I, Enheduanna

The first named author in human history was a high priestess in the Mesopotamian cities of Ur and Uruk, named Enheduanna, a woman who lived around 2300 BCE. Or, so many think. You can read about some of the archaeological artifacts associated with her here. There is, as ever, some dispute about her status as author: see the bibliographic references below if you are interested. I have found Zainab Bahrani's Women of Babylon most helpful in sorting through the issue. My personal view is that the argument against attribution is relatively weak, and seems to depend (as Bahrani argues) heavily on expectations about the role of women in Mesopotamia that are not themselves strongly supported. But again, we are moonlighting here, and so the point is not to contribute to this debate. Instead we want to read the text for representations of legitimate authority, of gender in relation to political power, and of just and unjust uses of power.

In this course we read "The Exaltation of Inana" (click through for a translation), which I chose partially because it provides an account of what we are clearly meant to think of as an unjust seizure of power (by one Lugal-ane). Sargon of Akkad has conquered Sumer and created the first empire, one that unites Akkad and Sumer. Sargon then appoints his daughter as high priestess of the moon god, Nanna, at Ur. Sargon's reign (and that of his immediate successor) is punctuated by rebellions, in one of which Lugal-ane briefly seizes Ur and displaces Enheduanna as high priestess. The Exaltation is thought to be composed upon the suppression of this rebellion and Enheduanna's return, which is here attributed to the intervention of the goddess Inana.

Enheduanna is often seen as creating, through this and other hymns/poems, a unified cosmology, and thus a unified ideological basis for kingly power, out of the parallel cosmologies of Sumer and Akkad. Thus Suen and Nanna are understood as names of one god, the moon god. Similarly, there appears to be a unification of the goddesses Ishtar and Inana at work across Enheduanna's compositions (on these points see Hallo and Dijk. The work has also been described as taking the form of a court case, but the argument is made by Annette Zgoll in a piece published in German, and I have yet to find a translation).

So we can read the process of ideological production taking place. But is this ideology produced in the service of Sargon's power alone? Part of Enheduanna's plea to Inana is that Nanna (who presumably should favor Enheduanna) has been silent, and has failed to make a judgment on her behalf ("My Nanna has paid no heed to me (1 ms. has instead: has not decided my case). He has destroyed me utterly in renegade territory." (l. 100-101)). Inana is called on to intervene where her father, Nanna, has proved unable, or unwilling, to do so. It isn't absolutely clear that Sargon is still alive at the time of Lugal-ane's rebellion, but the implication that the daughter (Inana) is both more important and more powerful than the father (Nanna) ("That Nanna has not yet spoken out, and that he has said "He is yours!" has made you greater, my lady; you have become the greatest!" (l. 134-136)) at least raises the possibility that Enheduanna means to imply as much about herself. This might suggest that Lugal-ane's implied sexual attempt on Enheduanna (underplayed in this translation: "While he entered before me as if he was a partner, really he approached out of envy." (l. 90)) is not only an act of dominance, but a reflection of the fact that establishing himself as king depended on a connection to the goddess of erotic love (Inana) that only Enheduanna could provide. Here again we step on the toes of the archaeologists. If there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that women of high status composed poetry and hymns, there is even more scope for doubt about the exact meaning or details of the sexual rituals that seem to have accompanied the consecration of a king, or the role of the high priestess in legitimating any particular king's right to rule. Lines like "The woman will take the destiny away from Lugal-ane; foreign lands and flood lie at her feet. The woman too is exalted, and can make cities tremble. Step forward, so that she will cool her heart for me" (l. 77-80) (which appear to refer to Inana) permit us to consider, however, that in exalting Inana, Enheduanna at least intends to augment her own position.

We can use this text, then, not only to consider how ideologies are made, but also to learn to read representations of power, gender, injustice, and so on. We can disrupt our own assumptions about how gender 'must' have worked in a monarchical society, even if we aren't really sure how it did work in practice, and consider how legitimate authority is established in relation to the divine. We can see, finally, without claiming that the poem presents a "philosophy," that the production of intellectually sophisticated political texts is coincident with the emergence of literary writing itself.


Bahrani, Zainab. Women of Babylon: Gender and Representation in Mesopotamia. SUNY Press, 2001.

Black, Jeremy A.,  ed. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Gero, Joan M., and Margaret Wright Conkey, eds. Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Social Archaeology. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass., USA: B. Blackwell, 1991.

Hallo, William W. Origins: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions. BRILL, 1996.

Hallo, William W., and J. J. A. van Dijk. The Exaltation of Inanna. Yale University Press, 1968.

Hallo, William W., K. Lawson Younger, eds. The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions, Monumental Inscriptions and Archival Documents from the Biblical World. Leiden; New York: Brill, 2003.

Heimpel, W. "Review of The Exaltation of Inanna," by William W. Hallo and J. J. A. van Dijk. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 30, no. 3 (1971): 232–36.

Leick, Gwendolyn. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Lipson, Carol, and Roberta A. Binkley, eds. Rhetoric before and beyond the Greeks. Albany: State University of New York, 2004.

“The Exaltation of Inana (English and Sumerian Translation).” Accessed September 9, 2016. http://www.atour.com/history/4000BC/20110927a.html.

Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.