The Temple Hymns of Enheduanna
with Modern English Translations by Michael R. Burch
Enheduanna, who may have been the daughter of the famous King Saragon the Great of Akkad, is the first
ancient writer whose name remains known today. She appears to be the first named poet in
human history, and the first known writer and collector of prayers and hymns. Enheduanna,
who lived circa 2285 BCE, is also one of the first women we know by name. She
was apparently the high priestess of the goddess Inanna in the Sumerian city-state
of Ur (located in southern Iraq). Enheduanna's composition The Exaltation of Inanna details her expulsion
from Ur and her prayerful request for reinstatement. Enheduanna also composed 42
liturgical hymns addressed to temples
across Sumer and Akkad. Furthermore, she seems to have been the first editor of a poetry
anthology, hymnal or songbook. Her temple hymns were the first collection of
their kind; in them Enheduanna claims: "My king, something has been created that
no one has created before." And poems are still being assembled today via the model
she established over 4,000 years ago! Enheduanna may also have been the first
feminist, as I explain in my notes that follow translations of two of her poems
Temple Hymn 15
to the Gishbanda Temple of Ningishzida
loose translation by
Michael R. Burch
Most ancient and terrible shrine,
set deep in the mountain
like a mother's womb ...
like a mother's wounded breast,
blood-red and terrifying ...
Though approaching through a safe-seeming field,
our hair stands on end as we near you!
like a neck-stock,
like a fish net,
like a foot-shackled prisoner's manacles ...
your ramparts are massive,
like a trap!
But once we’re inside,
as the sun rises,
you yield widespread abundance!
is the pure-handed priest of Inanna, heaven's Holy One,
Oh, see how his thick, lustrous hair
cascades down his back!
he has built this beautiful temple to house your radiance!
He has placed his throne upon your dais!
The Exaltation of Inanna: Opening Lines, an Excerpt
loose translation by
Michael R. Burch
Lady of all divine powers,
Lady of the all-resplendent light,
Righteous Lady clothed in heavenly radiance,
Beloved Lady of An and Uraš,
Mistress of heaven with the holy diadem,
Who loves the beautiful headdress befitting the office of her high priestess,
Powerful Mistress who has seized all seven divine powers,
My lady, you are the guardian of the seven divine powers!
You have seized the divine powers,
You hold the divine powers in your hand,
You have gathered up the divine powers,
You have clasped the divine powers to your breast!
Like a dragon you have spewed venom on foreign lands that know you not!
When you roar like Iškur at the earth, nothing can withstand you!
Like a flood descending on alien lands, O Powerful One of heaven and earth, you
will teach them to fear Inanna!
Enheduanna may have been the first feminist, or at least
the first feminist we know by name. In one of her poems the goddess Inanna kills
An, the former chief deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and thus becomes the
supreme leader of the gods. It seems Enheduanna "promoted" a local female deity
to the Queen of Heaven. Might this be considered the first feminist poem? Was
Enheduanna commenting on the male-dominated society in which she lived, and
perhaps even "projecting" her wishes on male rivals, to some degree?
Enheduanna may have been something of a propagandist and self-promoter. If her
father was Saragon the Great, getting everyone to believe in the same supreme
deity would have helped him consolidate his gains as he ruled over a diverse,
expanding empire. And by promoting her personal goddess to the position of chief
deity, Enheduanna would have enhanced her own position, influence and power. To
be the high priestess of a goddess whom "nothing can withstand" and who "loves
the beautiful headdress befitting the office of her high priestess" would be
very convenient, indeed, in power struggles!
It is believed that Enheduanna's petitionary prayers influenced the psalms of
the Hebrew Bible, as well as Homeric and Christian hymns. Experts have noted
that the Sumerian gods seemed more compassionate and more embracing of all
people after Enheduanna, than before her ministrations.
Enheduanna's name, probably either a title or adopted, was apparently assembled
from "En" (Chief Priest or Priestess), "hedu" (Ornament) and "Ana" (of Heaven).
Enheduanna organized and presided over Ur's temple complex, until an attempted
coup by a Sumerian rebel named Lugal-Ane forced her into exile. In one of her
poems Enheduanna prayed for An to "undo" her fate. (Was this before she wrote
the poem in which Inanna killed An?) Apparently the prayer worked and Enheduanna
was restored to her position as high priestess of Inanna.
Enheduanna is best known for her poems Inninsagurra, Ninmesarra
and Inninmehusa, which translate as "The Great-Hearted Mistress," "The
Exaltation of Inanna" and "The Goddess of the Fearsome Powers." All three are
hymns to the goddess Inanna.
Inanna would later be associated with Ishtar and Aphrodite.
Amazingly, we have a depiction of the first poet/anthologist, because in 1927 the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley found the
now-famous Enheduanna calcite disc in his excavations of Ur. Inscriptions on the disc identify the four figures depicted: Enheduanna, her
estate manager Adda, her hair dresser Ilum Palilis, and her scribe Sagadu. The
royal inscription on the disc reads: "Enheduanna, zirru-priestess, wife of the
goddess Nanna, daughter of Sargon, king of the world, in the temple of the
goddess Inanna." The figure of Enheduanna is placed prominently on the disc
emphasizing her importance in relation to the others and, further, her position
of great power and influence over the culture of her time.