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This post is dedicated to Devon, who, at the end of reading Wolfram’s Parzifal, tossed her book on the table in frustration and asked, “Why do the women always have to be given away like property?”  

Marie de France, as depicted in a medieval manuscript. (Source)

Name: Marie de France

Birthplace/Dates:  France–possibly the Vexin region (between the Ile de France and Normandy), roughly 1140-1215?

Occupation/Claim to Fame:  The first person to write what we would now call “chivalric tales.”  She was author of several texts (including one translation): most famously, a collection of 12 Lais, brief poetic tales that were forerunners to works like Wolfram’s Parzifal and the Roman de la Rose.  Marie also produced a collection of Fables (based on Aesop and other classical sources), and a religious text called The Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick (based on a Latin document of the same name).  She has also tentatively been identified as the author of a (previously unattributed) saint’s life as well.

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  Marie de France is one of the earliest authors who wrote about courtly love, standing at the root of a lineage that leads directly to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal.  Given the central role Parzifal plays in the Waldorf curriculum, it’s important to understand how courtly love was understood (and experienced) by women, and Marie is a wonderful way into that question.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum:  HS 11th grade Medieval History; 11th grade Parzival block (her Lais); 6th grade Medieval History; 2nd grade Fables (her Fables).

If you read only one thing by Marie de France, read: Her Lais. (1)  Many translations of Marie’s work try to preserve some semblance of the original rhyme scheme, but this can lead to a slightly stilted, archaic feeling in English. If you want an easy-to-read prose version with an excellent introduction, I’d recommend the Penguin edition of the Lais.  As far as which particular lais to read: if you’re thinking of using them alongside Parzifal, I’d recommend “Guigemar” or “Yonec.”  If you’re using them in a history unit on courtly love, then you may want to read “Lanval” or “Chaitivel.”  (My next post will focus on these four lais, including suggestions for how to use them in class.)  

Marie de France and Her Place in History

Celtic bards like the legendary Merlin were the source of the stories behind Marie’s lais. (Source)

Marie de France is most famous for her Lais, which are among the earliest examples of chivalric writing we have.  In fact, as far as we can tell, they are the oldest written chivalric poetry.  (2)  Marie drew on the earlier oral poetry (also called “lais”) sung by Celtic bards as a source for her own work, though she writes that she adjusted these oral lais, “putting them into verse, making poems from them, and working on them late into the night.” (3)  I just love that last bit–“working late into the night”–can’t you just see her sitting there, candle burning low, waiting for her kids to finally get to sleep already so she can get down to work?

But to get back to business:  As the first written chivalric poetry we have on record, Marie’s work therefore stands at the beginning of a long line of important medieval works–Chretien de Troyes’ early Arthurian tales, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, the Roman de la Rose–the list goes on and on.  Of course, her Lais are worthy of study in their own right–not only as the first productions in an incredibly important genre (chivalric literature), but as complex and beautiful literary works in and of themselves.  And if that weren’t enough to recommend them, they have the distinct advantage of giving us a glimpse into the world of chivalric love as experienced and written by a woman.  For all those students of courtly love who may have wondered what the women in the stories felt like (or what a tale of courtly love would look like if written from a female point of view), Marie’s Lais offer us a wonderful “window” in.  There are just so many good reasons to study Marie–and best of all (from the perspective of a busy teacher trying to fit just one more thing into limited class time), each lai is only 3-8 pages long (the longest is about 16): the perfect length for a one-night reading assignment.

The few depictions we have of Marie de France (none of which are contemporary) always show her writing at a desk, which is how she probably would have wanted it. (Source)

But before we jump into her work, let’s back up for a moment.  Who was Marie de France, anyway?

How do you Solve a Problem like Marie?

We must face the facts squarely: we don’t actually know that much about Marie’s identity, which is frustrating, given how important and popular her works were during the 12th and 13th centuries.  (But it’s not surprising, given the fate of many other early female authors.)  Aside from her self-description in the Fables, where she writes, “My name is Marie, and I am from France,” we have only a few other clues–none of them definitive.  She dedicates her Lais to a “noble king” (which many have thought might be King Henry II of England), and her Fables to “count William” (which has been attributed to a whole variety of Williams). (4)  Based on these references (and an analysis of her language, which includes many loan-words from English), most scholars have assumed that while she was born in France, she spent time at the court of Henry II, where she probably composed her works.

The palace of Poitiers, where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne are reputed to have first held their famous “courts of love.” (Source)

This working assumption makes a good deal of sense, since Henry II’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (and her daughter Marie de Champagne) were instrumental in bringing the southern French culture of courtly love to more northern climes.  It also places Marie at the beginning of a courtly lineage that stretches from the Islamic courts of Al-Andalus (the Moorish kingdoms of Spain), to Eleanor of Aquitaine (who popularized courtly ideals in the Christian south and then brought them north when she married Henry II), to Marie de Champagne (Eleanor’s daughter), to Chretien de Troyes (whose patroness was Marie de Champagne), to Wolfram von Eschenbach, author of Parzifal (and who used Chretien de Troyes as one of his main sources).  (5)  How’s that for some Waldorf credentials?  I’d argue that anyone who stands at the root of a lineage leading to Parzifal needs to be included in the curriculum.

And if Marie’s connection to later courtly literature weren’t enough to recommend her to us, her connection to the earlier oral traditions of the Celts should be–it’s through Marie that European literature comes to enfold the tales of the Welsh and Breton bards (including stories of fairies and King Arthur) into Islamic-influenced poetry of courtly love.  In Marie, the two hitherto separate streams combined, eventually forming the mightly confluence we know as medieval romance. (6)

Marie wasn’t about to let some man steal her work. (Source)

What else do we know about Marie beyond her importance to the courtly lineage?  We know that she stayed up late to write, indicating that she probably had other duties (either courtly, or domestic, or both) that kept her busy during the day.  We know that she was fluent in several languages: she says she considered translating Latin works into French before taking up the task of relating Breton lais.  (7) We also know that she thought highly of her own authorial abilities, and had a defiant attitude towards critics who disparaged her as a female writer.  She writes,

Whoever has good material for a story is grieved if the tale is not well told.   Hear, my lords, the words of Marie, who, when she has the opportunity, does not squander her talents. Those who gain a good reputation should be commended, but when there exists in a country a man or woman of great renown, people who are envious of their abilities frequently speak insultingly of them in order to damage this reputation….But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up.  They have a right to make slanderous remarks.  (8)

Marie’s cleverness was much like that of the Cock in her fable, whose well-timed crowing outwits the rather dim Fox who has stolen him.  (Source)

And later, in the epilogue of the Fables, in the same passage where she names herself, she worries that credit for her work will be stolen by a man:

To end these tales I’ve narrated
And into Romance tongue translated,
I’ll give my name, for memory:
I am from France, my name’s Marie.
And it may hap that many a clerk
Will claim as his what is my work
But such pronouncements I want not!
It’s folly to become forgot! (9)

All in all, the picture that emerges is one that, though hazy on the details of time and location, is actually fairly clear in certain regards.  Marie was a well-born, well-educated writer who worked hard at her craft, was proud of her work, was recognized by kings and courtiers for her efforts, and who, nonetheless, was worried that because of her gender, her stories might be mis-attributed to a man for all of posterity.  Clever to the end, she therefore embedded her name in several of her texts so that any excision would result in a distortion of the poetic meter.  Would that all the women writers of history had had such foresight and crafty wiles!

