Prayer and poetry: Enheduanna and the women of Mesopotamia

Enheduanna, high priestess at the ancient city of Ur, is thought to be the world’s first named author. She was a poetic innovator, but she was not alone in Mesopotamian history as a prominent or a literate woman, as Lucia Marchini learns from Sidney Babcock.


Sometime in the 23rd century BC, a writer composed a series of hymns devoted to the different gods worshipped in the temples of 36 cities across Mesopotamia. These Temple Hymns were signed off with the following lines:

The compiler of the tablets (is) Enheduanna.
My lord, that which has been created (here) no one has created (before).

This declaration of originality and authorship, and lines from another poem, ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’, give us the name of what is thought to be the first known writer: Enheduanna.

Disc of Enheduanna, found at the gipar (residence of the high priestess of Nanna) at Ur (Iraq). Alabaster, Akkadian period, c.2300 BC. Size: 25.6 x 7cm. IMAGE: Courtesy of the Penn Museum

Though the name Enheduanna is a Sumerian one literally meaning ‘high priestess, ornament of heaven’, the priestess on whom it was bestowed was the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad (c.2334-2279 BC). Living around 2300 BC, Enheduanna was appointed high priestess, or en, of the moon-god Nanna in Ur, after her father unified the (northern) Akkadian and (southern) Sumerian city-states in what is now Iraq. Nanna, whose shrine was part of a huge ziggurat, was the patron deity of Ur, and so proper worship was vital for the city’s wellbeing. With a new Akkadian Empire on his hands, deploying his daughter to this important position in the significant Sumerian city was one way for Sargon to lend legitimacy to his rule in the south, promote a sense of unity, and elide the religious and administrative spheres.

Most texts were written by scribes, and so the priestess Enheduanna was stepping into an unusual role as poet. There are no surviving original versions of the works attributed to her, and some scholars have disputed her authorship. The poems became canonical works, set texts copied by scribes centuries later as part of their training. As well as giving us numerous versions of the texts, this practice of copying points to the high place the poems held in Mesopotamian culture, securing Enheduanna’s legacy for generations to come.

below Seated female figure with tablet on lap. Alabaster, Neo-Sumerian, Ur III period, c.2112-2004 BC. Size: 11.6 x 5 x 4.5cm. IMAGE: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Vorderasiatisches Museum. Photo by Olaf M Teßmer

Sidney Babcock, curator of She Who Wrote, a new exhibition on Enheduanna and women in Mesopotamia at the Morgan Library in New York, explains the questions of attribution: ‘We only have copies and there are certain things that have crept in over the years, which is what happens with copying. People have been debating those on and on and on, and unfortunately some scholars have even questioned her authorship.’

‘There are those of us who don’t agree with that. She says it, why not give it to her? We have her image, we have her name. And when you read the poetry, this is a very strong personality that comes through, particularly in the “Exaltation”.’

As well as these copies on cuneiform tablets, other physical evidence attests to Enheduanna’s important status. Cylinder seals in deep blue lapis lazuli and a seal impression on a fragment of clay (which may have been attached to a vessel to validate its contents) identify Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon, and members of her staff – scribes [x]-kituš-du and Sagadu, estate manager Adda, and hairstylist Ilum-pāl[il]. As high priestess, she would have had numerous personnel to oversee.

Tablets inscribed with ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’ in three parts, possibly from Larsa (Iraq). Clay, Old Babylonian period, c.1750 BC. Size: 9.7 x 5.9 x 3.1cm each. IMAGE: Courtesy of the Yale Babylonian Collection. Photography by Klaus Wagensonner.

The priestess is identified again on an alabaster disc discovered in fragments at the gipar, the residence of the high priestess of Nanna at Ur. Enheduanna is both named in an inscription on the back and depicted on the front in a scene by a ziggurat-like building. Wearing a long garment with layers of fluid flounces and a headdress (attributes that we see in other images of high-ranking priestesses), Enheduanna is pictured slightly larger than the attendants accompanying her, and, as Babcock points out, ‘looking up into the numinous realm’ as she presides over the pouring of a libation at the altar in front of the building.

This Disc of Enheduanna (c.2300 BC) is fragmentary and the inscription on the reverse is only partially preserved. A copy of the full inscription, however, has been found on an Old Babylonian (c.1894-1595 BC) tablet, which clearly identifies Enheduanna, ‘priestess, wife of the god Nanna, daughter of Sargon, king of the world’, as the dedicator of the disc, and shows that it was known of for several centuries.

