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Posts Tagged ‘10th grade’

Eeek! This definition of matriarchy can’t be anyone’s idea of utopia. (Source)

OK, so the title of this post is a bit of a trick question, because the answer depends on how you define “matriarchy.” (1)

In popular culture, talk of matriarchy almost always refers back to an alleged ancient woman-centered, goddess-worshiping culture that preceded most of our written historical records.  Waldorf folk sometimes repeat this idea, based in part on some of Steiner’s work, which does indeed mention women playing important roles in very ancient societies.  In the last few decades, though, there has been an enormous amount of ink spilled over whether this supposed prehistoric matriarchy ever really existed.  So what is the evidence for a paleolithic/neolithic matriarchy anyway?  And what does the debate have to do with Steiner’s views and how we as Waldorf teachers teach ancient history?

So…All aboard the matriarchy train!  First stop: backwards into prehistory.

The famous Venus of Willendorf statue (c. 25000 BCE) has become an icon of the supposed matriarchal, goddess-worshipping cultures of European prehistory. (Source)

The Myth of Prehistoric Matriarchy 

Let me preface this now by saying that others have debunked the story of a prehistoric matriarchy very thoroughly. (2)  I’m just going to summarize their work here.  And also, one other caveat: I’m not a hater.  Really.  I actually DO think that matriarchal societies exist, if we define matriarchy in the more limited way most contemporary anthropologists do.  I’ll get to that below, so if you’re a pro-matriarchy fan, hang in there.  I’m with you, sisters.

In a nutshell, the popular story about pre-historic matriarchies can generally be characterized in the following way:  since the dawn of time, humans lived in relatively peaceful, cooperative groups (some settled, some wandering).  People worshipped goddesses (or the Great Goddess), and women were seen as embodying the Goddess’ miraculous powers of birth, fertility, and regeneration.  Bloodlines were traced through the mother, and women held high positions in society as priestesses and possibly even political chiefs.  Most decisions were made by consensus, and warfare was practically unknown.  Men worked alongside women and sometimes formed hunting parties, but left major community decisions up to their better halves.   This idyllic life came to a shattering halt sometime around 5000 BCE, when patriarchal, war-like Indo-European invaders rushed in from the Russian steppes and conquered the pacific, woman-centered earlier cultures, who lacked the means to defend themselves.  The conquerors imposed their patriarchal male gods and social forms on the matriarchs, and the rest is history (and God) as we know it. (3)

“Venus” with breasts or phallic “baton”? You decide. (Source)

But, much as the foregoing account would make a wonderful movie (and indeed, there has been at least one novel written using this storyline), there are a number of problems with the narrative.  First, and perhaps most importantly, most scholars in the field of pre- and proto-Indo-European studies do not support it.  Based on lots of archeological evidence (some of it relatively recent, and therefore not available to the scholar who first forwarded the invasion theory), it’s become clear that there’s not much to support the idea that women were power-holders in pacifist paleolithic societies, much less that they were overthrown in a violent tussle with nasty, patriarchal Russians.  I won’t go over all of it here, but suffice it to say, for example, that they have unearthed mass graves with bodies containing in spear points that pre-date the alleged Indo-European invasion by several thousand years.  And a number of examples of what were originally described as “female” figures have turned out to be equivocally gendered, or perhaps even male.  (For example, some that were originally positioned upright and described as a “Venus” or “neck and breasts,” look remarkably like male genitalia when held horizontally.) (4)

And then there’s the whole goddess thing.  It is clear that many prehistoric cultures must have worshiped goddesses (though whether they ever worshiped a single Great Goddess is much more debatable).  But repeat after me: Goddesses are not women.  That is to say, just because a culture has powerful goddesses does not mean the women are in power.  This goddess/woman disconnect may seem obvious to anyone familiar with places like modern India (or for that matter, Ancient Greece, or the Roman Catholic church).  But popular ideas of matriarchy often seem to leap blithely from the prevalence of goddesses to the status of actual women.  You can find as many statues of plump, naked ladies as you want, but all that tells you is that a culture had a lot of plump, naked lady statues.   Depending on where you find them, you might be able to guess if they were temple images, household protector deities, or forms of paleo-porn; but often the exact position of the find is either unknown (in the case of many early excavations) or inconclusive (what does it mean if you find them in a garbage pit, for instance?).  And even if we know for sure that certain statues were goddesses, they don’t tell us anything about actual women in the community.  For that, we’d have to collect other types of evidence–DNA/skeleton analysis, examination of burial patterns, etc.  And so far, most of that material has favored interpretations that are much more nuanced in their descriptions of possible gender roles.

Whither Matriarchy?

