The First Author in Recorded History is a Woman: Meet Sumerian Priestess, Enheduanna
“The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.” — Enheduanna
Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) is a hidden woman in history.
Not only is she the first-known author and poet on record, but she’s also the daughter of Sargon The Great, one of the first people in history to rule over an empire (The Akkadian Empire). After he conquered and unified Mesopotamia over four thousand years ago, Enheduanna became the high priestess of Nanna-Suen, the moon deity, serving to help unify the chaotic and divided city of Ur.
Despite being overthrown and exiled during her rule when a high-ranking military officer rebelled against her, her leadership was eventually restored with the help of her brothers and nephews. Through that experience, Enheduanna went on to write approximately 42 hymns, numerous myths, poetry, and other works that became an influential part of Mesopotamia’s literary history.
Though scribal traditions were a male-dominant practice during that time, Enheduanna did not seem to be a woman of subservient nature who abided by such conventions. She used her words to continue to bridge the gap between conflicting Sumerians and Akkadians and to speak out against those who wronged her.
“He gave me a knife and dagger, and said to me, ‘These are appropriate ornaments for you.’ ”
— Enheduanna, The Exultation of Inanna
Known as the Shakespeare of Sumerian Literature for her skillful craft, some of her found work includes streams of consciousness about writer’s block and reflecting on the quality of her artistic expression. Enheduanna’s writing is mostly autobiographical, depicting her experiences as a woman in power, and the men who tried to force her from her throne.
She also wrote her pleas to the moon god Nanna, to which she was the high priestess. But it seems Enheduanna’s spiritual connection with Inanna, the Mesopotamian goddess of love, sex, and war, is who she resonated with most. Innana challenged gender norms and maintained promoted women’s autonomy. Enheduanna’s poetry praises Inanna for helping her hone her authority.
Many would argue Enheduanna is the first feminist known on record. Her poetry highlights her admiration for local, powerful female deities in a male-dominated society. Enheduanna’s published works emphasize her immense impact on her culture during that era and people believe that some of her work had an effect on Homer’s epics and Christian and Hebrew hymns.
Affirming Enheduanna’s authorship has been of discussion in more recent years. Despite Enheduanna’s disks and scripts being uncovered in the early 1920s, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that historians began transcribing her work for publishing and assessing her artifacts for research. And none of it occurred without conflict.
Debate around Enheduanna’s authorship credibility prevented the progression of its analysis. This discussion came up again during the 1970s feminist movement and in the 1990s to debunk the patriarchal nature of the claims against her as a writer. However, according to reports, historical records clearly validate her compositions as her own. Oh, the irony of Enheduanna’s fight to rectify her integrity and intellectual property even in death.
Regardless of the conflict around her work’s ownership, Enheduanna is an influential figure for Iraqi artists and women leaders. Sumerian literature is the earliest form of written and oral literature. It’s rather iconic for a woman to have been the first authored person in human history. Her outspoken texts about her experiences and passionate worldviews upheld a commanding honesty that offers much to be inspired by.
In 2022, Enheduanna and the women of ancient Mesopotamia were honored in The Morgan Library & Museum through the She Who Wrote Exhibition, paying homage to Enheduanna’s legacy and acting as a testament to the diverse roles of women in that era. Sidney Babcock, a long-time curator of the museum, mentions that after 500 BC Enheduanna and the prominent women of ancient Mesopotamia had been “completely forgotten” until the exhibit revived their work.
The world may never know the magnitude of Enheduanna’s leadership. Curiosity and a quick google search became more productive in uncovering her legacy than that which is taught in schools and showcased in the media. It poses the question of how many other hidden women in history have achievements as grand as this which we do not celebrate. This princess, priestess, and poetess’s marker on history has been overlooked for thousands of years, most often referred to as Sargon’s daughter instead of by name.
Enheduanna’s displacement is proof of the ever-lasting cycle of women’s efforts to be an active part of history despite thousands of years of the story being told through a man’s eyes and work. Why are her achievements not more widely recognized? If nothing else, it provokes one’s responsibility to carefully curate personal research into women’s history while society catches up. One can only hope the reawakening of her legacy continues to resurface over time.
Christine Weimer is an award-winning poet, content writer, publishing advisor, and spoken-word artist from Queens, New York who co-founded, Our Galaxy Publishing, an educational and service-based platform for aspiring writers, to which she is the editor-in-chief. In 2022, Christine spearheaded Our Galaxy’s first multi-genre, Amazon bestselling anthology, Venus Rising: Musings & Lore from Women Writers. She is the author of three poetry collections; Tainted Lionheart, which won the Gold Medal Poetry Award for Readers’ Favorite 2021, I Got to Know Nature, and Claiming the Throne. Christine can mostly be found sharing her introspections as they ebb and flow on her Instagram at @amindfulwriter or on her website at christineweimer.com. Some catch her peeking out to say hello and share writing and publishing advice through @ourgalaxypublishing’s Instagram and blog. If lost, check the crevices of Washington Square Park—look for the disheveled lady with toddler in tow.
Our Galaxy Publishing is a New York City-based, women-owned, and operated independent press with a nationwide team serving aspiring authors the tools to write and publish. Our seamless publishing experience focuses on action-based tools and resources to publish, exploration of all core storytelling elements, and empowering an entrepreneurial mindset. Whether seeking to self-publish a book or find a traditional publisher, work with us for book publishing, book editing, book marketing, and writing mentorship to publish a successful book.