Among the thousands of cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets recovered from archeological sites in Iraq in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thirty-seven contain the text of a single composition, a collection of Temple Hymns written to forty-two temples throughout the southern half of ancient Mesopotamia, the civilization we know as Sumer. In lines at the end of the final hymn, an individual known from historical records claims to be the author of the text. Her name was Enheduanna, high priestess to the moon god Nanna in Ur. She was the daughter of Sargon, the king who created the first empire in history. Each of the hymns affirmed to worshipers in a particular city their patron deity's unique character and significance. The hymns became part of the literary canon of the remarkable Sumerian civilization and were copied by scribes for hundreds of years after Enheduanna's death. The forty-two Temple Hymns are the subject of this book.
None of the thirty-seven existing tablets is written in Enheduanna's own hand, although unlike most of the population she was an educated, literate individual. All the tablets that contain portions of the Temple Hymns are copies made by scribes. Two of the tablets date from the Ur III period late in the third millennium BCE, one to two hundred years after her death. The remainder were copied even later, in the Isin-Larsa/Old Babylonian period, 2000-1600 BCE. Three of the tablets were found in the ancient city of Ur, where Enheduanna served as high priestess for almost forty years. The others were found in the ruins of the Sumerian religious center, the city of Nippur.
The scant records we have that relate to Enheduanna leave many gaps in our knowledge of her life. Nevertheless, from the remains of the thirty-seven tablets and from three additional long poems attributed to Enheduanna written to her personal deity Inanna, she is recognized as the first author of record, the first individual known to have created a body of her own writing, or, as William Hallo says, "the first non-anonymous author in Mesopotamian history and perhaps all of history." Her name on the tablets discovered and deciphered in the last century is not readily recognized, as are those of the early poets Sappho and Homer. Yet she wrote lyric poetry, hymns of praise, and heroic tales seventeen hundred years before Sappho and sixteen hundred years before Homer.
Her father, Sargon, gained power around 2334 BCE when, tradition says, he overthrew the king of Kish and proceeded to conquer the entire population of southern Mesopotamia, a territory of independent city-states already known for over a thousand years as Sumer. His daughter Enheduanna, at a young age and possibly at her father's urging, moved from her home, Akkad, in the north, the city Sargon built as his capital, to Ur far to the south in the heartland of Sumer near the Persian Gulf. There she became high priestess to the moon god Nanna in his temple complex at Ur. With his daughter in a prestigious position, Sargon may have hoped to calm the unrest rising against him in the southern Sumerian cities.
Legend tells us that before his rise to power Sargon was serving as cupbearer to the king of Kish, Ur-Zababa. The city of Kish was known to be a ruling city in the territory of northern Mesopotamia in the years before Sargon, the Early Dynastic period. Sargon is said to have overthrown this king and assumed the kingship himself. A more likely possibility is that the young Sargon failed in his attempted coup and fled into exile. The scenario that portrays Sargon as a usurper who killed his king and took over the throne of Kish conflicts with the ancient Kinglist, which records several succeeding kings of Kish in the north who followed Ur-Zababa. The Kinglist, a second-millennium, largely fictional document, records impossibly long reigns of certain kings before a devastating flood and more realistic selected tenures of kings after the deluge. Another contradiction to Sargon's legendary conquest was the fact that the contemporary king in the south, Lugalzagesi of Umma, had successfully defeated the territory of Lagash and established his rule over Uruk, Ur, and eventually all the southern cities. Lugalzagesi had even received the coveted blessing of the ruling deity Enlil, bestowed by his powerful priests in Nippur.
Sargon was an upper-class, Semitic-speaking official in a high position in Ur-Zababa's court. After his attempted overthrow of the king, Sargon may have established his fledgling kingdom in the town of Akkad, not far from Kish but out of easy reach of Lugalzagesi's southern army. Eventually, he built a large military force, defeated Uruk, captured Lugalzagesi "along with his 'fifty governors'—i.e., the petty kings of all the separate city states." Tradition says Sargon dragged Lugalzagesi in neck-stock all the way from Uruk in the south near the gulf to the religious capital of Nippur in the center of the alluvium. There, before the great god Enlil (who only recently had blessed Lugalzagesi's kingship), Sargon asked to be named king of Sumer and Akkad. Enlil complied, through his kingmaker priests, and Sargon became king of the land.
The new king created fundamental changes in the centuries-old Sumerian tradition that had existed virtually unbroken from its beginning in the mid-fourth millennium. Hans Nissen emphasizes the contrast between the "Old Sumerian period," or Early Dynastic, 3000-2350 BCE, dominated by "the Sumerian ethnic group," and the "completely different style of the period of the Akkad Dynasty with its new holders of political power, the semitic Akkadians." The changes Sargon made stirred mistrust among the Sumerian-speaking citizens in cities south of Akkad. For the almost two thousand years of these southern cities' existence prior to Sargon's seizure of kingship the people had lived in relative peace, even during rivalries for hegemony; they were held together by a common pantheon and mythology, by mutual trade interests, and by the Sumerian language. With the evolution of a written script, they could record trade contracts as well as preserve and exchange traditional myths, songs, and stories. Each city's longevity had a sacred history entwined with the specific patron deity. In Sumerian cosmology, each city belonged to its deity, who, it was believed, rose to claim the city the day the world was created.
