In Search of Enheduanna, the Woman Who Was History’s First Named Author
It was a random morning in November, and Enheduanna was trending.
Suddenly, the ancient Mesopotamian priestess, who had been dead for more than 4,000 years, was a hot topic online as word spread that the first individually named author in human history was … a woman?
That may have been old news at the Morgan Library & Museum, where Sidney Babcock, the longtime curator of ancient Near Eastern antiquities, was about to offer a tour of its new exhibition “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400-2000 B.C.” Babcock was thrilled by the attention, if not exactly surprised by the public’s surprise.
Ask people who the first author was, and they might say Homer, or Herodotus. “People have no idea,” he said. “They simply don’t believe it could be a woman” — and that she was writing more than a millennium before either of them, in a strikingly personal voice.
Enheduanna’s work celebrates the gods and the power of the Akkadian empire, which ruled present-day Iraq from about 2350 B.C. to 2150 B.C. But it also describes more sordid, earthly matters, including her abuse at the hands of a corrupt priest — the first reference to sexual harassment in world literature, the show argues.
“It’s the first time someone steps forward and uses the first-person singular and gives an autobiography,” Babcock said. “And it’s profound.”
Enheduanna has been known since 1927, when archaeologists working at the ancient city of Ur excavated a stone disc bearing her name (written with a starburst symbol) and image, and identifying her as the daughter of the king Sargon of Akkad, the wife of the moon god Nanna, and a priestess.
In the decades that followed, her works — some 42 temple hymns and three stand-alone poems, including “The Exaltation of Inanna” — were pieced together from more than 100 surviving copies made on clay tablets.