just any woman but the daughter of the great Sargon I, the creator of the Akkadian Empire, which in the middle of the 24th century BC covered a good part of Mesopotamia, not only in the basins of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. but even to Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast.

Sargon’s Akkadian Empire/Image: Crates on Wikimedia Commons

Following in the wake of a precursor, Lugalzagesi, the king of Umma who had taken over southern Mesopotamia and whom he took prisoner, Sargon was conquering one city-state after another: Uruk, Ur, Lagash, the aforementioned Umma, Elam… He established the capital in Agade (Acad) and earned the nickname of the big oneHis exploits being continued by his grandson Naram-Sin, who was the one who reached the maximum extension of Akkadian domain, reaching Susa until the guti stopped him.

Naram-Sin was the son of Manishutusu, the second offspring that Sargon had with his wife Tashultum and who had inherited the throne after the first-born Rimush, his lineage being perpetuated through eight children. But Naram-Sin and Rimush had more siblings: Ibarum, Abaish-Takal and our Enheduanna, the youngest of the family, born around the year 2300 BC. We don’t really know what her name was because Enheduanna is not a personal name but a dignity .

Its etymology, according to experts, involves a combination of words like In (in Sumerian, high priest or priestess), hedu (ornament) and still (sky), from which the meaning Great Priestess Adornment of Heaven is deduced. True, other interpretations say that the particle still it would be the name of the celestial divinity Anu or, combining both versions, that the word as a whole was nothing more than a poetic way of designating her as a priestess of the Moon.

In other words, to be honest, we do not know the real name of that princess, but even so, it has passed to posterity for various reasons. The first, being one of the first women documented to be identified -albeit cheating a bit-, preceding Emmenanna, the daughter of Naram-Sin, who, like her great-aunt, was also a high priestess of the god Nannar. -Sin and of the goddess Inanna.

This brings us to the second reason, which is the important role that princesses had in embodying the top of the priestly caste. Something, probably intentionally established by Sargon to have greater control over Sumer, the region to which Ur belonged and which used to rebel; In that sense, Enheduanna was the first to take on that role.

When her brother Rimush ascended the throne, she continued to serve as high priestess until she became embroiled in one of those frequent Sumerian revolts, resulting in her deposition and expulsion from Ur after refusing to accept a usurper, Lugalanne, as a claimant; subsequently, Rimush put down her insurrection and reinstated her in office, which she continued during the tenure of her nephew Naram-Sin.

Ruins of the Ennigaldi Palace, in the background the ziggurat of Ur / photo M. Lubinski on Wikimedia Commons

It seems that she achieved such prestige that she would later be deified, at least partially. She tells it herself in a work entitled Nin-Me-Sar-Ra (Exaltation of Inanna), which is the third reason to remember her, especially because she must be considered the first known writer.

Exaltation of Inanna It is a religious composition in one hundred fifty-three verses that, as its own title says, signed in honor of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, lady of love and war, protector of the city of Uruk and later syncretically merged with the Babylonian and Akkadian Ishtar. (later she was also identified with the Phoenician Astarte and the Greek Aphrodite).

Inanna was the daughter of Nannar-Sin, to whom Enhedanna also dedicates glosses in the hymn to nanna; it also includes an autobiographical part, as we pointed out before, since the invocation to Inanna was intended to ask her to recover his position.

Written in cuneiform on clay tablets (although numerous copies would be made centuries later, not only in Ur but also in Nippur and Lagash), it is part of a corpus literary in which they are also In-nin sa-gur-ra (two hundred and seventy-four verses), In-nin me-hus-a and the forty-two hymns that have been gathered from the collection of thirty-seven tablets from various periods and which, being addressed to the temples of Sumer and Akkad, are known as Sumerian temple hymns.

It is possible that other works considered anonymous could be attributed to Enheduanna; In any case, it reveals interesting facts about the considerable role of this woman, so different from that of the other females of ancient Mesopotamia, almost a parallel with something she writes when equating Inanna with her husband Anu: he was the supreme god of Sumerian mythology, father and sovereign of the others, who would also be assimilated by the Assyrians as Assur and by the Babylonians as Marduk. A good reference for that comparison because, after all, Enheduanna, princess, priestess and poet -not necessarily in that order-, played a remarkable role: as high priestess she not only directed the cult and managed the giparu but also supervised the harvests and managed the grain silos, farms and even taverns, as well as served as a cultural and political melting pot between Sumerian and Akkadian traditions.


Encyclopedia of women in the Ancient World (Joyce E. Salisbury)/Sacred places of goddesses. 108 destinations (Karen Tate)/Women’s political & social thought. An anthology (Hilda L. Smith and Berenice A. Carroll)/Ishtar (Louise M. Pryke)/Enheduanna, daughter of King Sargon, princess, poet, priestess (2300 BC) (Janet Roberts in Transoxiana)/Wikipedia

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