Cylinder seal (and modern impression) with sheep and stylised plants. Marble, Sumerian, Late Uruk–Jemdet Nasr period, c.3300-2900 BC. Size: 5.5 x 3.8cm (seal). IMAGE: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Enheduanna has left us with more than just her name to get to know her and the world she lived in. Her poetry is important in presenting a blending of Akkadian and Sumerian cultures. Writing in Sumerian, in the Sumerian city of Ur, she uses the name of the Sumerian queen of heaven, the goddess of sexual love and fecundity, Inanna, but essentially gives her the attributes of the formidable patron deity of the Akkadians, the goddess of war Ishtar. By conflating these two religious identities in ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’, Enheduanna seems to have been taking an active role in her father Sargon’s great unifying quest in the first Mesopotamian empire.

Verses from ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’ survive in around 100 copies from cities around Mesopotamia – including a trio of tablets dating from c.1750 BC, possibly from Larsa, that preserve the hymn in its entirety. In 153 lines, the poet-priestess praises Inanna (imbued with the warlike qualities of Ishtar) at length. The poem is also powerfully personal. ‘It is arguably Enheduanna’s most important work, where she herself steps forward and for the first time someone writes in the first person,’ says Babcock. ‘She basically invents autobiography and her strong personality clearly comes through.’

Cylinder seal (and modern impression) with goddesses Ninishkun and Ishtar (visible here with her foot on a lion). Limestone, Akkadian period, c.2334-2154 BC. Size: 4.2 x 2.5cm (seal). IMAGES: Courtesy of the Yale Babylonian Collection. Photography by Klaus Wagensonner (seal) and Graham S. Haber (impression).

After the death of Sargon in 2279 BC, a king of Ur rebelled, ultimately unsuccessfully, against the Akkadian king Naram-Sin (Sargon’s grandson and Enheduanna’s nephew). This historically attested king of Ur is thought to be the man named Lugalanne that we encounter in ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’. After her celebration of the might and glory of Inanna, Enheduanna writes arrestingly of her experience at the hands of this usurper. For example:

Yes, I took up my place in the sanctuary dwelling,
I was high priestess, I, Enheduanna.
Though I bore the offering basket, though I chanted the hymns,
A death offering was ready, was I no longer living?
I went towards light, it felt scorching to me,
I went towards shade, it shrouded me in swirling dust.
A slobbered hand was laid across my honeyed mouth,
What was fairest in my nature was turned to dirt.

Later, Enheduanna relates how ‘that man’ Lugalanne desecrated the abode of the great sky-god An, with lines loaded with a haunting reference to sexual assault:

That man has defiled the rites decreed by holy heaven,
He has robbed An of his very temple!
He honors not the greatest god of all,
The abode that An himself could not exhaust its charms, its beauty infinite,
He has turned that temple into a house of ill repute,
Forcing his way in as if he were an equal, he dared approach me in his lust!

He then stripped her of her priestly crown and presented the princess with a dagger, with it the threatening implication that she should kill herself:

When Lugalanne stood paramount, he expelled me from the temple,
He made me fly out the window like a swallow, I had had my taste of life,
He made me walk a land of thorns.
He took away the noble diadem of my holy office,
He gave me a dagger: ‘This is just right for you,’ he said.

Our poet turned to the moon-god Nanna for help, but her prayers were unanswered. It was the mighty Inanna – the recipient of the fulsome grateful praise in these verses – who restored the priestess to her position.

Seated female figure with vessel in hand, found at Girsu (Iraq). Alabaster, Neo-Sumerian, Ur III period, c.2112-2004 BC. Size: 20 x 8.2 x 10cm. IMAGE: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photography by Franck Raux.

The formidable nature of the goddess that we meet in the poem is also conveyed in Akkadian cylinder seals, in which Ishtar (who lends her attributes to Enheduanna’s poetic Inanna) is depicted frontally, with maces and axes on her back, a horned crown signifying divinity on her head, sometimes with a lion, and engaging the viewer with her inescapable, direct gaze. The frontality, crown, and abundant hair all fit with a mode of presentation already seen in a select few Sumerian images of deities of the Early Dynastic period (c.2900-2334 BC).

In the Sumerian tradition, the nuturing Inanna is largely portrayed symbolically; for example, through a bunch of reeds tied together. The reeds resemble a gatepost that serves as a boundary to the goddess’s sacred space. One exquisite cylinder seal shows sheep grazing on plants. ‘The plants are not plants of nature,’ Babcock explains. ‘This is a rosette, which is another symbol of the goddess Inanna. The sheep are being nurtured by the goddess. It really beautifully conveys the dependence on the natural and the spiritual world. It’s beautifully evoked and it’s a glorious piece of white marble.’

