NOTABLE WOMAN STATS:
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.)
(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.