So, having established Marie’s basic authorial persona and the importance of her work in the lineage of courtly literature, we can move on.  What do her Lais tell us about women of the period in general, and about her own “take” on courtly culture in particular?

Getting “Lai”d: Women, Marriage, and Adultery in Marie de France

(Forgive the terrible pun, but that heading title was too good to resist!)

“La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John William Waterhouse (1893). The Victorians found much to love in medieval courtly depictions of women: passive, beautiful, inspirational, but often entangling or treacherous.

Seriously, now…Marie’s work provides us with an interesting counterpoint to the later male writers’ portrayals of women, love, and marriage.  First, many scholars have noted that the female characters in her stories are, on the whole, stronger than the men.  In other courtly stories, written for the most part by men, women are certainly prominently featured, but they are often idealized and held up as (rather passive) “inspiration” for men’s heroic deeds.  Or worse still, denigrated as faithless and the source of perpetual strife, as in the case of the Roman de la Rose.  So while women are definitely front and center in most courtly texts, it’s sometimes tough to find a positive female character who is not just an inspiration for manly deeds, but a protagonist in her own right.  If you share my frustration as a reader, Marie delivers the goods.  Her women are real.

On the whole, Marie’s female characters are deeply drawn, and more often than not, they take center stage in the story.  This is not to say that Marie’s women live in some feminist paradise.  The basic mise en scène of courtly love remains the same:  beautiful young ladies locked in towers by jealous husbands (more on that below), men who love these ladies and wear their colors into tournaments, mysterious fairy lovers (male and female) who can change shape at will, equally mysterious exotic creatures (hermaphroditic deer, for example) who lead knights on unexpected quests–all the tropes of medieval romance we know and love. (And really, what’s not to love about albino, intersex deer?)  But in Marie’s hands, these basic literary themes (which we should remember, she’s the first to write down in poetry) are given a subtle woman-centered twist.  Marie shows us how women struggled with and sometimes found ways around the constrictions of upper-class medieval life.

Marie empathized with the proverbial damsel in distress, but she preferred birds to mice when it came to animal liberators. (Source)

A good example is the aforementioned “damsel in distress” scenario.  In two lais (“Guigemar” and “Yonec”) a young woman has been married off by her family to a man over twice her age, who keeps her imprisoned and comes to visit only long enough to subject her to what we would call marital rape.  Marie’s own opinion of the situation seems to be much in accord with contemporary views, for she makes it abundantly clear that the young woman in question is miserable to the point of contemplating suicide.  And she depicts this despair as a perfectly reasonable response to the character’s terrible predicament, rejoicing with the reader when a young, handsome, tender man unexpectedly appears at the lady’s tower to offer her comfort and the possibility of escape.  Unlike many other courtly authors who seem to take the “lady locked in a tower” scenario for granted, Marie stops long enough to ponder the situation from the woman’s point of view.

Unlike Lynne Cheney (yes, that Lynne Cheney), Marie does not have her heroine leave her possessive husband and run off to join a lesbian free-love commune. (Source)

Indeed, Marie seems interested in much the same question as my teenage friend Devon: What happens to the poor girls traded among men like so many pieces of property?  The lady in Marie’s lai “Yonec,” gives voice to the countless damsels in distress whose fate is passed over mutely in so many medieval tales:

Alas…that ever I was born!  My destiny is hard indeed.  I am a prisoner in this tower and death alone will free me.  What is this jealous old man afraid of, to keep me so securely imprisoned?  He is extremely stupid and foolish, always fearing that he will be betrayed.

Marie here not only depicts her protagonist’s plight empathetically, but also questions the misogynist assumptions underlying the whole “damsel in distress” predicament.  However, ultimately, Marie is not a radical feminist.  (For that, you’ll have to wait for my post on another medieval female writer, the fabulous Christine de Pizan.)  None of Marie’s heroines, for instance, escapes from her tower to join an all-“womyn” commune in the woods.  For both Marie and her characters, a complete break with the system was impossible.  However, Marie’s contribution to women’s history is the way in which, while keeping more or less within the confines of the courtly system, she opened up a space for women’s self-expression and personal fulfillment.  Where did she carve out this space?  In the realm of adulterous courtly love.

In many of Marie’s Lais, the protagonists enjoy extra-marital affairs without blame.

Marie is certainly not the only medieval author to portray adultery as an opportunity for personal fulfillment.  Indeed, intense, often long-lasting extra-marital affairs are a running theme throughout later courtly literature.  But Marie is the first person to draw out this theme in writing.  In fact, it makes me wonder whether Marie’s rather laissez-faire stance towards extra-marital liaisons is something she inherited from the Celtic oral tradition, or if, rather, she gave the whole subsequent genre of courtly poetry a twist by her early empathetic “take” on the plight of women in forced marriages. (10)  In other words: was Marie’s clear sympathy for love outside marriage “picked up” by later authors, thereby becoming one of the staples of courtly literature?  I think it’s fair to say that even if Marie herself was not the originator of this relatively woman-friendly trope, she was certainly one of its most important popularizers. (11)  For that reason alone, it’s worth reading her in any class dealing with courtly love, Arthurian romance, or medieval social history.  We might not have our later stories of Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Iseult in the particular forms that we know them without Marie’s first, wildly popular tales of adulterous love. (12)

Personal or Political? The question still resonates today. The college students who created this banner have posted a song that I think Marie might like. Click here for a link.

For modern readers, including high school students, her tales raise interesting moral questions: if you are trapped within a fundamentally unjust system, what is your duty to uphold the ethical norm as defined by the dominant class?  Would we, for instance, condemn a woman in Taliban-held Afghanistan who searched for love outside her arranged marriage to a man twice her age?  Marie clearly wouldn’t.  But she does judge women and men who go the next step, towards violence, quite harshly.  (As in her lais “Equitan” or “Bisclavret.”) Where do we draw the line in modern times?  When does “civil disobedience” become insurrection?  When is the personal political?  And is there a clear line between the two?  The possibilities for classroom debate seem fruitful indeed.

And that, dear readers, is where we’ll leave Marie for today, having given you a tiny taste of the sorts of pedagogical questions I’ll raise in Part 2 of my consideration of her work.  Next time, we’ll take a closer look at a few of her Lais, including brief summaries of the four I mentioned back towards the beginning of this post (in the “Notable Woman Stats” section).  I’ll also provide suggestions for how to use these four lais in class, either alongside Parzifal or in a block on medieval history.  Till then, worthy gentlewomen and -men, adieu!

