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Enheduanna and the Origins of Poetry

by Kaitlyne Bozzone

My interest in and love of poetry does not have a birth date. It could have begun in English class, reading poems to analyze for a grade. Perhaps it started with songs I loved to memorize the lyrics to as a child. Maybe when I unlocked a love for writing in the 6th grade, it planted a seed in my heart that would begin to germinate in the following months, growing to expand my desire to read and create to include poetry, even as some of the kids around me belittled the genre as a whole. Or maybe, it’s an intuitive part of being human, to find comfort in the prose that others have written, the bits of language that seem to unlock parts of our hearts and histories that we may not have realized were there before.

I wish I could name the poem that turned me on to poetry in the first place, the way I can name my favorite poems now, the way I can recite my favorite lines by Richard Siken or Allen Ginsberg or Louise Glück or Mary Oliver. Instead, I’m left with the thought: My love of poetry does not have a birth date. But maybe poetry, all of it, as a whole, does.

Hailing from the northern city of Akkad, and born just over 4,300 years ago, is the first known author in history. Enheduanna, whose unknown birth name would’ve been Semitic in origin, but who took on a Sumerian alias when she relocated to the city of Ur, was daughter of Sargon the Great, the world’s first empire builder. Sargon appointed Enheduanna as the High Priestess of the most esteemed temple in Sumer to bridge the divide between him and his new people in the southern Sumerian cities. There, she exceeded all expectations of her responsibilities. Enheduanna forever altered the culture of Mesopotamia, and developed the beginnings of our modern understanding of poetry, psalms, and prayers. As royalty, Enheduanna knew how to read and write in both Akkadian and Sumerian, as well as perform mathematics. At the time of the creation of her works, writing in Sumer—the first written language in history, known as Cuneiform—was only used for accounting purposes. People didn’t use Cuneiform the way Enheduanna did—to write about her feelings, her hopes and worries, religion, war, and the world around her. She was also the first person to write using the pronoun “I”, further demonstrating the personal qualities of her works. To fulfill the task of uniting the Akkadian and Sumerian peoples as her father requested, Enheduanna wrote 42 hymns combining both mythologies. Each hymn was dedicated to the ruling god of each major city in Mesopotamia, explaining the relationships between the gods and other deities, humanizing them in a way no one had ever done before by showing them suffering, loving, and even responding to humans on Earth.

Most often, she is affiliated with her work concerning Inanna, the goddess of war and desire, who transcended gender binary and whose devotees are notable for their androgyny and blurring the definitions of what it means to be male or female. Often featured in Enheduanna’s work is her yearning to Inanna to be taken by her and to become one with her. Enheduanna’s best known works, three epic poems, can be translated to The Great-Hearted Mistress, Goddess of the Fearsome Powers, and The Exaltation of Inanna, the latter of which tells the story of her exile into the desert by Lugal-Ane, a Sumerian rebel who staged a coup after the death of Sargon. By praying to Inanna, her place as the High Priestess in Ur was restored. When she died, after 40 years of service as the High Priestess, Enheduanna became a minor deity, and her work was renowned in the empire for more than 500 years. The last lines of Enheduanna’s Temple Hymn 42 reads, “The person who put this tablet together / is Enheduanna / My king: something never created before, / did she not give birth to it?” Upon reading this line, I knew Enheduanna knew the importance of her own works, the impact they had, the first-ness of it all. But I was also fascinated by this concept of invention and how it relates to love. While Enheduanna does not say the word itself here, through all of her work and her history, it is clear that she is full of it: for her culture, for her religion, and for her writing. Enheduanna’s love for these things was surely a catalyst for all she had done, more than just an instruction from her father, and while she may have been the first, she certainly wasn’t the last. You see it over and over again, from the invention of alfredo sauce as a gift to the inventor’s pregnant wife, to Dr. William Halstead’s invention of rubber gloves for his wife, a nurse.

In the 2018 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the character Héloïse asked her love interest, Marianne, “Do all lovers feel as though they’re inventing something?” In The Clean House, Sarah Ruhl writes “When I met Ana I knew: I loved her to the point of invention.” Enheduanna’s love is also present in The Exaltation of Inanna, in which she wrote “With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint”, a quote which I had seen before without ever realizing its historical significance. The love we share with those around us, or even deities we honor, often gives us the strength we need to soldier through even the most difficult hardships we face, a theme regularly used in literature throughout all of time.

Exploring this origin of writing, and especially poetry, solidifies my existing belief that, despite thousands of years between us, we are not so different from ancient peoples of many varying cultures. Writing, poetry and literature, is one of the many ties between people through time, and one of the most important to me. Especially in more difficult times, I find myself romanticizing life as much as I can, trying to harvest the connection and kinship we’re lacking right now. Remembering this tie to the past is a vital part of that view of the world, and reminds me that my love of written language doesn’t have an expiration date.

Sources Consulted

Who was the world’s first author? by Soraya Field Fiorio and TED-Ed

The Temple Hymns of Enheduanna with modern English translations by Michael R. Burch

Enheduanna by Joshua J. Mark