Enheduanna: High Priestess of Love, Sex, and... War?
The Exaltation of Inanna is a prime example of early religious writing. It was written by a high priestess named Enheduana, whose works, according to some scholars, are the first known written literature. Her works are definitely the first literature with an identifiable author, and the first known to include first-person narrative.
The name Enheduana is actually a title that means “high priestess of Nanna” (or more accurately “High Priestess, Ornament of the God of the Sky”). Nanna was an Akkadian god, and even though Enheduana was a priestess in his service, most of her known writings are dedicated to Inanna, a Sumerian goddess of love, sex, and fertility. Interesting how that happened!
Enheduana lived more than 4200 years ago, but she had been forgotten for over 3500 of those years until an excavation in the 1920s in Iraq uncovered an alabaster disk (left) with her image and name on it. But her writings were still not attributed to her until a few decades later because the artifacts with her verses on them were dated from much later time periods. Her work was “in print” 500 hundreds of years after her death, being re-chiseled by scribes generations after her death. Apparently, the Exhaltation was so popular that scribes in training practiced it for centuries, making it one of the most complete ancient “documents” also.
Enheduanna's father was Sargon the Great, the Akkadian king. He appointed her the high priestess of Ur, whose primary deity was the god Nanna. Nepotism of this sort wasn't typical, and some locals didn't like it. That's probably not the reason, but Sargon and his daughter were later banished from Ur by a relative who took power. They went to live in Sumeria.
While in Sumeria, Enheduanna became passionate enough about their local deity, Inanna (right), to write gorgeous incantations to her. One of them, the Exhaltation, in addition to glorifying Inanna, tells Enheduanna's story. This is where the first-person perspective comes in. The author emphasizes that though she is the high priestess of Nanna, she loves Inanna so much that she writes these praises. She bemoans being unable to go home, praises Inanna again, then does a bit of a time jump and celebrates returning home triumphant.
As predicted, Enheduanna was restored to her home in Ur at some point. Her father united Sumeria and Akkad, and the appointment of family members to political and religious positions became a standard practice for at least the next 500 years.
From a cynical point of view, it looks like Enheduanna intentionally enlisted Inanna and her devotees to help her father win a war to re-take their homeland and unite it with their land of exile. Some of Enheduanna's verses establish a connection between Inanna (Sumerian goddess of love, sex and fertility, remember?) and Ishtar the Akkadian goddess of war (left). In fact, her writings include much more about war than about sex and fertility.
Some lines from Exhaltation:
At your battle-cry, my lady,
the foreign lands bow low...
In the van of battle,
all is struck down before you.
With your strength, my lady,
teeth can crush flint.
Other writings about Inanna, by other (unnamed) writers, focus on sensuality, sex and fertility. For example:
The shepherd Dumuzi
filled my lap with cream and milk,
He stroked my pubic hair,
He watered my womb.
The Collection of Temple Hymns, another of Endeduanna's works, contains poem prayers for the temples, gods, and goddesses in Sumer and Akkad. They're all great poetry—sophisticated and beautifully crafted. And they contributed to a unified vision of spirituality for the entire geographic area.
So it seems that Enheduanna may have been as much politician as priestess. Inanna's themes of sex and love just weren't as effective at empire-building as battle. But the goddess herself could help the Akkadians win the hearts, minds, and later the state, of Sumer. Later religions and religious writings seem to have emulated Enheduanna's in several ways. Deities became important allies to warring parties. Religions became more political, and their deities seem to have become warriors more often and lovers less often.
Once the battle was won and the country boundaries made clear for a while, the gods can get back to their fun as described by the same previously unnamed poet:
I will caress his loins,
the shepherdship of the lands,
I will decree a sweet fate for him.