——-

NOTES

(1) There are several versions of Marie’s Lais available online, though not all of these sites include all the lais.  The Gutenberg site contains a prose translation of all the lais, there’s a rhyming translation by Judith Shoaf that’s good, but not all the lais are included.  The Penguin print edition also contains the original Old French for one lai in the back of the book; for anyone with a background in modern French, it’s easy to follow the rhyme scheme and get the gist, so it might be fun to use if some of your students take French.  (Here’s a link to an online edition of the French originals.)

(2) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (which contains chapters on King Arthur) is about 30 years older than Marie’s work, but it’s a prose history, albeit a fanciful one.  And there were earlier oral poetic compositions–legends and poetry told by bards in Wales and Brittany–circulating in Marie’s day, but nothing written until Marie.   There is a much-later manuscript (the Book of Taliesin) that claims to preserve the poems of the early Welsh bard Taliesin, who dates to the 6th c. CE.  However, it is not at all clear that the poems in question actually do belong to Taliesin, and it’s certainly highly questionable whether they date to as early as the 6th c. CE.  (Most recent scholars put them somewhere in the 10th-12th centuries.)  Still, there’s no question that Marie drew heavily on Celtic oral sources, as she herself attests.

(3) Marie de France, “Prologue.” The Lais of Marie de France, London: Penguin Books, 1999.  Trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby. p. 41.

(4) An incredible diversity of opinions circulate about Marie’s true identity.  Some scholars place her squarely in the court of King Henry II, or possibly his son, Henry III.  However, others have suggested Philip II of France as a possibility, though this is definitely a minority view.  As far as Marie’s relationship with other courtly writers, there’s no proof that Marie and Chretien de Troyes knew of each other, but most scholars are agreed that Chretien’s sources included Breton lais like the ones Marie recorded, so we can’t rule it out either.  (Another suggestive piece of evidence is Chretien’s mention of Guigemar, a character from one of Marie’s Lais, in his tale “Erec et Enide.”) Even Marie’s self-identity as “from France” is contested–some scholars arguing that it doesn’t mean “France as opposed to England,” but rather, “Ile de France as opposed to Brittany or Normandy.”  All these competing theories, including one that places her in France (as opposed to England) during her period of authorship, are well-represented in Dinah Hazell’s online paper: “Rethinking Marie.” Medieval Forum, Vol 2, 2003.  There’s also an interesting connection between Marie and Chaucer–her fable of the cock and the fox is not found in Aesop, and is the only written source that pre-dates Chaucer’s version of the same tale.  Here’s a nice one-page translation of Marie’s version.

(5) It’s potentially a pretty tight connection, but there’s no way to be absolutely sure of Marie’s position at Henry’s court, so it has to remain at the level of conjecture.  At the very least, though, we can say that if the “noble king” to which Marie refers was someone other than Henry II, we can still be sure that said king was part of the rapidly spreading courtly culture of northern Europe, and that Marie was an important early link in bringing this courtly tradition into written literary form.  The more I read about her and the other early courtly authors, the more I feel that she was the central node point from which the other literature sprang.  (Her only true competitor to the position, the Norman poet Béroul, did not write what most scholars describe as “courtly” literature.) That her importance should be often overlooked is sad, but not surprising.  See notes 6 and 12 for more on the difficulties of reconstructing the lineage.

(6)  A little more on Marie’s relation to other early courtly writers:  Chretien de Troyes, the most famous early chivalric writer, is roughly contemporary with Marie, but he appears to have written about 15-25 years after her (depending on how early you date Marie).  Marie even predates the earliest written compositions by troubadours, the first of whom was Duke William IX of Aquitaine (1071–1126).  This is not to say, of course, that there wasn’t an oral form of courtly poetry that circulated in the courts of Provence and Aquitaine before Marie–but it does appear that Marie was the first to have composed courtly poems in written form.

Another question is the possibility of an Islamic influence:  did an earlier 9th c. form of courtesie exist in the Islamic courts of Al-Andalus?  It appears that in Spain, both Muslim and Jewish poets composed Sufi-inspired love poetry during the 9th-11th centuries.  One of the main theories of courtly love traces this poetry as it travels from Al-Andalus to Aquitaine via captured Muslim singers/dancers (male and female) as a result of the early reconquista.  While there’s no evidence that Marie read Islamic poetry per se, she clearly was familiar with the tenets of courtly love as defined and propagated by the courts of the Christian southwest.  As far as I can tell, Marie seems to be the first to wed the early form of courtesie found in Aquitaine with the Celtic oral tradition–a combination that gave rise to the distinctive features of medieval courtly love as we know it.

(7) Marie de France, “Prologue.” Lais. We know this is not a vain boast because she did, in fact, translate another work from the Latin–The Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick.  Her texts are also sprinkled with English words, and it is possible when she mentions “lais that I heard,” she is referring to hearing them in the original Breton, which she may have understood.  (Elsewhere she refers explicitly to Breton lais.)  All in all, she seems to have been well-educated and multi-lingual–not unusual traits for women in court society at this time.

(8) Marie de France, “Guigemar.” The Lais of Marie de France.  London: Penguin Books, 1999. p. 43.

(9) Marie de France, “Epilogue.” Fables.  Quoted in Dinah Hazell, who took the passage from Harriet Spiegel’s edition of the Fables. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

(10) Because Marie stands at the beginning of the literary courtly tradition, it’s difficult to tell if she is simply representing in print a widespread attitude of the bardic oral tradition (or nascent oral poetry of courtly love), or if indeed, Marie initiated this more female-friendly stance towards adultery.  My inclination is to think that while there may, indeed, have been an oral tradition of tales of extra-marital love, Marie’s emphasis on the plight of young women in forced marriages is specific to her own perspective as a woman.  After all, she does take pains to make it clear that she hasn’t simply transcribed the tales as she heard them, but rather has made them her own.  In the introduction to the lai “Milun,” she writes, “Anyone who intends to present a new story must approach the problem in a new way and speak so persuasively that the tale brings pleasure to people.”  I’d suggest that Marie’s “new way” included a more female-centered “take” on the stories.  Of course, it’s important to note that not all of her characters’ extra-marital affairs end well.  However, the few times in her tales when adulterers are given their comeuppance, it’s because they’ve moved from simply enjoying their adulterous love (which Marie seems to condone) to plotting to kill or otherwise endanger the cuckolded spouse.

(9) I should point out that I do think Parzifal offers some instances of strong female characters.  However, I think that you have to read a little more deeply to get at them, and that some of the most obvious examples (Sigune, whose love causes her to literally waste away on her lover’s tomb, or Orgeluse, who comes off at least at first as a bitch) are initially hard for students to relate to.  That’s not to say that with good teaching and close reading, we can’t tease out positive messages about gender from the text; but you certainly have to work harder to find female characters to relate to, I think.  Perhaps that’s because the women in Parizifal tend to be so completely invested in the gender/courtly system–something that contemporary readers might find difficult to fully embrace.  Marie’s characters tend to stand at one remove from the system–girls who are married off but are deeply unhappy; knights who are approached by the queen for sex and turn her down, thus imperiling their career, etc.

