The HyperTexts

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
by Enheduanna
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Most ancient and terrible shrine,
set deep in the mountain
like a mother's womb ...

Dark shrine,
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!

Your prince
is the pure-handed priest of Inanna, heaven's Holy One,
Lord Ningishzida!

Oh, see how his thick, lustrous hair
cascades down his back!

Oh Gishbanda,
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

by Enheduanna
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 InninsagurraNinmesarra 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.

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