Enheduana: Politician, Priestess, Poet and Scientist

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Enheduana’s name survives in her poems– and her image on this calcite disk found in Ur. Image by Michelle Hart.

“The compiler of the tablets was Enheduana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”(The Temple Hymns 543-544)

These are the words of a remarkable woman who lived in the Sumerian city of Ur around 2300 BC. High priestess of the moon god, Nanna, her office was a political appointment, designed to consolidate the cultural unity of the Akkadian-Sumerian empire.

Her real name is lost to history. But she survives through her title: “Enhedana.”

That name identifies her as the author of a corpus of poems, which offer details of Sumerian religion and politics and the life of Enheduana herself. It also identifies Enheduana as the world’s first named female author and scientist.

 The High Priestess of Ur

 In 1927, a team led by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley excavated the Sumerian city of Ur in modern Iraq. During the work, Woolley unearthed a calcite disk, 25 cm in diameters and 7 cm thick, in the cemetery of the temple compound of Nin-gal, the consort of the Sumerian moon god, Nanna.

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The disc was in fragments, but when pieced together, it revealed a frieze on one side. The frieze consisted of four figures, all in profile, facing left towards an altar or ceremonial basin. Behind them was a ziggurat, with the temple of the moon at its summit.

Her height, flounced robes, long braided hair and ceremonial hat identified the most important figure. The cuneiform script on the back identified her as: “Enheduana, zirru priestess, wife of the god Nanna, daughter of Sargon, King of the world, in the temple of the goddess Inanna.”

“Enheduana” was a title, not a name. “En” referred to the high priest or priestess of Ur. “Hedu” meant ornament while “Ana” referred to heaven. The literal translation thus named Enheduana “High priestess, ornament of heaven” but has also been taken to mean “The high priestess of An (the sky god).”

More accurately, it meant, “The high priestess, wife of the god Nanna,” since Enheduana was Nanna’s high priestess and the equivalent of Nin-gal on earth.


Religion and Politics in Ancient Sumeria

Experts date the disc to between 2350-2300 BC. Sometime between 2340-2284 BC, Sumeria became apart of the Akkadian empire under Sargon the Akkad. Sargon was the builder of the world’s first empire, unifying by conquest much of Mesopotamia. Once he added Sumeria to his empire, he established Enheduana as high priestess at Ur.

Some experts have interpreted the phrase “daughter of Sargon” literally. But it may be that it merely denoted an individual Sargon could earn the trust to such a position of power and importance. For Enheduana’s role was crucial to uniting the two cultures.

The Temple Hymns” are a series of hymns, composed by Enheduana that list each of the temples of Sumer, city by city. Paul Kriwaczete believes this “list” is evidence of Sargon’s intention to unite his empire through religion. But more crucial is the portrayal of the goddess Inanna in Enheduana’s writings.

Inanna was the Sumerian goddess of love and fertility. But in Enheduana’s poems she takes on some of the attributes of Ishtar, an Akkadian war goddess and Sargon’s patron.

“‘Goddess of fearsome divine powers, clad in terror’. …Inanna made complete by the strength of the holy ankar weapon, drenched in blood, rushing around in great battles, with shield resting on the ground, covered in storm and flood, great lady Inanna, knowing well how to plan conflicts, you destroy mighty lands with arrow and strength and overpower lands.” (Inanna and Ebih)

The portrayal combined the two goddesses, making them one and the same. It was a way of telling the Sumerian’s that their goddess was also Sargon’s patron– and it was her will that he rule them.

The World’s First Known Author

Remains of the  Great Ziggurat of Ur

The Great Ziggurat of Ur as pictured on the calcite disk of Enheduana. Image by Cherie A. Thurlby, US Department of Defense.

The Sumerians, however, did not take the Akkadian conquest meekly. “The Exaltation of Inanna,” attribute to the goddess, also forms a partial biography of Enheduana’s life. She describes how a Sumerian rebel, Lugal-Ane, who drove Enheduana from power and threw her into exile, overthrew Akkadian rule in Ur:

He stood there in triumph and drove me out of the temple,” Enheduana recalls. “He made me fly like a swallow from the window; I have exhausted my life strength. He made me walk through the thorn bushes of the mountain. He stripped me of my rightful crown of the En priestess. He gave me a knife and dagger saying to me ‘These are appropriate ornaments for you.’”

The exiled high priestess at times felt abandoned by her god-husband. “My Nanna has paid no heed to me,” she complained. But Inanna did not let her down and Enheduana credited the goddess with her restoration and wrote three poems in her honour.

Besides these three poems, Enheduana composed three to Nanna as well as the 42 temple hymns. Her writings form the first written religious belief system, and, according to Paul Kriwaczete, influenced the prayers and psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric hymns.

But these works are unique in another way for they are the earliest known writings that experts can attribute to a named author, making Enheduana history’s first known writer.

The World’s First Female Scientist

Many of Enheduana’s poems refer to procedures that, although motivated by religion, were scientific in nature. In “The Temple Hymns,” she describes how:

 In the gipar the priestesses rooms

That princely shrine of cosmic order

They track the passage of the moon (Hymn 8)

And how:

 She consults a tablet to all the lands

She measures off the heavens

She places the measuring cords on the earth. (535-542).

The Sumerians believed that the gods spoke through the skies and that heaven dictated life on earth. References to cosmic calendars and applying information from the heavens to the earth suggests it was the high priestess’ job to not only govern religion but read the will of the gods via astronomy to organize socially vital activities such as agriculture.

This makes Enheduana not only the world’s first known author, but as an astronomer, the world’s first female scientist.

“The True Woman Who Possesses Exceeding Wisdom”

It is the impact of Enheduana’s writings that ensured that her name survived down the centuries. For others continued to copy her writings for as long as 500 years after her death.

They ensured that the life and times of Enheduana endured. And that the woman, who had given up her own name for the Priesthood and power, survived into posterity.

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© Copyright 2015 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. Janet CameronJanet Cameron says

    It seems as though we know her scientific leanings mainly through references in her poetry. Who would have thought science and poetry could ever rub shoulders so comfortably as they do in your quotations from her poems?

  2. Chandran Methil says

    Blood and Gore on one side. Humanity and tenderness on the other. Times have not really changed…..have they ?

  3. Rebecca Busby says

    I met Enheduana in grad school. At California Institute of Integral Studies, Women’s Spirituality Masters Program. The first of it’s kind in the World in 1993. I fell instantly in love with her Poetry and devotion to Inanna. I have felt Inanna everyday since those first days of reading Enheduana’s work. I only regret I did not learn about her in 1st grade or from my Mother. How different might women’s lives be if we were taught of the strength, power, honor, position, art, and devotion to a Goddess through the eyes of her Priestess at a very young age.

    I am always happy to find anything written about Enheduana. Thank you Facebook for having a space where this kind of knowledge can be passed along. Too bad it isn’t in our Elementary, Middle and High Schools.

    Rebecca Busby

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