(11) It’s interesting that the most likely “originators” of the idea of adultery as a perfectly acceptable pastime for women were themselves women–Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne, who were the two main “early adopters” and promoters of courtly discourse.  So it may not be that Marie de France’s view was particularly unique among mid-twelfth-century noblewomen; but she was the first to make it into a literary trope, as far as I can tell.

(12) Tristan and Iseult is a particularly fascinating example of how difficult it is to trace the origins of a story.  A Norman poet, Béroul, writing at approximately the same time as Marie, wrote down a version of the Tristan and Iseult tale.  It’s unclear whether his version, which was quite lengthy, or Marie’s Tristan tale, “Chevrefoil” (which covers only one episode from the longer Tristan tale) was first.  Interestingly, both he and Marie may have been writing in Henry II’s court at the same time, for his patron is believed to be Eleanor of Aquitaine.  It’s also presumed he was drawing on the same sort of Celtic sources as Marie.  Shortly after he and Marie wrote their versions, the tale was picked up by the German Eilhart von Oberge, who may or may not have read Béroul and Marie’s works.  From there, the story enters the canon of German medieval literature through the work of Gottfried von Strassburgh.  However, both whereas modern scholars consider von Strassburgh’s tale “courtly” (in the sense of framing the story in terms of courtly ideals), Béroul and von Oberge’s versions are described by scholars are “vulgar” (meaning that the courtly elements are lacking).  Marie’s version, on the other hand, is squarely within the courtly tradition, so could be said to be the first courtly rendition of the Tristan tale.  But in this, as in so many things, it depends on how you define your terms.

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The rather racy poster for a German conference on Perpetua. (Source)

So my last entry, about Vibia Perpetua, first diarist in human history, left you all hanging. (Yes, I know… you couldn’t sleep a wink for thinking about it.)  I had gone over the facts of her life as far as we know them, which could roughly be summarized thus:  a young, upper-class Carthaginian woman is arrested by the Romans and thrown in prison to be fed to wild beasts, and while imprisoned, winds up revolutionizing literature as we know it by inventing the diary.

Diarist, Schmiarist.  Who Cares?

So… Perpetua was the first diarist.  Her work is a virtual treasure trove of juicy historical detail–it tells us a great deal about early Christian communities, life in North Africa in the 2nd century CE, relationships between Roman fathers and daughters, and much more. (1)  But, assuming the vast majority of us are not writing doctoral dissertations on Roman Carthage, what real import does her diary have for us?

Oh, Perpetua!  Let me count the ways…

First, for the teachers and/or women’s history buffs among us, her diary gives us a tantalizing clue about Roman women’s literacy, and perhaps literary history in general.  And then, more broadly, it tells us something about the shift in human consciousness that occurred sometime in the first few centuries CE–a shift towards a more “interior” form of religion that Rudolf Steiner thought was emblematic of the late Greco-Roman era, and of Christianity in particular.  More on that below.  First, let’s consider the Roman ladies.

Roman Women: Perhaps not as mute as sometimes thought

Portrait of a young girl with pen and book, from Pompeii, c. 60 CE

Because we have so few examples of literature written by Roman women, it has sometimes been supposed, (even by scholars who should know better) that most of them were illiterate.  Or at best, literate, but not writers of anything other than the occasional letter.    That’s simply untrue.  There’s actually a good deal of evidence that many, if not most, upper class women could read and write.  (2)  However, though we have lots of references to the fact that they could write, we don’t have a lot of evidence for what they actually did write.  Even for the women who were publicly recognized as authors, we have depressingly few surviving texts.  Later male copyists were not kind to women.

With Perpetua, we have a very rare window in.  And here’s what’s interesting about her: neither she nor anyone else in the text thinks it’s odd that she took the time while in prison to write down the ins and outs of her daily life.  In other words, no one is surprised that she keeps a diary.

Without Perpetua, would there have been a Margaret? For centuries, women have reflected on faith, dreams, and daily life in their diaries.

This tells us that writing, and perhaps even diary-keeping itself, was something a woman of her social position might normally be expected to do.  We simply can’t know whether other Roman women kept diaries that have not survived to us, or whether Perpetua’s diary was a one-time flash of brilliance emitted before her bloody end.  But it’s an intriguing thought, and certainly worth noting, that if none of her contemporaries remarked on her diary-keeping, it may indicate that some women did it as a matter of course. (3)  Might the diary have been one of those few arenas for writing that even “virtuous” upper-class women were allowed to pursue?

And, even more tantalizing: if diary-writing originated as a specifically “female” occupation (precisely because it was concerned with the minutiae of daily home life and was generally not circulated to the public), is Perpetua’s diary an example of women’s private writing bursting forth to create a whole new genre of literature?  We may never know for sure, but Perpetua lets us wonder. (4)

Perpetua Breaks Barriers, Human and Divine

Perpetua’s diary has another, possibly even greater, significance.  It gives us a glimpse into the moment when human beings were beginning to think of themselves, and their relation to the divine, in a new way.

Did matching outfits like these put the final nails in the coffin of the Roman state religion?

Rudolf Steiner, the 20th century philosopher and founder of Waldorf education, described the first few centuries CE as a time when people felt that the gods had somehow become more distant, or less accessible, than they had been in previous centuries. (5)  In the ancient world, religion had long centered around acts of offering and sacrifice (including to the king or emperor himself), but for a growing number of people, these acts became less imbued with meaning–perhaps because religion had become increasingly controlled by and connected to the imperial state.  They sought new types of religious experiences, ones that were not so intertwined with the power of Rome.  I mean, really…once you had an emperor building gold statues of himself as a god and dressing up in matchy-matchy outfits with it, who wouldn’t be looking for a new religion on the block?  (BTW, I’m not joking about the statue.  Caligula anticipated by about 2000 years the matching outfits beloved by aged Floridians.)

In the first few centuries CE, a number of religious practices arose that offered their adherents something different, something that hearkened back to the religious experiences of ages past, when people felt that the gods had moved in and among the living in more perceptible ways.  From magic and alchemy, to revivals of ancient mystery cults, to gnostic sects and relatively new religions such as Mithraism or Christianity–what they all shared was that practitioners felt they experienced the deity (or deities) directly, in an inward way.

Despite featuring a Nordic god, this poster pretty much sums up how the Roman state viewed Christianity. (Source)

Perpetua’s work provides a beautiful example of this movement back towards a personal experience of the divine.  And even further:  her diary perfectly captures the idea that following God might involve listening to an “inner voice” that could conflict with the outer demands of family and state.  This was utterly bewildering to the people around her who were invested in the Roman state religion (including her father). What did she mean by claiming she was obeying God?  It was sheer nonsense.  To be a pious woman, she had to follow the will of her father and carry out her obligations to the state, including participating in the requisite festivals and sacrifices (and not as bull-fodder). (6) That’s what piety meant: doing what was required of you by the representatives of the gods.