You know a subject has hit the big time when it has it’s own Samuel Jackson meme.  (Source)

So, if we can’t definitively locate matriarchy in the distant, idyllic past, has there ever been a matriarchal culture?  The answer seems to be “yes,” though we need to nuance our definitions of matriarchy a bit.  To my mind, one of the most helpful discussions of the issue is found in the work of Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist who spent a number of years studying the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia. (5) The Minangkabau are matrilineal (with land and property handed down through the mother), though political decision-making is the province of men, and the official religion is Islam.  Most importantly for us, they (even the men) refer to themselves as “matriarchal” (matriarchaat).  At first, Sanday was puzzled by this designation, because it was clear that though women controlled property and many religious rites, men still retained important positions of political and community authority.  However, after studying the Minangkabau for many years, Sanday came to believe that it was her own notion of power that prevented her from viewing the Minangkabau as matriarchal.

Behind the Matriarchy: Power as a Shared Life-Force

Traditional Indonesian concepts of power are very different than Western, post-enlightenment views of it.  We generally think about power as something you have (and wield).  There’s someone “with” power, and someone “without” power.  There’s a finite amount of it, and somebody’s gotta be on top.  At best, we imagine a type of power-sharing in which this limited supply of power is doled out equally.  (It’s called communism, and one reason it makes so many people nervous is the assumption that there’s only a limited amount of power available, so giving you more means that I have less.)

For many people in many places and times (including galaxies long ago and far away), power has been less something you “have” and more something you tap into.

However, many other cultures (including, perhaps, the pre-Enlightenment West) see power not as something to be possessed, but as an energetic force that is manifest in both animate and inanimate objects.  Think, perhaps, of Chinese ideas about “chi” (as in chi-gong or tai-chi).  Or for you Steiner-folk, the etheric body: a life force that flows through everything.  If we switch caps and think about power as a life energy that’s available for everyone to tap into, then a couple things become clear:

1. Wherever “life” is, power is too.  That means that the people/places we as 21st century Westerners might look to as wielding the greatest power (e.g. the male political realm) might not be the people/places that another society feels teem with the greatest life-force.  For example, there may be other things or beings–natural features (rocks, streams, etc.), certain ceremonial locations, ritual words and phrases, or human bodies themselves–that are felt to be particularly potent bearers of life-power.

2. Since life is abundant and ever-present, there’s not a finite amount of power that I have to hoard for myself.  We can all tap into it, albeit perhaps, in different spheres or roles.  Nature can provide us with useful metaphors here–a web or a tree being two of the most-often used.  Each person, place, or thing in the web depends on the other parts for support.  This does not mean that we are all equal in the sense of all being the same; but it means that without each person’s role, the whole web of power (or, to use another image, tree of life) would fall apart. (6)

After considering this very different understanding of power, Sanday decided that she wasn’t finding women “in power” because she was looking in the wrong place for the wrong type of power.  Instead of defining matriarchy as “the control of political power by women,” she decided, we should look for “partnership cultures” in which there is an emphasis on “the role of maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance.” (7)  In other words, we should think of matriarchy as a culture where authority is shared between women and men, and where imagery of motherhood and nurture gives meaning to the society’s overarching structure.

Anthropologists tell us that this is not really an accurate depiction of matriarchy.

In the case of the Minangkabau, their proverb “Growth in nature is our teacher” provides the foundational reference point for all their social interactions.  Whether speaking of new life in agriculture and animal husbandry or relations among human beings, maternal nurture, not “power over” is the dominant model.  So, for instance, they believe the community as a whole needs to be tended as a mother tends her child; so do animals, plant life, the relations between the community and the Indonesian state, and the relationship between the community and the spirit world.  (The Minangkabau are Muslim, but also believe in maintaining good ties with certain ancestral spirits.) Not surprisingly, given their emphasis on motherhood, they see their practice of matriliny (tracing property and land rights through the mother’s side) as the best way to nurture families and the community as a whole.

But (and this is an important but) Minangkabau women are actually NOT “in charge” in a modern, Western sense.  They have certain areas of influence and responsibility (mostly religious and domestic), but the political realm remains the domain of the men.  (Interestingly, the men themselves are perceived as themselves having a “maternal” nurturing role with regard to community politics.)  So, if we set out to look for a culture in which women were the political leaders, the Minangkabau would fail the “matriarchy” test.  However, as Sanday defines it, in a true matriarchy, power is actually shared between the sexes, who are each perceived as taking on nurturing roles in their different spheres of influence. (8)  This is consistent with the concept of power we discussed above–in which power flows through everything, and is available to be tapped into by anyone.  Women tap into it (and even foster its growth) in ceremony and domestic matters; men tap into it (and foster its growth) in the political sphere.  The two are equally important nodes in the web of life, but the dominant imagery used is one of maternal nurture.

