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Photo by Klaus Wagensonner from The Yale Babylonian Collection

A New Audience for the World’s First Author

Sophus Helle

Authors in antiquity knew from prolonged experience the labor that is needed to carry a text through time. Books do not move across centuries on their own. They must be moved, and they are moved by the hard work of copyists and editors, printers and proselytizers, translators and versifiers, singers and booksellers, teachers and students, readers and listeners. No written material, not even the comparatively durable clay of the Sumerians, survives the passing of time entirely unaffected: if books are not attended to, they crumble and decay. It takes many hands, mouths, ears, and eyes to secure their survival.

The priestess Enheduana, the first known author in literary history—by which I mean the first person to whom a literary work was attributed and who can be identified in the historical record—knew this also. The best known poem attributed to her, The Exaltation of Inana, ends with a description of its own composition. After it was created by Enheduana, it was passed on to the singer who performed it on the following day, setting in motion a chain of transmission that moved from the singer to the scribes who copied out the poem, the archaeologists who excavated those copies, and the philologists who pieced the manuscripts together to reconstruct the text. When I came to translating the poem for my book, Enheduana: The Complete Poems of the World’s First Author, I was merely adding yet another link to this four-millennia-long chain.

Even that one link would not have been possible without a wide circle of gifted and generous collaborators, including the editors, publicists, colleagues, peer reviewers, friends, and family members who offered crucial feedback and support. And then there are the many reviewers, blurbers, booksellers, and podcasters who helped bring the book to its readers. Even this list is not exclusive, and again, it covers only a single episode in the long story of the poem’s journey across time and languages.

To publish a book is a lesson, not in the skills or inspiration needed to write, but in indebtedness, gratitude, and humility. Books are collaborative events; they travel, like rockstars, on a sea of happy hands.

Books live longest and, as it were, healthiest, when the labor of their transmission is organized and incentivized by institutions, such as libraries and monasteries. Institutions are uniquely well-suited to offer continuity over time, and no institution is more effective in carrying a book across time than the school. The books that survive the longest and spread the widest are those that are taught in schools.

Schools are the reason Enheduana’s poems survived for millennia. Around year 2000 BCE, the Sumerian language, in which the poems are written, died out as a native language, becoming instead a language of scholarship and religious rituals, much like Latin in Europe and Sanskrit in India. And so, it had to be taught in schools, and the copying of Sumerian poems—including those attributed to Enheduana—was a key part of the school curriculum in ancient Babylonian cities like Nippur and Ur. The Exaltation was among the most popular of the texts in this curriculum, and as a result, just over a hundred manuscripts of it have been found.

However, after the 18th century BCE, the school curriculum dropped Enheduana’s poems. It would take centuries for them to be excavated, edited, and brought to light once again: the first edition of the Exaltation appeared in 1968. Even then, Enheduana would languish in literary obscurity for five decades, being almost completely unknown outside of specialist circles. But now, after two years of explosive publicity—triggered in part by my book and in part by the exhibition “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and the Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400–2000 BC” at the Morgan Library in New York—the poems are coming full circle, taking their place yet again in school curricula.

Starting next year, the Exaltation will be the first literary text read by students in Columbia University’s Core Curriculum. Other universities are likely to follow suit, since there is currently a high—and justified—pressure on educational institutions to include more female and non-Western voices in the curricula of literary history. But what would be the implications if Enheduana’s poems do indeed become an established part of university curricula? It is, of course, too early to answer this question with any serious confidence or detail, but I would like to offer four suggestions.

First, if Enheduana is indeed included in survey courses on literary history, she will most often be the first author in those course, as is the case with Columbia University. As such, her inclusion will—or rather, should—spark reflections on what force we ascribe to firstness. We should not allow this firstness to signal primitiveness, implicitly placing ancient texts in a telelogical narrative leading from crude beginnings to modern refinement: Enheduana’s hymns are as complex and self-aware as any postmodern poem. But we should not fetishize firstness, either, since it is in many ways a construct. There are literary works far older than Enheduana’s, such as the Instructions of Shuruppak that dates to at least three centuries before her birth; and there are even older texts that discuss authorship, such as the Kesh Temple Hymn (though here authorship is assigned to the gods rather than to a human being who can be identified in the historical record). Ideally, then, the placement of Enheduana at the head of the curriculum will spark reflections on what this place means or should mean.

Second, much of the appeal that Enheduana currently commands is the excitement of discovery. There is a thrill to reading her poems that is often expressed in the question, “How did I not know these poems before?” If the poems are institutionalized, that thrill may fade. It might fade slowly—the excitement of discovery still clings to the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, which has been known for some 150 years—but it will inevitably lessen, leaving more complicated emotional responses in its wake. Readers may come to approach Enheduana more critically, as a figure of institutional power rather than an unfairly neglected outsider. Indeed, that is how Enheduana was perceived in her own time: she was the daughter of King Sargon, who subdued the previously independent Sumerian city states to create his kingdom, and the Exaltation describes a rebellion against her family’s rule. And yet, as a rare female and non-Western author on the curriculum of literary history, Enheduana is likely to retain an anti-canonical force even if she should come to be ensconced in the canon. That is what happened with the great Greek lyricist of desire Sappho, whose long queer heritage has meant that is she is still viewed as an oppositional figure, even as she is one of the most commonly taught authors of antiquity.

This leads me to my third point: teachers are likely to pair Enheduana with Sappho, which will bring out new features in both. The most striking similarity between them is that both their best-known poems—the Exaltation and the “Hymn to Aphrodite”—are prayers by a woman to a goddess, requesting help in a desperate situation and creating a complex dialogue between mortal and divine voices. And yet the tenor of the two texts is also strikingly different: the desperate situation is an anti-imperial revolt in Enheduana’s case and an ill-fated fling in Sappho’s. The other obvious pairings are even more complex. Enheduana could also be read alongside the Iliad and Gilgamesh; these are more similar in content, since they all concern war and (as with Sappho) the interaction between gods and humans, but also far more dissimilar in form, since Enheduana’s enigmatic hymns contrast sharply with the more straightforwardly narrative style of the epics.

Fourth, as the preceding points illustrate, placing Enheduana’s poems on the curriculum is likely to broaden our shared sense of what these texts are about. I expressed this hope already in the first blog post I wrote about Enheduana, arguing that, as the poems find new readers, new readings of the texts will also come to light, including the critical and comparative perspectives I have hinted at here.

Just as I would want the teaching of these poems to open them up to new readings, so I would want these poems to open the way for students to other Sumerian texts.

Enheduana’s poems are works of wonder, but they are far from the only Sumerian pearls taught in the ancient Babylonian schools: texts like Inana’s Descent, Enki and Ninmah,and the Uruk Cycles will, I hope, find their way to literary fame. Just as we should not worship the (largely constructed) firstness of Enheduana, we should not treat her as a unique exception either: her poems arose from—and can point us back to—the rich literary heritage of the Sumerian language.

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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