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Priestess, Poet, Politician

4,000 years ago, the world’s first author composed verses that helped forge the Akkadian Empire

November/December 2022

Akkadians Enheduanna Alabaster DiskThe name of the world’s first known author appears on the back of a 4,000-year-old white alabaster disk that resembles the moon. Uncovered in a temple in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur by archaeologist Leonard Woolley in 1927, the disk is decorated with a relief depicting four figures facing an altar. They appear to be participating in a sacred rite. One of the figures—a woman who wears a headdress and a layered gown—is larger than the others and seems to be in charge of the proceedings. An inscription identifies her as Enheduanna, priestess of the moon god Nanna, servant of the goddess Inanna, and daughter of Sargon, king of the world.


When the disk was unearthed, Assyriologists, scholars who specialize in ancient Mesopotamia, were already familiar with the historical figure of Enheduanna as the author of Sumerian songs and hymns dating to the Akkadian Empire (ca. 2350–2150 B.C.). Now they had a face to put to a once-famous name that was only then beginning to emerge from four millennia of obscurity. “It’s incredible,” says Yale University Assyriologist Benjamin Foster. “She’s the only author in the entirety of Sumerian literature whose name we actually know, and the only author in the entire 2,500-year span of Mesopotamian history of whom we have a contemporary illustration.”


Akkadians MapEnheduanna’s father, Sargon the Great (r. ca. 2340–2285 B.C.), was the founder of the Akkadian Empire, the first state that brought multiple peoples, territories, and city-states under the same rule. The empire’s influence echoed through Mesopotamian history, with powerful leaders such as Hammurabi of Babylon (r. ca. 1792–1750 B.C.) and Sargon II of Assyria (r. 721–705 B.C.) modeling their reigns on those of early Akkadian rulers, who were known as members of the Dynasty of Ishtar, after their patron goddess.


Until now, Enheduanna’s role in maintaining the Akkadian Empire’s power has been overshadowed by the fact that she is history’s first known attributed author, but new analysis of her sacred songs demonstrates her central political role. “The rituals that Enheduanna performed were instrumental in creating the new power structure by reconciling the city-states and the wider realm,” says University of Göttingen Assyriologist Annette Zgoll. Her research has offered new interpretations of Enheduanna’s songs that are helping scholars understand how she became indispensable to Sargon’s heirs in their struggle to maintain power across Mesopotamia and as far away as the Mediterranean Sea. Enheduanna is now the focus of research aimed at understanding a historical figure who, while she lived, was critical to the Dynasty of Ishtar’s success—and was almost certainly the most powerful woman in the world.


Prior to the rise of the Akkadian Empire, Mesopotamia was divided into two regions occupied by distinct peoples—the Sumerians, who lived in dozens of independent city-states along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Mesopotamia, and the Akkadians, who occupied the more rugged reaches of northern Mesopotamia. Each Sumerian city-state was ruled by a king and centered on a temple dedicated to a patron god or goddess to whom its inhabitants were devoted. Two of the most prominent Sumerian city-states were Ur, which was watched over by Nanna, god of the moon, and Uruk, watched over by Inanna, goddess of love and war.


By contrast, the Akkadians believed that gods and goddesses were as numerous as the stars, and that they could change which deity they worshipped at any time, depending on the circumstances in which they found themselves. “This openness to new allegiances meant that when the Akkadians settled in different landscapes, they could introduce the gods who lived there into their spiritual horizon,” says Foster. “When other people came among them, new deities could set up dwellings in their heaven.” Despite worshipping many gods, the Akkadians acknowledged a supreme god, Il, and considered the goddess Ishtar—their equivalent to the Sumerian goddess Inanna—their national deity.