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Where Next for the World’s First Author?

Sophus Helle—

Enheduana is the first known author in the history of world literature. She was a royal princess and high priestess who lived in the 23rd century BCE in the city of Ur, in what is now southern Iraq, and five poems were attributed to her by the ancient Babylonian scribes and scholars.

Her best-known poems, The Exaltation of Inana and The Hymn to Inana, sing the praises of Inana, the Sumerian goddess of sex, war, change, chaos, and conflict. These hymns are works of great poetic power, combining blizzards of striking metaphors with an elegant patterning of sounds, signs, and syllables.

The first English translation of the Exaltation was published in 1968, a year that was, appropriately for a hymn to Inana, rocked by waves of revolt and societal change. But over the fifty years that have passed since then, Enheduana has led a relatively quiet life in popular culture, as she was consigned mainly to the interest of small groups of academics and enthusiasts. But now, that seems to be changing.

In November 2022, The Morgan Library in New York put on an exhibit about women in the ancient world that used Enheduana as its central figure. The exhibit was reviewed across several major newspapers, shining what had been a rare spotlight onto Enheduana: suddenly, she was the subject of feature stories in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the BBC website.

Clarice Jensen’s musical adaptation of the Exaltation premiered in January 2023; another musical adaptation of the text had been performed in Copenhagen the year before. In March 2023, I will be publishing a new introduction to and translation of Enheduana’s poems, and I have been contacted by several writers, playwrights, and artists who are currently undertaking projects about Enheduana.

By any measure, this is Enheduana’s moment, and it’s not hard to see why. Enheduana fits into two cultural trends that are currently gathering force. One is a return to the classics, as books exploring the ancient world have become surprising bestsellers, including translations such as Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, adaptations such as Madeline Miller’s Circe, and even archaeological treatises such as David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything.

The second trend is an expansion of the literary canon, as readers hunger for more female and non-Western voices to complement the male and white slant of much literary history. As a figure of great antiquity—older even that Gilgamesh, the Babylonian epic that is often touted as the “world’s oldest masterpiece”—and also a rare flash of female voice in the ancient world, Enheduana allows us to both revisit and expand the past.

What interests me most as a historian of Enheduana is how the new wave of interest will reshape our understanding of her. As more readers encounter her poems, what sense will they make of these often puzzling texts? What new aspects of Enheduana’s life, work, and heritage will be highlighted as her fame increases?

So far, Enheduana has been known—to the extent that she has been known—almost exclusively as a female author and a figure of inspiration in feminist circles. While that is an important perspective on her, it does not exhaust her potential as either a poet or a historical figure. I would like to suggest three aspects of her work and legacy that may gain prominence over the next decade.

First, as the climate crisis continues to intensify, Enheduana’s depiction of nature may come to be seen as a more central aspect of her work. Her poems are especially attuned to the terrifying devastation that nature can unleash on humans, overflowing with images of storms, flash floods, hurricanes, and wild animals as both dangerous hunters and pitiable prey.

Enheduana’s lifetime coincided with a period of dramatic climactic transformation known as the “4.2 kiloyear event,” which was a time of drought, desiccation, and famine. While it is not human-made like the current climate crisis, this sense of historical affinity may grow stronger as the planet grows warmer.

Second, it is already the case that Iraqi writers have turned to Enheduana as a fellow poet of exile. Amal al-Jubouri, who sought asylum in Germany during the Baathist regime, speaks of using Enheduana as a “mask” to communicate her own experiences; while the Baghdad-born, US-based poet Dunya Mikhail says that she relates to Enheduana as a fellow migrant.

But again, this is a perspective that may grow even more central to future readings of Enheduana as migrants are likely to become dramatically more numerous in the decades ahead. Some estimates foresee as many 1.2 billion climate refugees worldwide by 2050. As the topics of exile and displacement becomes more important, more readers may turn to Enheduana with that perspective in mind.

Third, while Enheduana has often been read as a preeminently female author, revealing by sheer contrast the lack of women in the curricula of literary history, the poems attributed to her are also an important source of information about nonbinary gender in the Sumerian world. One passage in the Hymn describes the creation of several figures, including the pilipili, the kur-ĝara and the saĝ-ursaĝ, who deviated from conventional gender norms and are described in some texts as having transitioned from male to female or vice versa.

These figures performed rituals in which they reversed or subverted gender signifiers, such as weapons and weaving instruments or male and female clothing. They thereby revealed that gender is not a stable identity but something fundamentally changeable—thus exalting the goddess they served, Inana, patron deity of transformation.

As the debate over trans rights continues to intensify, these passages in Enheduana’s poems may become relevant in their own right, as they can be used to show that gender transition and gender subversion are nothing new: trans issues are not a modern fad but a form of cultural politics with deep historical roots.

But these are just my guesses. What I really hope will happen is that I will be surprised by the new wave of interest in Enheduana’s poems, and that new readers will reveals layers and aspects of the texts to which I and my Sumerological colleagues have not paid sufficient attention.

If Enheduana’s poems celebrate the goddess of change, what better fate for them than to remain changeable?

Sophus Helle is a writer, translator, and cultural historian. In 2021, Helle translated Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic with Yale University Press. Enheduana: The Complete Poems of the World’s First Author, is accompanied by the website, which is designed to help students, teachers, and interested readers learn more about Enheduana’s world and work.

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