Fragment of a vessel with frontal image of goddess. Basalt, Sumerian, Early Dynastic period, c.2400 BC. Size: 25.1 x 18.6 x 4cm.
IMAGE: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Vorderasiatisches Museum. Photo by Olaf M. Teßmer.

‘With cylinder seals, it is sometimes hard to decide where to crop the impression. You just want to make it as long and as poetic as possible. There’s just no way to really trim it; it just keeps going! And that’s part of its magic, it’s an eternal symbol.’

Unlike the invisible Inanna, the Akkadian Ishtar is shown in all her glory. ‘One of the hypotheses of the exhibition is that the proliferation of images of gods not found in Sumerian art, and especially of Ishtar, on Akkadian cylinder seals is due directly to the writings of Enheduanna,’ says Babcock.

Another poem, ‘Inanna and Ebih’, has been attributed to the high priestess based on style and content (it does not contain Enheduanna’s name). In this work, the mountain-god Ebih, the personification of the Jebel Hamrin range, refuses to acknowledge Inanna’s power, and so she kills and flattens the mountain and sets up a throne on the rubble. ‘We were all taught as students that it was not possible to identify many, if any, images on seals with existing texts’, says Babcock, ‘but one of the contributors to the exhibition, my colleague, Majdolene Dajani, has done that for this text, and it’s really quite remarkable how she’s rethought these seals.’

Queen Puabi’s funerary ensemble, found at Ur. Gold, lapis lazuli, carnelian, silver, and agate, Sumerian, Early Dynastic period, c.2500 BC. IMAGE: Courtesy of the Penn Museum

One seal from Ur (dating to c.2200 BC and so about a century after Enheduanna) shows Ishtar, dagger in one hand, grabbing a god who sits on a small, collapsed mountain. As Dajani observes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, ‘The image coincides with the moment preceding the most climactic event in the hymn “Inanna and Ebih,” when the goddess kills Ebih.’ Another seal from the Akkadian period (c.2334-2154 BC) shows Ishtar climbing a mountain while its stones tumble down its god’s back (an image that had previously been interpreted as the sun-god rising). In another, the goddess is shown enthroned on the mountain, the limbs of the god Ebih (crushed beneath it) emerging – the outcome also described in the poem.

Refined, flounced robes like those Ishtar and Enheduanna wear appear in other representations of high-status female figures. A number have clasped hands, an eternal gesture of prayer that exudes a sense of dignified solemnity. One woman, likely a high priestess, sits serene in a Neo-Sumerian (c.2112-2004 BC) figurine, with her hands clasped and, perhaps most important of all, a small tablet on her lap. It does not contain specific cuneiform characters, but vertical lines marking columns indicate that this is a writing tablet. The elegant statuette enshrines in alabaster the image of a literate and pious woman, reflecting the idea of Enheduanna and her model of the priesthood.

Kneeling female figure from Susa (Iran). Gypsum alabaster, pro-Elamite, Late Uruk period, c.3300 BC. Size: 6.2 x 4.5 x 4cm. IMAGE: © Musée de l’Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photography by Les frèresChuzeville

Another Neo-Sumerian seated female figure similarly dressed in finery holds a vessel. As Kutay Şen notes in an essay in the catalogue, the vessel and its symbolism associated with fecundity has historically been less of a challenge than that of the several known, but generally overlooked, statuettes of women with tablets on their laps. (One scholar, Otto Weber, simply dismissing the significance of a tablet on the knees of one statuette, wrote: ‘its meaning is not clear to me’.) But the tablets are a clear symbol of writing. The connection between women and writing was seemingly worth visualising.

Indeed, other Mesopotamian women were literate. In the northern city of Mari, in the Old Babylonian period, one princess received a female scribe as part of her dowry. Another princess, and also high priestess in the city of Durum in the 18th century BC, wrote a letter to a conquering king, identifying herself as ‘Nin-shata-pada the woman-scribe’. Centuries before this, in the Early Dynastic period, wives of the rulers of Sumerian city-states ran the é-mí, ‘the woman’s household’, which worked in agriculture, bread-baking, beer-brewing, weaving, and trade. This institution (which reappeared later in the Akkadian period during which Enheduanna lived) has given us some 1,600 cuneiform tablets that record names of its female overseers and make up the biggest Sumerian administrative archive that we know of.

