In 1927 the English archaeologist Leonard Woolley wrenched the shattered items of a girl’s portrait from the ruins of an historic temple in southern Iraq. To Woolley, it gave the impression to be only a “sadly-battered alabaster disk,” precious just for its connection to the Akkadian king Sargon the Nice, who conquered the Sumerians round 2334 BC and established the primary empire in recorded historical past. The portrait was of his daughter, Enheduanna, and appeared to have been intentionally defaced. Depicted within the middle of the disk, she presides over a nude male priest performing a ritual. Harm obscures the decrease portion of her physique, and her toes are lacking, however her profile survives with startling precision, as does her rolled-brim crown and braided hair. A tiered temple, cartoonish within the distance, echoes the flounces of her cultic apparel.
A number of a long time later this fragmented girl was revealed to be the author of a few of Mesopotamia’s oldest and most celebrated poems, the world’s earliest recognized writer, who lived some fifteen centuries earlier than Homer. Enheduanna composed hymns that synchronized native non secular traditions throughout the Akkadian Empire, and singled out the goddess Inanna, a feathery-winged deity of paradox and transformation later referred to as Ishtar, as probably the most highly effective determine within the divine pantheon. For a lot of twentieth-century historians, this legacy was too extraordinary to have been true, her poetry too essential to have been authored by a girl.
The Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Girls of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400–2000 BC casts the poet in a precious new mild. Bringing collectively over ninety artifacts from collections all over the world, the curators Sidney Babcock and Erhan Tamur situate Enheduanna on the middle of a sweeping narrative that traces representations of ladies and goddesses from the start of civilization to the centuries following her life, when she was revered as a canonical poet. Many claims might be made about her literary affect, on texts starting from the Outdated Testomony to the Homeric Hymns, however the exhibit grounds Enheduanna in her civilization, giving her what Saidiya Hartman has referred to as “the gravity and authority of [a] historic actor” in a world the place there was nothing significantly radical about ladies in positions of energy.
The few fragments that survive from Enheduanna’s life—similar to her portrait, her poems, and objects that belonged to her servants—counsel the various components she performed. As excessive priestess of the moon god within the humid port metropolis of Ur, Enheduanna inhabited an already historic Sumerian place vested with the very best non secular authority, probably held by generations of royal daughters in a society the place some ladies may inherit property and turn out to be skilled scribes, musicians, and dream interpreters, amongst different occupations. But she was additionally an Akkadian princess, the daughter of the conqueror who razed Ur’s staggering partitions, which made her place within the metropolis fraught. Over the course of her lengthy life—some historians estimate she lived over seven a long time—she survived numerous Sumerian rebellions and royal assassinations, whereas composing among the most refined and complicated poems of historic Mesopotamia.
On the Morgan, limestone collectible figurines greet guests with gaping eyes, their sockets gouged of the gems that after stuffed them, an intimidating threshold to a room full of ladies chiseled out of soppy white stone. These objects, in keeping with Mesopotamian custom, have been portraits commissioned as divine choices, positioned earlier than altars to immortalize their topics in gestures of worship. The ladies look rapt, humbled within the face of the unknown, and clasp their arms reverently in entrance of their chests.
The primary half of the exhibit traces the lineage of Sumerian-speaking ladies who lived within the millennium earlier than Enheduanna. An unassuming alabaster figurine simply over two inches excessive dates from round 3300 BC, when the primary cities have been inbuilt marshlands and writing was invented by urgent dried reeds into clay. She gazes throughout the room towards a determine from round 1800 BC. The intervening centuries have been ones of nice cultural and political innovation: writing advanced from an accounting system right into a full-blown script; localized rule of Sumerian city-states gave technique to an empire; deities have been represented anthropomorphically for the primary time. Given these modifications, the portraits’ continuity is putting. Halolike headbands decoration their coiffed hair, easy robes cling to their our bodies, and their lips are pursed in contemplation. However the later figurine stands tall and retains her unique eyes, fabricated from shell and bitumen. Each ladies’s pious stances recall to mind the central place of devotion in Enheduanna’s poetry. In her masterpiece The Exaltation to Inanna, she addresses the goddess: “Let me converse to you my prayer/my tears flowing like some candy intoxicant.”
