In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle travels back over four millennia in search of the world’s oldest named poet
Where and when did literature begin? With Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, nearly 3,000 years ago? Or with the Epic of Gilgamesh, written by an unknown poet some four millennia ago in ancient Mesopotamia, and featuring a cataclysmic flood similar to the one described in the book of Genesis? We could be forgiven for thinking that Homer was the first great ‘named’ author (although who he exactly was – and whether he was even a ‘he’ – remains unknown), and that the further we go back in time before Homer, the less chance we have of encountering an author whose identity we actually know. And, well, if we do encounter a pre-Homeric writer of stature, we could probably put a pretty safe bet on that writer being male. But this is wrong. We can confidently identify the first named author in world history, and what’s more, the author is a woman, named Enheduanna.
Enheduanna, the author of a number of hymns dedicated to the priestess Inanna, is a fascinating figure. She was a Sumerian high priestess who lived in the 23rd century BC, around 1,500 years before Homer. Enheduanna lived in the city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq), and was a priestess of the Sumerian moon god Nanna. But did Enheduanna also write The Descent of Inanna, a remarkable early example of the epic poem? If so, The Descent of Inanna is not just the oldest epic; it’s the oldest work of poetry written by any named poet, male or female.
It’s difficult to come to terms with just how long ago Enheduanna was composing her work. Geoffrey Chaucer, sometimes thought to stand at the beginning of English literature, lived and wrote just over six centuries ago. Another figure who is often said to stand at the beginning of ‘English’ literature, the Jarrow goatherd named Cædmon, takes us back another seven centuries. Some 14 or so centuries separate Homer from Cædmon. But Enheduanna is even more remote from Homer than Homer is from Cædmon. In short, Enheduanna is very remote from us.
Enheduanna’s father, Sargon, was King of Akkad, an important city in Mesopotamia, probably located somewhere between where Samarra and Baghdad now stand in modern-day Iraq. As Janet Roberts has observed, ‘Enheduanna wrote a cycle of hymns in the temples of Sumer, a tradition that ends with her death. She also wrote an impassioned appeal to the goddess Inanna to be reinstated in her office as high priestess of the moon god in Ur, and to have her enemies who deposed her, vanquished.’ The cycle of hymns begins with words that immediately evoke that distant world that Enheduanna inhabited, a world of ziggurats and potash, with drums marking time as the religious ceremonies are carried out:
O E-unir (House which is a ziqqurat), grown together with heaven and earth, foundation of heaven and earth, great banqueting hall of Eridug! Abzu, shrine erected for its prince, E-dul-kug (House which is the holy mound) where pure food is eaten, watered by the prince’s pure canal, mountain, pure place cleansed with the potash plant, abzu, your tigi drums belong to the divine powers.
The hymns go on to praise the ‘mighty one’ who rules over the Sumerian people, using poetic metaphors drawn from the world inhabited by the Sumerians:
Your prince, a raging storm which destroys cities in hostile lands, your sovereign, a terrifying wild ox which will manifest its strength, a terrifying lion which smashes heads, the warrior who devises strategies in lordship and attains victory in kingship, the mighty one, the great warrior in battle, the lord without rival, the son of Enlil, lord Ninjirsu, has erected a house in your precinct, O E-ninnu, and taken his seat upon your dais.
The cycle ends with Enheduanna’s ‘signature’, with the statement: ‘The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.’ You can read a full modern English translation of the Sumerian temple hymns here, and you can read Enheduanna’s ‘Exaltation of Inanna’ here.
It’s unusual, and very fortunate, that we know Enheduanna’s name. Most ancient Sumerian literature was written by that prolific writer, Anonymous. But Enheduanna was important enough as high priestess and princess to have her name appended to her work. And her work was literally set in stone, carved into cuneiform tablets so that it would withstand the ravages of some 43 centuries. Such hoped-for permanence was not to be, at least for the Sumerian and Akkadian civilisation, but it did ensure that, over four millennia later, Enheduanna’s name has survived.
Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: Enheduanna, via Wikimedia Commons.