And even more ridiculous to the average “Roman on the street” would have been this: Perpetua’s claim that she (and her god) were somehow victorious when she clearly was not. (7) It simply didn’t make sense to think of being fed to lions as anything other than a defeat–not only of Perpetua, but of her deity.  It’s obvious: if your god is so great, how come you’re being gored by that bull? (8)

Perpetua’s diary takes pains to demonstrate how heaven’s logic might not conform to earthly expectations at all–how her arrest and imprisonment (and even her final death) could be evidence of her greater, inward victory.  And she does this in a way that is eminently personal.  She didn’t write a philosophical treatise on why the Roman state should be dismantled, or a long letter with moral exhortations to fellow-Christians.  Instead, she kept a minute account of her day-to-day inner and outer life as an expression of the inner workings of the Holy Spirit.

This was new.  And revolutionary.  And in my humble opinion, something that she might not have achieved if she had been male.  Lots of men (and some women) before her had reflected on the inner voice of God, on what it means to follow God, and on what it means to be a “victor” in God’s sight–usually in the form of philosophical treatises or letters of advice.  And plenty had recorded their dreams in temple inscriptions and books of dream interpretation.  Still others wrote letters to each other about their daily lives (“Today so-and-so said such-and-such to me; the next day we went to the forum,” etc.)  But no one had brought it all together in a diary as “my story” before–a text where inner thoughts, dreams, and experiences of the divine, are interwoven with daily life.  It took, perhaps, a Roman woman–someone who was “supposed” to confine her writing to the private sphere–to bring all these different threads together in a text that so perfectly captures the revolutionary inwardness of the late Roman period, and shows how diametrically opposed this new interiority could be to the priorities of the imperial state.

This, Perpetua did perfectly.  Her diary stands, therefore, not only as a witness to her own particular courage in subverting Roman gender, familial, and imperial norms, but also as a testimony to the way in which a specifically female voice could so eloquently paint a picture of the changing religious experiences of the time.

Artist Jim Ru’s interpretation of the “couple” (Source)

Now, just for fun:  Who knew?  In recent years, Perpetua (along with her slave Felicitas) has become a patron saint of lesbian couples.  Given how strange some of the traditional saint associations are (e.g. St. Fiacre, who because he could reputedly heal hemorrhoids, is now patron saint of STDs), Perpetua and Felicitas’ stint as a lesbian couple is probably neither more nor less far-fetched than many others.  And it’s nice to think there’s a patron saint for everyone.  (Saints Sergius and Bacchus are the patrons of male couples, and there seems to be some evidence that they really were lovers in real life.)  Here (and scrolling down through my notes) are some contemporary icons of the happy female couple.  The last one is by far the raciest (I gotta keep you reading to the end somehow)  It was done way before the LGBT Christian movement gained traction–by a 19th c. male Australian artist who apparently specialized in naked women in chains.  As one contemporary blogger writes, it’s what the two women might have looked like as an inter-racial couple sleeping nude in prison.

——-

NOTES

(1) Joyce E. Salisbury does a nice job of summarizing the relationship of Perpetua’s diary to other literary works of her time period, including Hellenistic romances, early Christian tracts and letters, and texts on dreams and dream interpretation.  Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997.  pp. 92-98.

Artist Maria Cristina’s depiction of Perpetua and Felicitas  (Source)

(2) This website, though a bit hard to read and written from a Christian perspective, does a nice job at collecting many of the ancient Greco-Roman references to literate women in one place.  Another excellent (and much more scholarly) resource is I.M. Plant’s book, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.  It’s a great source for teachers, since it collects in one place all the writings of Greco-Roman female writers, and gives a 1-2 page introduction to each figure.

(3) Even the rather grumpy Plutarch, who warned that “a virtuous woman’s speech should be private,” allows his hypothetical perfect female the possibility of speaking and writing privately to her family. Plutarch was a Greek from the 1st c CE who became a Roman citizen, and wrote on a number of topics, including the correct deportment of women.  This quote comes from his Moralia, 142c-d.  You can find the whole passage online here.

(4) It’s interesting to note that the second diary-like text we have was also written by a woman–Egeria, a Spanish Christian pilgrim who traveled to the Holy Land in the early 380s CE.  She wrote to a group of sisters (sorores, who may or may not have been nuns) about her travels in and around Palestine, focusing on her daily activities and the sights she saw.  It reads more or less like a travel diary.  You can read the whole diary online here.

(5)  This dissatisfaction with the state religion and rise of new/revived religious traditions has been noticed by other scholars too–it’s not simply a “Steiner thing.”  Writing 50-some years after Steiner, eminent classicist E.R. Dodds characterized the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE as the “Age of Anxiety”–a time when individuals felt a growing division between earthly life and the celestial world, and longed for union with the divine.  E. R. Dodds. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.  Joyce Salisbury gives a great overview of his main arguments in her book Perpetua’s Passion.  (pp. 22-32. See note 1 for full reference.)

Artist John Darcy Noble’s rendition of the saints. (Source)

(6) Perpetua, like all Roman women, remained under the control of a male her entire life.  Roman women were legally bound to obey the pater familias (legal male head of the family) under the system of patria potestas (power of the father).  By Perpetua’s time, most Roman women never left their father’s power, even after they married (though sometimes marriage contracts were written up in such a way that she was transferred to her husband’s authority.) There were occasions in which a woman could be “emancipated” from male authority, but these were relatively rare.

(7) It’s interesting, here, to consider some earlier Jewish texts on martyrdom, including 4th Maccabees (dating from the 1st centuries BCE-1st century CE, before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE).  These texts are in no way diaries, but they do portray the persecution and death of Jews at the hands of Romans as victories–in the case of 4th Maccabees, the victory of the victims’ self-control over their fear.

19th c. artist George Hare’s depiction of a beatific Perpetua and Felicity sleeping in each others’ arms. Robert Mapplethorpe has nothing on this guy.  (Source)

(8) Steiner spends some time considering this counter-intuitive argument in one of his lectures, “Three Streams in the Evolution of Mankind,” which he gave in Dornach in 1918.  He focuses particularly on the logic of Tertullian, a Carthaginian church father who was roughly contemporaneous with Perpetua, and who may even have been the author of the introductory portion of her diary that was added after her death.  For his consideration of the general religious climate of late antiquity, see Lecture One of his work, The Fifth Gospel (1913).  Both texts can be accessed through the Rudolf Steiner online archive, here.

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My take on the Shakespeareisahipster meme.

So, dear readers, when we last left Enheduanna, we had learned all about her life and times and were about to embark upon an examination of her literary output–a corpus of hymns to various temples and deities that was so sophisticated and psychologically nuanced compared to other writings of the time that the eminent Assyriologist William Hallo referred to her as “The Sumerian Shakespeare.”  But given that she preceded Shakespeare by about, oh, 3800 years, it might be more apt to dub the bard “The English Enheduanna.”  In any case, don’t just take Hallo’s word for it–read on for why you, too, should care about her work.

Enheduanna’s Literary Career

Enheduanna’s literary output is divided into two main bodies of work: her temple hymns, which were addressed not to individual deities, but to the temples themselves, and her hymns to Inanna, who appears to have been Enheduanna’s favorite goddess. (1)  To do justice to Enheduanna’s theology and literary style you’d need to read the poems themselves (we wouldn’t be satisfied with an online synopsis of Shakespeare, would we?).  But I’ll try to summarize briefly here the main points as they’re relevant to our work as Waldorf teachers.