As might be seen in a plaster forged of the well-known Uruk Vase (ca. 3300–2900 BC), which depicts Inanna’s reed-flanked temple because the life-source of Sumerian civilization, non secular devotion was not only a private affair. Temples have been the financial and political facilities of cities, accountable for numerous administrative duties, together with managing huge agricultural estates, meals rations, commerce, and even taxation. Cylinder seals, which carried out related capabilities to modern-day IDs, are engraved with ladies getting ready divine choices, sitting on thrones, ingesting beer from big straws, performing in all-female bands with a bull-headed lyre raised in celebration, and dealing within the area’s most essential industries: milking cows, molding vases, and weaving textiles. One seal fabricated from serpentine depicts a gaggle of ladies working a loom, their our bodies caught in an excellent rush of motion.
In a brand new translation of her poems, by Sophus Helle, Enheduanna describes herself as “the weaver of the pill.”1 Helle argues that Enheduanna compares her writing apply to pulling threads from a bigger textile and rearranging them into a brand new sample. Little is thought in regards to the operate of poetry in Enheduanna’s lifetime, however later poems counsel that the Sumerian hymn was a spiritual style, carried out by cultic singers to speak with the divine and stop impending catastrophes, together with overseas invasions and flash floods that leveled cities. Because the historian Marc Van de Mieroop writes, authorship in historic Mesopotamia “was extra complicated than a single one that stood on the level of origin” and concerned a big community of people that carried out, preserved, and modified a given textual content.2 The exhibit’s communal choreography—dozens of collectible figurines kind diagonals throughout the room—honors this picture of Enheduanna as a determine whose position prolonged far past her particular life. By round 1800 BC she had turn out to be a literary superstar: her poems are included in the preferred scribal curriculums from the Outdated Babylonian interval and have been studied alongside early variations of Gilgamesh. Her personal closely restored portrait is positioned off to the aspect, as if deliberately out of the highlight.
The exhibition primes us to interpret Enheduanna’s picture as a Mesopotamian might need: a outstanding girl foreshadowed by those that got here earlier than. The bejeweled funerary apparel of Puabi, a queen who dominated Ur within the twenty-sixth century BC, is displayed within the middle of the room. Her elaborate garb is a harmonious assemblage of probably the most precious supplies of the time: strings of lapis lazuli hauled from the mountain passes of Afghanistan, clusters of carnelian from the Indus Valley, and ribbons of gold envelop her reconstructed hair. We will think about that Enheduanna was adorned no much less abundantly. The exhibit additionally consists of portraits of excessive priestesses who lived after Enheduanna, a few of whom seem to have been styled in her honor, similar to an alabaster girl from ca. 2112–2004 BC with a pill on her lap, presenting her writing as a divine providing.
The curators’ emphasis on such artifacts can distract from Enheduanna’s poetry. The surviving tablets, inscribed centuries after her loss of life in esteemed scribal faculties throughout the area, have been excavated across the similar time that Woolley found her portrait. Six are displayed in a nook of the exhibition, however there are over 100 extant copies of The Exaltation to Inanna alone. Clay is a uniquely sturdy writing materials, and roughly 1100 verses of her poetry have survived, in comparison with Sappho’s 650, which have been written on papyrus.
In a radical departure from an in any other case nameless literary custom, Enheduanna used poetry not simply to extol a deity but in addition to inform her personal story. It’s Enheduanna’s subjectivity—her electrifying “I”—that distinguishes her from those that got here earlier than. “I’m Enheduanna,” she publicizes in the midst of Exaltation. She describes being assaulted by a pretender to the throne, stripped of her priestly crown, and forged out of her temple into the wilderness. “A slobbered hand was laid/throughout my honeyed mouth,” she writes. “What was fairest in my nature/was turned to filth.” She likens the creation of this poem to giving start: “This stuffed me, this overflowed from me, Exalted Woman,/as I gave start for you.” A seal depicting an intimate scene of childbirth is displayed on the Morgan. In its higher half it portrays a hero slaughtering a wild animal, suggesting an equivalence among the many labors of childbirth, the labors of the hero, and the labors of the poet.