Back to Prehistory

A sampling of “Venus” figurines from Eastern Europe. (Source)

So what does this redefinition of matriarchy tell us about pre-history?  Well, to be honest, nothing definite.  We still are faced with all the problems of data interpretation that bedevil the popular ideas of goddess-centered matriarchy.  However, it does give us a new way to imagine what might have been the case in some of the societies we’ve unearthed.  For instance, we might take another look at the figurines associated with a specific time and place, and see if we can discern any patterns that might lead us to believe that maternal imagery and motifs of growth and nurture predominate.  If so, we might take another, closer look at the physical evidence for matriliny–for instance, if families tend to be buried with maternal relatives or not.  If we were then able to see that a culture apparently practiced both matriliny AND overwhelmingly used images of maternity and nurture in their art and physical culture, then we might be able to conjecture that such a group showed signs of being matriarchal in Sanday’s more narrowly defined way.

Of course, that’s not something that I, a lowly blogger, can do.  That work rests with archaeological specialists and paleo-anthropologists.  But looking at contemporary matriarchal cultures can give us a vivid image of what may have been the case in some prehistoric settlements, and in the end, it may not look so different from what some of the milder prehistoric matriarchy proponents have been saying all along–shared power, emphasis on maternal imagery, matrilineal property lines.  But we’ll probably have to jettison the idea that any such culture was a radical feminist Garden of Eden, or that such narrowly defined matriarchal societies were in place for thousands of years across wide swaths of the paleolithic world (as opposed to being specific to certain cultures/sites and not others).

Steiner and Prehistoric Women

Here’s one idea of prehistoric women that we can probably dismiss. (Source)

Circling back to Steiner’s thoughts on women in prehistoric times, I find it interesting what he does and doesn’t say about women’s roles.  It’s not exactly clear what sources lie behind his depiction of long-ago cultures: certainly some of it draws on his contemporaries’ ideas about what geological formations might have looked like in the distant past (including land bridges and the positions of earlier continental systems).  And, given Steiner’s voracious intellect, we can probably assume that he knew of the seminal work of Johann Jakob Bachofen, the Swiss scholar whose 1861 book Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World was the first to put forward the idea that there had been a matriarchal, goddess-centered ur-religion that held sway in prehistoric times.

Given these two probable influences on Steiner’s thought, I actually think it’s interesting what Steiner didn’t say.  For instance, he doesn’t talk about women as political leaders and he also doesn’t mention anything about goddesses.  Rather, he talks about how women took the lead in religious ceremonies and helped “order and arrange the little groups” (of nomadic clans)–something that sounds, perhaps, like matriliny.  He also speaks of the power of nature that flowed in and through the consciousness of both men and women, and how women took the lead in interpreting the “voices” that seemed to speak to them from the natural elements.  The men’s leadership, he postulates, came about as a result of the work the women did in the religious/natural sphere.  All of which, to me, sounds remarkably like the type of society Sanday describes in her work.  While we can’t be sure what prehistoric societies actually looked like (or how well they correlate with Steiner’s picture), I do think it’s interesting that he doesn’t give an image that goes whole-hog into the matriarchal ur-myth espoused by either Bachofen or 20th century pre-historic matriarchy enthusiasts.

How to Teach Matriarchy

So, to get back to the title of the post: to the question, “Matriarchy–fact or fiction?”,  we can give the unequivocal answer “Yes!”  It is both/and–a fabulously successful (but untrue) fiction, and a less well-known, more narrowly defined, but ultimately (at least to me) more satisfying fact.  But how to teach something this complex to high school students?

The debates on prehistoric matriarchy offer us a fabulous chance to stretch our students’ imaginations regarding the limits of patriarchy and matriarchy, and to teach them the ways in which raw data can lead to multiple interpretations.   I like the idea, for instance, of presenting the students with some of the relatively raw archeological data–figurine images, a few archeological site maps (found in the Goodison and Morris book cited in note 2), perhaps a little bit of info regarding evidence for hunting/gathering vs. sedentary agriculture at a given site over time.  Then, with that data, conduct a small-group exercise that has them try to make sense of the information they have–how were the communities structured?  who led the groups? what gods did they worship?  what led to the community’s demise?  Then finally (perhaps in the next session) after the kids report back briefly their group’s theories, present 2-3 interpretations of the same data by different scholars.  (9)  Then sit back and watch the opinions fly about “Matriarchy: fact or fiction?”

See?  Our proto-Indo-European foremothers did have a far-reaching impact, even if it turns out they didn’t rule the world in quite the way we might have hoped.