Tablets of the Temple Hymns

First, you should know what the experts (that is to say, Assyriologists) say.  They usually relate her poetry to the larger political events of her time, seeing the hymns as a unified body of work that forms part of a political campaign.  Each temple hymn, for example, is dedicated to “lugal-mu” (“my king”), and as a whole, the hymns take pains to link the religious centers of Akkad with those of Sumer. (2)  In this view, Enheduanna appears as a PR agent of sorts for her father, King Sargon, helping smooth relationships between the two peoples he was attempting to rule.  She certainly seems to have been smart enough to be in charge of such a campaign.  However, personally, I think that whatever her political motivation, the hymns themselves are so lyrical that we have to take them seriously as religious and literary endeavors, not just cagey political moves.  And more to the point, it seems significant that Enheduanna emerges as the first author in history at this point in time.  After all, if the hymns were more or less just propaganda, she could have written them anonymously.  So why put her name to them?  What’s going on?

Enheduanna’s Genius: Going “Meta” in her Poetry

Enheduanna is hereby posthumously presented with Notablewoman’s Certified Genius Award, for services rendered to the evolution of human consciousness

Here’s what’s going on: the woman was a genius.  Perhaps the most wonderful moment in all of Enheduanna’s work is when, in one of the Temple Hymns, she names herself and reflects on her own brilliance.  But unlike Shakespeare, who immortalized himself and his poetry in Sonnet 18 with the line, “so long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” Enheduanna, wonders not at the longevity of her poem, but at its sheer novelty:

the person who bound this tablet together
/ is Enheduanna / my king, something never before created /
did not this one give birth to it? (3)

The woman was hot and she knew it.  And after all, didn’t she have the right to brag a bit?  As far as we can tell, no one else had ever thought to put their name down on a literary work before.  Basically, Enheduanna went “meta” on her peers–not only did she compose a poem, but she drew attention to the fact that she, Enheduanna, had done it.  Of course, even without her name, her work would still retain its striking images and lyric beauty.  But her capacity for self-reflection is what really distinguishes Enheduanna.  (To hear a four-minute selection of her poetry read in the original Sumerian, click here, then scroll down to the bottom of the page and press play.)

For us Waldorf teachers, Enheduanna’s self-reflection is particularly interesting because she emerges as the first authorial persona in human history in exactly the era Steiner pinpointed as the beginning of human awareness of our inner emotional life. (4)  This period, which he called “Egypto-Chaldean,” spanned roughly 2900-750 BCE.   Much later during this era we see other individual authors emerge: Shin-eqi-unninni (author of the Epic of Gilgamesh, who is supposed to have lived sometime around 1600 BCE, a full 700 years after Enheduanna), Hesiod, Homer, Sappho, etc. (5) But Enheduanna was the first, and judging from her hymns, she knew it.

Enheduanna’s Complexity: Exploring Human Emotions

Apparently, Rodin’s “Thinker” should have been female.

In addition to being the first person to identify herself as an author, Enheduanna was also (as far as we can tell) the first person to write about her own inner emotional state.  As Steiner notes, cultures prior to the Egypto-Chaldean period did not distinguish so clearly between inner and outer, human and divine, emotional life and bodily experience.  And in order to examine one’s inner life, one first has to distinguish between the world “out there” and the world “in here.”  As a result, there is very little evidence that earlier cultures engaged in what we might call “navel-gazing”–the propensity to think about and reflect on our own inner thoughts and feelings.   What is new during the Egypto-Chaldean period, then, is the growing awareness that human emotional life constitutes a separate realm that is ripe for exploration. Once again, Enheduanna represents a pivotal moment in this unfolding of human consciousness.

We see this new way of thinking most clearly in her description of an enigmatic episode from her life.  Apparently, at some point fairly far-along in her career (Hallo places it during her nephew Naram-Sin’s reign), Enheduanna was thrown out of her temple and forced to live in exile on the steppe.  To add insult to injury, she was replaced as High Priestess by a man named Lugalunne, whom Enheduanna views as a usurper (whether he was a priest or king is unclear).  Enheduanna, devastated, pleaded her case plaintively in her third hymn to Inanna:

truly for your gain / you drew me toward
my holy quarters
 / I 
the High Priestess /
I 
Enheduanna /
there I raised the ritual basket
/ there I sang the shout of joy /
but that man cast me among the dead /
I am not allowed in my rooms
/ gloom falls on the day
/ light turns leaden
/ shadows close in
/ dreaded southstorm cloaks the sun
/ he wipes his spit-soaked hand
/ on my honey-sweet mouth
/ my beautiful image 
fades under dust
/ what is happening to me
/ O Suen [i.e. Inanna]
/ what is this with Lugalanne?…/ he gave me the ritual dagger of mutilation/ he said/ “it becomes you.” (6)

A Sumerian dagger, found in Woolley’s excavations (Source)

What an image.  Can’t you just see the victorious Lugalanne standing in the sacked temple, holding Enheduanna’s chin in his hand, brandishing the ritual dagger before her, and leering sarcastically, “it becomes you”?  Ugh.  Even 4300 years later, it gives me chills.

But here’s another thing that gives me chills:  Enheduanna’s heartfelt, almost diary-like poetry about the events of her life and her internal state–it’s all so very new.  It’s amazing to think about, because writing like this is so familiar to us now, even to the point of being banal.  To say that “light turns leaden” and “shadows close in” as a way of describing your own depression is no big deal these days.  But when Enheduanna was writing, no one else in the history of humankind had ever before thought to put his or her personal experiences and inner emotional turmoil on paper (or clay, as the case may be).  Truly astonishing.

Enheduanna’s Dilemma:  Old Gods vs. New Gods

If Enheduanna had a car, this might be her bumper sticker

Finally, as if inventing authorship and navel-gazing weren’t enough, Enheduanna’s writings show us a shift in the very nature of religious experience itself.   Steiner charted this movement from earlier eras, in which humans experienced the divine directly, as coterminous with the world (the world essentially was the divine), to Enheduanna’s time (the Egypto-Chaldean period), when humans began to experience the divine as “other,” or as subtly set apart from the human realm.  To use some fancy theological terms, we can see this as an evolution from an earlier pantheism (God is everything) into a later panentheism (God is in everything), the latter of which subtly supposes that God has the option of not being in everything, or that God somehow exceeds and/or transcends everything that we see around us.

Inanna in one of her less ferocious moments

Jungian analyst and scholar Betty De Shong Meador, while seemingly unfamiliar with Steiner’s work, nevertheless nicely situates Enheduanna at exactly this crux of theological history. (7) She notes that Enheduanna’s hymns to Inanna describe the goddess as wearing “the robes of the old, old gods,”  and depict her as containing all the fury and contradictions of nature and life itself– simultaneously as maiden, lover, warrior, bringer of birth and death, hunger and famine, growth and destruction.  Inanna, in short, represents the last gasp of the old order, when every aspect of life, good and bad, was felt to be embodied in the god(dess).  Enheduanna’s first Inanna hymn, “Inanna and Ebih,” relates the story of what happens when the old and new orders collide.  (And it ain’t pretty for the new gods on the block.)