Inanna finally solutions Enheduanna’s prayers and restores her to her temple. The poems are forged as a sort of literary magic that enabled Enheduanna’s survival; their composition turns into a type of salvation. The Exaltation probably recounts a Sumerian revolt that occurred below the reign of Naram-Sin, Enheduanna’s nephew, who crushed the revolt with such brutality that the Euphrates was mentioned to run with blood. In royal inscriptions, Naram-Sin credit Inanna along with his victory and turns into the primary recognized ruler to proclaim himself a deity. Inanna is an instrument of energy each in Naram-Sin’s propaganda and in Enheduanna’s poems, a divine determine who elevates the authority of priestess and king.
Enheduanna’s Inanna is a fearmongering goddess, a stark distinction to early representations of a smiling fertility deity. “Present that your stare is filled with rage,” Enheduanna writes. “Present that you’re unyielding, that you just persevere.” Cylinder seals from the Akkadian interval depict scenes from the poem Inanna and Ebih, through which the goddess crushes a disrespectful mountain. In a single scene she grabs his big head and prepares to press a dagger into his coronary heart. Subsequent she steps on his physique, sending stones cascading. Within the ultimate picture, his wiry leg stands out from beneath a heap of rubble, eviscerated. The curators counsel that Enheduanna conflated the nurturing qualities of Sumerian Inanna with the warlike options of an Akkadian deity, which impressed a significant shift within the goddess’s visible illustration. These seals retain her attribute, enviable mane of hair, however a muscular thigh stands out of her costume, directly seductive and threatening. Majdolene Dajani writes within the catalog that her full-frontal place has the impact of “bridging and even breaking the boundaries between viewers and the scene,” forcing us to confront her energy. In the same approach, Enheduanna’s insertion of her personal identify and story into her poems compels us to concentrate to what she has to say. Inanna turns into each violent and nurturing, evil and good.
Enheduanna’s most violent poem, Hymn to Inanna, which depicts Inanna hovering above each threshold, even the boundaries of gender, shouldn’t be displayed within the present. “To show man into girl, and girl into man,” Enheduanna writes, “are yours, Inanna.” If Hymn had been paired with royal inscriptions documenting her household’s imperial successes, like Naram-Sin’s, the exhibit might need revealed a much less palatable dimension of Enheduanna’s legacy; one may argue that she was additionally a colonial determine whose literary imaginative and prescient supported her household’s expansionist ambitions. “Inanna, who holds her head excessive, taller than a mountain, who can oppose her?” she asks. “At her command, cities fall to ruins, homes lie desolate, sanctuaries turn out to be barren land.” In a colophon to her assortment of temple hymns, she exudes a confidence usually proven by kings celebrating navy triumphs, and even appears to concentrate on her genre-breaking work: “My lord, that which has been created (right here) nobody has created (earlier than).”
Maybe the warmongering features of Enheduanna’s poems have been a essential political guise that helped her survive her chaotic instances, however it’s inconceivable to know whether or not, when she writes verses like “you devour corpses like a canine,” she is dramatizing the horrors of battle to disclose its terror or reveling in Inanna’s prowess in battle. The lyrical ambiguity of her work, and the various mysteries about her life, go away her open to projection. The truth that she wrote most of her poems to Inanna regardless of being the moon god’s priestess suggests an intense non secular devotion to this deity, her muse. Inanna was conceived because the moon god’s daughter, and Enheduanna was the daughter of the king. “She was stunning past examine,” she writes in Exaltation. “She was as beautiful as a moonbeam streaming down.”