Enheduanna Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Akkadian poet. Poetry by Enheduanna to the moon god, Nanna, and the goddess Inanna is among the earliest poetry in existence and is the earliest body of poetry composed by a woman.

Early Life

Aside from what sparse biographical information is gleaned from her 153-line hymn to Nanna and a few other resources, little detailed information exists about the life of Enheduanna (ehn-hee-dew-AHN-ah). It has been verified that she was the daughter of Sargon, founder of the Akkad Dynasty that flourished under his leadership from 2334 b.c.e. to 2279 b.c.e. Sargon, also known as Sharrukin, a longtime king of Akkad in Mesopotamia, lived to a considerable age. Toward the end of his reign, the jurisdictions under his rule revolted against him and besieged him in Akkad. Sargon, however, despite his years, withstood the siege and defeated the rebels. His victory was attributed to the mystical intervention of Nanna and Inanna.

It became customary in Mesopotamia around this time for affluent families to send one daughter into a cloister as a high priestess (entum) to pray for her family’s welfare. These young women were awarded generous dowries that might include livestock, a house, land, household slaves, and other valuables. Enheduanna, the first such entum-priestess, was appointed to her post by her father, the king, to add legitimacy to his rule by demonstrating his family’s submission to and reverence for the gods.

King Sargon was the first monarch to appoint a daughter to serve as high priestess to the moon god, Nanna. Following this appointment, a succession of royal princesses served as priestesses to Nanna over the next one thousand years, a custom that did not end until the reign of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylonia. Enheduanna was relatively young when she became a priestess. Her early years were presumably cloistered, as were her later ones, and were filled with prayer and with producing an impressive body of poetry and an extensive number of hymns.

Two seals uncovered by archaeologists mention her name. These seals are designed in a typical classical Akkadian style and bear marked similarities to seals that have been attributed to the early Akkadian period, close to the beginning of Sargon’s reign. Archaeologist Rainer Michael Boehmer, however, on inspecting these seals, considered it impossible to place them chronologically as early as the other seals dating to Sargon’s early kingship. He finds it more likely that Enheduanna’s seals are products of a later period within her father’s reign.

One long poem by Enheduanna to Inanna, preserved in cuneiform on clay tablets, has been translated and is among the oldest pieces of literature in existence anywhere in the world. Although the dates of Enheduanna’s birth and death can only be conjectured, she is thought to have been born in Akkad some fifty miles north of Baghdad in what is today Iraq. None of the sources currently available to scholars provides any information about her mother or her siblings. It is thought that she was high priestess for at least twenty-five years during her father’s reign. She outlived her father and continued as high priestess for many years after he died in 2279 b.c.e.

Life’s Work

The position as high priestess was a choice one, as was the position of scribe, to which Enheduanna’s father also appointed his daughter. Scribes, who were usually men, were among the best-remunerated people in the kingdom. Because of the complexity of making cuneiform impressions on clay tablets, their work was highly specialized. Women who served as high priestesses sometimes were married but more frequently, like Enheduanna, were unmarried and celibate. Like Enheduanna, most of them were cloistered.

Generally, ancient cuneiform literature has been viewed as anonymous, but such was not the case with Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform works, which have colophons much like the title pages of modern books. Although these colophons do not contain authors’ names, separate lists of such names exist, connecting these names either with those of the kings they served, which helps to date their work, or with works generally attributed to them, although these attributions are frequently undependable. Some cuneiform works divulge the names of their authors within their texts, as is the case in Enheduanna’s hymn to Inanna.

Fortunately, three kinds of sources—archaeological, historical, and literary—serve to document Enheduanna’s remarkable career. The aforementioned seals are among the archaeological sources that have been carefully examined. A realistic depiction of Enheduanna was found on a limestone disc from Ur. Inscriptions from Ur reviewed by two eminent archaeological scholars, Ignace J. Gelb and H. Hirsch, confirm that Enheduanna was...

(The entire section is 1978 words.)