In brief, the poem describes an epic confrontation between Inanna and a defiant mountain named Ebih that refuses to “praise [Inanna’s] way.”  When Inanna appeals to her father An, the head of the gods, he hems and haws, musing that he finds the mountain’s pastoral charms quite lovely.  Ultimately, An refuses to back Inanna in the dispute, referring to her (rather patronizingly, if endearingly) as “my Little One.”  At that point Inanna goes ballistic, destroying the mountain in a fit of fury that de Shong Meador translates as “bedlam unleashed.”  I won’t reproduce the full passage here, but just in case you ever feel like messing with Inanna, you might want to consider that her vengeance involved hurricane winds, arrows, choking dust, pelting stones, parching drought, poisoned trees, and flames.

Enheduanna (and Inanna) were having none of this newfangled, namby-pamby lion and lamb stuff.

Historically speaking, it’s unclear whether Ebih can be identified with an actual mountain, whether there was perhaps a rival temple or king on said mountain, and if so, if the destruction of the mountain/temple was an actual event (an earthquake, maybe?). (8)  What’s interesting for our purposes is that the rebellious mountain is depicted as a bucolic, even paradisiacal place where lions and sheep roam together, much as in the Biblical book of Isaiah.  Sounds rather nice to modern ears.  But for Enheduanna, the clearly unnatural peacefulness of the mountain marks it out as opposed to Inanna’s way.  Nature, like Inanna, encompasses both good and bad, light and dark, birth and death.  A holy mountain where lions lie down with lambs is an aberration (an insult, even!) to Inanna.  Eternal abundance and peace be damned!  Inanna annihilates it, much to Enheduanna’s obvious delight.

Of course, with the hindsight of 4300 years, we can see that the Lady doth protest too much–transcendent gods were the wave of the future, even if Inanna (in the form of her alter egos Ishtar and Cybele) did hang around for another two thousand years or so.  Oh, irony of ironies!  Precisely the type of introspective self-awareness that led Enheduanna to compose the first authored poem in history, to navel-gaze like the best psychoanalytic patient, to fume about the replacement of Inanna by newer gods–these same capacities were  slowly leading human beings further and further away from the religious experiences that had characterized earlier periods of human development, and which Enheduanna held so dear in her beloved Inanna.

It’s important to note here, that Steiner makes no judgment about these different stages of human evolution.  We’re not meant to look at Enheduanna’s work and say, “Good girl!” when she demonstrates self-awareness and “Bad girl!” when she has Inanna stomp the bejeezus out of mount Ebih.  We’re simply noting, like the best post-structuralists, that human consciousness itself is culturally contingent.  That is to say, the fact that Enheduanna was the first person to show us these facets of the human mind is important–she’s the first one because before this time, people experienced themselves and the world differently.  Her genius, and her gift to us, was to precisely and poetically capture the moment when humans first looked inward at themselves and wrote down what they saw.  Truly, we can say that Enheduanna, the world’s first author, birthed “something that was never before created.”

 And that, my friends, is why we should all teach Enheduanna to our students every chance we get.

———-

NOTES

(1) There is some question about whether all 42 of the temple hymns we have really were authored by Enheduanna herself.  Apparently, her fame as a poet caused other, later writers to use her name (a frequent practice in antiquity).  However, most scholars agree based on stylistic analysis that the vast majority, if not all of them, are hers.

(2) William W. Hallo & J.J.A. van Dijk. The Exaltation of Inanna.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

(3) From an online translation by Betty de Shong Meador of Enheduanna’s hymns: http://www.atanet.org/publications/beacons_10_pages/page_15.pdf

(4) It’s almost certain that Steiner didn’t know of Enheduanna’s writings, since Leonard Woolley, the archeologist who first rediscovered her work, did not even begin excavating in Ur until 1922.  I have been unable to pinpoint the date that he revealed the disk of Enheduanna to the world, but it appears that his earliest publications (for the Trustees of the British and University of Pennsylvania museums) were in the late 20s and early 30s, after Steiner’s death.  It’s even more amazing, then, that Enheduanna’s work fits so nicely with the Egypto-Chaldean period as outlined by Steiner, given that the earliest literature Steiner would have had access to was the Gilgamesh epic, which post-dates Enheduanna by about 700 years.

(5) The first named Chinese authors (many of whom are quasi-historical) appear in the 8th c. BCE;  Indian Vedic texts (the earliest of which are believed to have been compiled c. 1500 BCE) were not ascribed to individuals, and the earliest pre-Vedic Indic writing (from the Harappan civilization, which flourished in Enheduanna’s time) has not been deciphered.

(6) Betty de Shong Meador, Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the High Priestess Enheduanna. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. pp. 174-175.

(7) I can’t recommend de Shong Meador’s book on Enheduanna highly enough.  It is erudite, well-written, and most importantly, really tries to grapple with the spiritual and historical significance of Enheduanna’s work.  To be sure, there are moments when she lays on the Jungian analysis a little thick, but as a readable, deep interpretation of Enheduanna (and Inanna, for that matter), it can’t be beat.

(8) William Hallo suggests that Ebih can be identified with the mountain currently known as Jebel Hamrin in Iraq.  And he reads the poems not as symptomatic of shifts in human consciousness, but as celebrations of Sargon’s triumphs over the various regions he conquered.  William W. Hallo.  The World’s Oldest Literature: Studies in Sumerian Belles Lettres.  Brill, 2010.  For the google book reference, click here.

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A detail of a carved stone disk showing Enheduanna carrying out her priestly duties

NOTABLE WOMAN STATS:

Name: Enheduanna

Birthplace and date:  Mesopotamian basin (probably Akkad), c. 2300 BCE

Occupation/Claim to Fame: High Priestess of the Sumerian moon god Nanna and the world’s first personally named author (as opposed to all previous literature, which was composed anonymously)

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  As the first author to emerge from history as a discrete personality, Enheduanna perfectly exemplifies the transformation in human consciousness that Steiner described as taking place during what he called the Egypto-Chaldean period (roughly 2900-750 BCE).  Plus, she’s a fantastic poet.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum: High School Ancient History Block; 5th grade Ancient History (with some content made age-appropriate, of course); any time you are discussing world literature or religions (e.g. 12th grade comparative religion)

If you are going to read only one book about her, read: Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna by Betty de Shong Meador.  (Austin: Univeristy of Texas Press, 2000.)  de Shong Meador’s translations are poetic and faithful, and as a Jungian analyst, she’s interested in the spiritual dimension of Enheduanna’s life and writings, as well as the academic points of interest.  You can also access some of Enheduanna’s Temple Hymns online here and here, and some of her Inanna poetry here.