From the start citizens of the Sumerian cities in the south resisted Sargon's strong central rule and continually fought for their independence. They faced a mighty opponent in Sargon, who with his growing military force sent garrisons in all directions, occupying or establishing outposts throughout most of the known world—south to the Persian Gulf, west to the Upper Sea (the Mediterranean), north and northwest into Syria and Anatolia, and east onto the plains of Iran. In these many locations, far outdistancing the territorial expansion of any previous ruler, he stationed relatives and loyalists to govern the towns and cities, awarding them lands and authority and thus strengthening the centralized government in Akkad to which these governors reported. No such successful seizure of lands had ever happened. Sargon created the first true empire with a successful center holding it together. Citizens attempted revolts, particularly in the autonomous city-states of southern Sumer, but Sargon was relentless and his armies overpowering. With the succession of his sons, Rimush and Manishtushu, and that of his powerful grandson, Naram-Sin, the empire Sargon created lasted over two hundred years. Hallo describes the impact of the empire Sargon ruled:
When Sargon of Akkad conquered Lugalzagesi of Uruk "together with [his] fifty governors," he laid the basis for a new departure in Mesopotamian political organization and ushered in a complex of social, religious, and artistic innovations that deserve to be regarded as a kind of cultural explosion. Its stimulus spread the norms of Sumer and Akkad far beyond their boundaries, and Mesopotamian influence of varying strength can be detected throughout the Asiatic Near East in what is generally regarded as its last Early Bronze phase.
Daughter of the King—High Priestess of Ur
Into this atmosphere of unprecedented amassing of territory and influence, Enheduanna was born. "Enheduanna" is not the name by which her father or mother, her brothers or nurses would have known her. Like her older brothers, Rimush and Manishtushu, who may have been twins, she would have been given an Akkadian name at birth. "Enheduanna" is the Sumerian cultic name she received on becoming the high priestess at Nanna's temple in Ur.
The palace at Akkad must have been subjected to a constant tumult of activity. Visitors came from exotic places with which Sargon's government traded—the Indus Valley far to the east, cities in the lands of Dilmun (Bahrain), Magan (Oman), and Melukkha (the Indus basin)—beyond the southern gulf. Enheduanna would have heard tales of sailing ships on a vast western ocean, the Upper Sea (the Mediterranean). From inside the palace rooms assigned to the government, she could have learned history as it happened or listened as her brothers were groomed to succeed their father.
Sargon was a Semite whose native language was Akkadian, not Sumerian. He brought his Semitic legacy, whose influence prevailed in northern Mesopotamia and in modern-day Syria and Turkey. By his order the Akkadian language replaced Sumerian in the court, in official documents, and in the interactions of government. Most offensive to the independent southern Sumerian city-states, he established a centralized government with one capital city, Akkad, as the seat of power and authority.
Historians conjecture that Sargon's decision to appoint his daughter to a prominent position in the main temple in Ur was a result of his need to have a strong presence in the traditional Sumerian south, there to stand against the disaffected secular rulers. He knew the temple compound of the moon deity at Ur, Nanna and his wife, Ningal, was one of the most prominent among the southern cities. Furthermore, Nanna had been served in the past by other priestess attendants. The British Assyriologist J. N. Postgate describes Sargon's motives:
At Ur, Sargon solved his problem by installing his daughter, Enkheduanna, as the high priestess (EN) of Nanna; we don't in fact know if there was an old tradition of placing the ruler's daughter in this role, but it seems likely. It is hardly coincidental that Enkheduanna is named as the authoress of the cycle of temple hymns that celebrate the virtues of all the major shrines of the land: both an acknowledgment of the validity of the local ideologies, and a claim to embrace them.
The all-important head priest or priestess at a city's primary temple carried substantial religious authority in the region. Sargon may have believed that the presence of the royal princess as priestess would counterbalance the unrest in the secular hierarchy of the city. Further, having his daughter as the ruling priestess could extend his own secular authority into the influential officialdom of the temple.
Enheduanna, chosen to be high priestess to the moon god Nanna in Ur, would live in the gipar, the official dwelling place, where in ritual acts she would take the part of Ningal as Nanna's earthly wife. Perhaps even more than her father had envisioned, Enheduanna served as an ambassador. For many of the patron deities of the cities north and south, she presented poetic tributes. Forty-two of the hymns she collected survive to this day. In the hymns she is both poet and theologian, as she articulates unique descriptions of the character of each of the primary Sumerian deities.
Enheduanna is thought to have died during the reign of her nephew, Naram-Sin. She would have been buried outside the gipar in Ur where she had lived her long, productive life. The tradition she initiated as high priestess at Ur, daughter of a king, continued for five hundred years after her death. Later priestesses remembered with respect "the resting ones." They were honored in festivals with ritual offerings of cheese, butter, dates, and oil. Within the area of the Ningal temple small shrines were dedicated to certain of the esteemed high priestesses. Because of her preeminence, we can be sure that a shrine to Enheduanna would have been there among them.