Head of female figure (probably a high priestess) with inlaid eyes, found at Ur. Alabaster, shell, lapis lazuli, and bitumen, Akkadian, c.2334-2154 BC. Size: 9.5 x 8 x 8.5cm. IMAGE: Courtesy of the Penn Museum

While Enheduanna embodies much that is new – heralding novel visions of a goddess, merging Sumerian and Akkadian cultures in the first Mesopotamian empire, using an innovative first person voice, and being the first holder of the title of en (a tradition continued by royal women, with some breaks, into the 1st millennium BC) – the exhibition strives to point out how women, like those of the é-mí, had vital roles both in the cultic realm and more generally in the economies of Mesopotamia for centuries before her.

Puabi, who lived around 2500 BC, may have been something of a predecessor to Enheduanna. When this queen of Ur was buried, many servants, musicians, and soldiers were sacrificed to accompany her. Excavations of Puabi’s tomb in 1927 found the body of the queen with a glittering array of adornments, including a spectacular golden and jewelled headdress and a colourful mass of carnelian, lapis lazuli, and gold beads (reconstructed as a cloak), as well as three cylinder seals attached to garment pins. Puabi is named in one seal, with the epithet nin, meaning ‘queen’ or ‘great lady’ – her identity is not described in association with a father, brother, or husband.

‘We don’t know a lot about Puabi,’ says Babcock. ‘It’s possible that she maybe performed the function of the priestess of the moon-god at Ur as well, and therefore could be considered a predecessor of Enheduanna. The reason I suggest that is all her extraordinary jewellery. Imagine performing these rituals at the cycles of the moon and this glorious headdress creating really an aura around her head.’

Fragment of a female figure possibly from Umma (Iraq). Calcite, Akkadian period, c.2334-2154 BC. Size: 22.2 x14.4cm. IMAGE: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago;

We have more names too. Dating from c.3000-2750 BC, a pair of stone objects shaped like a scraper and a chisel identify the first woman in history known by name – KA-GÍR-gal. As well as the inscription, she is depicted on the back of the scraper (male figures dominate the normally displayed front). Her hands are drawn together in front of her mouth, a gesture of reverence, while a larger, bearded figure holds out what is possibly a peg used to proclaim land sales, suggesting she was involved in some sale.

Even before this, one of the earliest depictions of women in the exhibition, from c.3300 BC Susa (Iran), shows a female figure piously kneeling. This charming alabaster statuette is missing her hands, but the pose of her arms suggests that they would have been clasped, much like the Neo-Sumerian seated priestesses a millennium later. A line around the top of her head marks out a headband, which would later evolve into the crowns of the high priestesses. Like some other figurines, the small statuette probably stood in for its donor as a way to eternally honour a god at a temple.

Cylinder seal (and modern impression) with birth scene. Hematite; Sumerian, Early Dynastic period, c.2600-2350 BC. Size: 2.9 x 1cm (seal). IMAGE: © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photography by Philippe Fuzeau

On some cylinder seals, women are shown seated specifically at shrines and temples, indicating their place in their spiritual realm at an early date. Other seals visualise more earthly pursuits, such as pottery and weaving. One portrays two simply rendered women tending to a pair of cows, captured in naturalistic detail, with large pots ready to receive milk. All these highlight the essential role of women, further emphasised by the materials of the seals themselves. ‘It is remarkable that these scenes are carved into stone cylinders,’ Babcock comments. ‘And don’t forget that stone is a rare commodity on the floodplains of Mesopotamia. Therefore these scenes of women working were thought to be worthy of depicting and thereby documenting and celebrating women’s contribution to the economy.’

As ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’ nears its conclusion, Enheduanna reflects on the hymn’s composition, writing that she gave birth to the song. Birth scenes are rare in Mesopotamian art, but one seal in the exhibition depicts just that. It has two seemingly unrelated registers. In the contest scene at the top, a hero protects two animals from attacking lions. Directly below the hero, in the lower register, a midwife crouches to help with the delivery of a baby. The hero and the midwife both play vital roles at these dangerous moments, controlling the chaos of nature while watched over by Inanna, who is represented by stars in both registers.

These detailed and enduring images and Enheduanna’s own verses celebrate the many roles of Mesopotamian women, as mothers, midwives, weavers, potters, priestesses, and the first known author.

She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400-2000 BC runs at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, until 19 February 2023. For more information, visit

The exhibition is co-curated by Sidney Babcock and Erhan Tamur. It is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated catalogue of the same name published by the Morgan (ISBN 978-0875980072).

Translations are taken from the catalogue: that of the Temple Hymns is by Ake W Sjöberg, Eugen Bergmann, and Gene B Gragg (The Collection of Sumerian Temple Hymns and The Keš Temple Hymn, J J Augustin, 1969); and those of ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’ are by Benjamin R Foster (The Age of Agade: inventing empire in ancient Mesopotamia, Routledge, 2016).