——

NOTES

(1)  Before we even start, we need some sort of brief “disambiguation” (to use a wiki-word) of the word “matriarchy” itself, since the whole issue can be very confusing.  Very quickly: matriarchy refers to a society where women rule.  Different people have different ideas about what “ruling” means–control of political structures, control of food production and how it’s distributed, etc.  Popularly, though, “matriarchy” is usually used to mean a situation where women are in positions of authority and dominance, with men taking the back seat (sort of the flip-side of patriarchy, which we all know too well).   Matriliny, on the other hand, means a society where descent (or sometimes property) passes through the mother’s line.  But please beware:  cultures can be matrilineal while still being patriarchal.  Just because you trace bloodlines, or even property, through women does not mean that women rule the roost.  Case in point:  the American South imposed a matrilineal system on slaves so that children born of female slaves would also be unfree.  However, despite the ambitions of Scarlet O’Hara, at no time was the South in any sense a “matriarchy.”    For a great discussion of this whole matriliny vs. matriarchy issue, see the Jonathan Jarrett’s blog entry on this topic.

Interpreting paleolithic images is difficult–is this a goddess, an early pornographic image, or both (or neither)? (Source)

(2) The best, most readable resource on matriarchal pre-history myths is Cynthia Eller’s book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.  You can read the first chapter online here, and access a book review that contains an excellent summary of the whole debate here.  If you’re specifically interested in the issue of interpreting so-called “Goddess” figurines, then there is an excellent essay by Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey entitled, “Rethinking Figurines: A Critical View from Archaeology of Gimbutas, the ‘Goddess’ and Popular Culture.”  in Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, eds.  Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. pp 22-45.

(3) Eller covers all of this in great detail in her book.  I should mention, though, that even the theory of an armed invasion by chariot-driving Indo-Europeans is just that–a theory (that was most forcefully put forward by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the “mother” of the contemporary matriarchy movement).  No one denies that Indo-Europeans had chariots (or arms), but there are several different scholarly opinions about how that technology made its way to the different corners of the world.  Other theories involve the spread of farming and the transmission of technological advances (like chariots) through non-military means.  Also, even folks who do support the armed invasion theory do not necessarily believe that the displaced societies were pacifist matriarchies.  There seems to be a good deal of evidence that armed conflict existed way before the supposed Indo-European invasion.  But again, if you want more detail, read Eller’s book or the first two chapters of Goodison and Morris (see note 2 for full references).

A neolithic figurine with hermaphrodite forms. (Source)

(4)  Another important point made by Tringham and Conkey (see note 2) is that these statues don’t even tell us, for instance, if the societies thought of gender in the same way we did.  For instance, there are a number of sites where non-gendered statues far outnumber both male and females statues, or (in at least several instances) where there are statues of a third sex.  In other words, we don’t even know whether these cultures thought of gender as binary or not, much less what they thought of women.

(5) Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

(6)  Sanday, 231-235.  Her work on power draws heavily on ideas put forth by the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, who also studies Indonesia (albeit the island of Java).

(7) Sanday describes matriarchies as belonging to one of three possible  types of “partnership societies” (i.e. cultures that are relatively non-hierarchical): egalitarian (in which gender differences are not symbolically marked), diarchic (which have a “pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms”), and matriarchic (which are based on a maternal model).  In other words, you can have power-sharing societies without matriarchy per se–an interesting point to consider when we think about paleolithic/neolithic cultures. While this idea of “power as life-force” may be common to many cultures, it does not, in and of itself, mean that women are necessarily dominant, or even particularly valued.  There are plenty of indigenous and/or non-Western cultures all over the world which think of power along these lines but still have social structures that oppress women.  I’m thinking, for instance, of the Amazonian Mundurucú tribe or certain Australian aboriginal groups, both of which have customary laws that punish women by beating or gang rape if they overstep “female” bounds.

(8) Also, I should note that there are other anthropologists out there studying equally interesting matrilineal modern cultures, some of which may fit Sanday’s more narrow definition of a matriarchy.  Some interesting societies to check out are the Mosuo/Na people of Western China, the Khasi of Northeastern India, and the Qiang of the Tibetan plateau.  There is an organization that studies modern matriarchies, but in my personal opinion, they seem too interested in making sweeping generalizations.  However, they are an interesting source of material as long as you double-check their facts against more scholarly resources.

(9) To my knowledge, there are no lesson plans available online that cover prehistoric matriarchy.  There are, however, some very good resources for prehistory in general.  Using them, plus the ideas contained here, one could probably put together a good 2-4 day portion of a main lesson that would cover paleolithic/neolithic times.

Here are some of the better prehistory lesson plans available online:

  • Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has an excellent site about North American prehistory.  It’s activities are really hands-on and perfect for a Waldorf classroom–many can be adapted to prehistory of any kind, not just North America.
  • A second resource is the NY Times lesson plan on recent archeological discoveries in Africa (covering early hominids).
  • Then there’s also the NIH lesson plans about paleolithic cave art that could provide a great complement to a lesson on prehistory.

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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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