Enheduanna’s Life and Times

It’s crazy how few people have heard of Enheduanna, High Priestess of the Sumerian Moon god Nanna.  After all, she has the distinguished fortune to be the first personally named author we know of in the entire history of humankind.  Moreover, her work, which comprised (as far as we can tell) 42 temple hymns and a number of longer works addressed to her favorite goddess Inanna, represent humanity’s first attempts at composing a systematic theology.  (How’s that for some credentials?)

Given how foggy we are about even kings’ personalities back in Enheduanna’s day (which, as best we can estimate, was about 2300 BCE), it’s actually quite amazing that we know as much as we do about her.  This is thanks, in large part, to her own writings, of which we have about 4500 lines of poetry.  Other evidence comes from seals found with her name on them, a stone disk carved with her image, and copies of her writings, which apparently entered the canon of Old Babylonian scribal schools as exempla of excellent literary style.

Her family

Enheduanna’s father Sargon

So, here’s what we know about her life:  Enheduanna was the daughter of the Akkadian king Sargon, who conqured a number of Sumerian city-states in the late 23rd-early 22nd centuries BCE.  The Akkadians and Sumerians were both native to the Mesopotamian valley and maintained a very close cultural interchange, including worshipping similar gods, but the two communities were linguistically distinct. Sargon’s empire united the two peoples in a not-always-tension-free rule.  When Enheduanna’s two brothers each, in turn, inherited the throne, revolts followed.  Her nephew, Naram-Sin, eventually succeeded them and unified the area once more.  Enheduanna was still High Priestess when Naram-Sin was in power, so she outlived her father and two brothers (she had at least two other siblings, but we don’t know much about them).

There is some scholarly debate over whether Enheduanna was really Sargon’s biological daughter, or if “daughter of Sargon” was simply a term used to denote her status as High Priestess under his protection.  Most scholars agree, however, that she probably was Sargon’s offspring, since appointing one of his own children High Priestess over the southern, formerly Sumerian-controlled city of Ur would have made a great deal of political sense. But though she may have been given her post because of her birth, she rocked it totally on her own merits.  She was one tough, smart, literate woman.

Her Home

Enheduanna’s “House of Light”
The ziggurat of Ur as it was then, and (below) now

With the exception of a period of exile in which she was forcibly removed from her temple (more on that in the next post), Enheduanna seems to have spent most of her adult life in the famous temple complex of Ur, which included the “House of Light”–the ziggurat of which partial (rebuilt) remains can still be seen today.  Sumerian temples were, in addition to being religious centers, the centers of economic and social life as well.  Indeed, archeological and textual evidence has shown that the earliest cities most likely arose as a crystallization of homes and structures around the central temple complex, which served as granary storehouse, food distribution site, and generally the center of marketplace and bureaucratic activity.  By Enheduanna’s time, this role was coming under increasing fire, as non-priestly bigwigs such as her father Sargon jostled for control with the priests and priestesses in charge.   This would come to a head with Enheduanna’s nephew Naram-Sin, who declared himself “God of Akkad”  and thereby assumed control of the temples as well as the political hierarchy.

All of which is a long way of saying that Enheduanna was a big deal.

Her Daily Life

The “Enheduanna Disk” depicting Enheduanna (in the flouncy dress) performing her duties, discovered in the 1920s by Leonard Woolley

What was Enheduanna’s daily life like?  As priestess of the moon god Nanna and his wife Ningal, she and her staff would have spent a great deal of time caring for them ritually–bathing and clothing the statues, bathing themselves before they approached the figures, making offerings of animals, produce, jewelry, and other materials, and keeping precise astronomical recordings of the moon’s phases.  It’s unclear whether she would have conducted some of these astronomical observations herself.  One of her poems refers to the fact that her own rooms (the “gipar” part of the temple complex) were where “they track the passage of the moon.”  The language simultaneously suggests that specialized personnel (“they”) did the actual observations, and that she had some sort of intimate part in the operation, since they were in her room (“the priestess’ rooms, that princely shrine of holy cosmic order”). (1)

In addition to her cult and scientific responsibilities, she also had a considerable agricultural enterprise to oversee.  Her title “en-priestess” referred to her capacity to oversee the fecundity of the land, and she ruled over a veritable army of farmers, fishermen, shepherds, and other livestock managers.  The incredible bounty produced by so large an enterprise made temples extremely wealthy, so much so that they also played the role of banks, making substantial loans to individuals and kings.  And in addition to her managerial responsibilities at home, she would have had to have maintained relations with other temples in the Mesopotamian valley as a sort of roving “goodwill ambassador” of Nanna (and possibly her father, Sargon).

Alabaster head, believed to be of Ningal

Still another of her duties was to act as a conduit and interpreter of dream messages from the gods.  During a period of her life when she was temporarily exiled from her temple (and replaced by a man), Enheduanna lamented, “I cannot stretch my hands/from the pure sacred bed/I cannot unravel/Ningal’s gifts of dreams/to anyone.”  (Ningal being the wife of Nanna, the moon god.)  It’s unclear whether her dream duties included the interpretation of other people’s dreams.  However, with the discovery of a ceremonial bed platform within Ningal’s part of the temple complex, it seems probable that Enheduanna’s duties would have included some form of sacred sleep after which she would interpret her own dreams as signs from the gods.

Inanna and Dumuzi get down to business

And speaking of beds…each year she would have taken part in the annual “sacred marriage” ritual, in which she was joined in union with the god Nanna.  It’s unclear whether the ritual actually involved sexual intercourse or not.  The stele of a later en-priestess refers to the aforementioned golden bed of Ningal that might have been part of such a ritual.  And certainly some of the poems of the goddess Inanna are, to say the least, on the racy side.  (In one, Inanna addresses her vulva and compares it to the new moon rising; in several others, she propositions her consort, Dumuzi, saying in one, “my field wants hoeing…I want YOU Dumuzi/your bough raised…”). (2)  But with such scanty evidence (and little of it about the moon god Nanna, as opposed to the goddess Inanna), it’s difficult to re-create actual ritual practices.  Suffice it to say, then, that Enheduanna was certainly supposed to have been intimate with the moon god Nanna, whether or not it involved actual intercourse with a human representative of the god.  And this intimacy was, in turn, supposed to assure the continued fertility of the temple lands, if not the whole of Sumer itself.  One of Enheduana’s titles (and one of her favorite ways of describing herself) was simply, “Wife of Nanna.”

Now that we’ve established a little bit about her life and times, next time, we’ll finally be able to get to the good stuff: her poetry.  (Oh, you thought that sex with the moon god WAS the good stuff?  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, baby.)

Notes

(1) This translation is from Betty de Shong Meador’s book Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the High Priestess Enheduanna. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000) p. 72.  In general, de Shong Meador’s book is an excellent overview of Enheduanna (and Inanna).  I’ve used her as a source for much of the information presented here.  A source that gives a helpful account of Mesopotamian political history is Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).  I recommend it with a caveat:  although it is extremely helpful in setting out timelines, maps, and other basic information, it is a very narrowly political historical narrative, and needs to be supplemented by social and economic history.  In over 700 pages of text, Enheduanna doesn’t even get a single mention!

(2) de Shong Meador, p 59.

 

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