Circa 2300 BCE, more than four millennia ago in Sumer, an ancient author named Enheduanna became the most powerful woman in the world. Her parents were King Sargon the Great and Queen Tashlultum, history’s first empire builders, who conquered and unified the independent city-states of Mesopotamia. The thing was that Sargon was a northern Semite who spoke Akkadian, so the older Sumerian cities in the south viewed him as a foreign invader. This brought up disputes over ethnicity and nationality for the first time in the history of civilization. As a consequence of this, the southerners frequently revolted to regain their independence, which fractured the dynasty. So, with no one else to turn to, Sargon appointed his only daughter, Enheduanna, as the high priestess of the most important temple in the empire. This was a bold move that permanently altered the destiny of humanity.
As the high priestess of the goddess Inanna in the city of Ur, Enheduanna managed grain storage for thousands of residents, oversaw hundreds of temple workers, presided over the monthly new moon festival as well as annual rituals celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, and interpreted sacred dreams. She was educated to read and write in both Sumerian and Akkadian and even taught to make mathematical calculations in cuneiform, the very first system of letters and numbers which had been developed 300 years before her birth. Since Princess Enheduanna wasn’t a merchant, she didn’t need to communicate over long distances with traders abroad. Instead, the original scribe needed to communicate with priests and priestesses across the empire. So, writing with a stylus on clay tablets allowed her to speak across time and space in a novel way.
As history’s very first author she wrote 42 hymns and 3 epic poems. Her work contains the oldest known written scriptures on Earth, predating the Vedas by at least 600 years. In fact, the Rigveda was written down around the same time as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Enheduanna also lived and worked about 1,500 years before Homer, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. As it was, prior to Enheduanna, writing mostly took on the form of mundane record-keeping and transcription, rather than original creative works attributable to individual authors. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, her unprecedented literary accomplishments include the first time an author ever wrote using the pronoun “I” and the first time someone ever explored their private thoughts in written words. Plus, she was the first person to ever sign her name on anything.
Princess Enheduanna was also the first polytheistic priestess to personify the gods and goddesses. So, the planet Venus, as the goddess Innana, was seen as a living being with a sense of identity. In line with this, each Mesopotamian city was ruled by a patron deity, so her hymns were dedicated to the ruling god of each major city. As such, Enheduanna praised the city’s temple, glorified the god’s attributes, and explained the god’s relationship to other deities within the pantheon. In line with this, Enheduanna placed Inanna at the top of the pantheon as the most powerful deity, which made religion matriarchal at that point in “herstory”. This was a few centuries before Zarathustra came along and made patriarchal monotheism among the ancient Iranians.
Regardless, after the death of Enheduanna’s father, one of his generals took advantage of the power vacuum and staged a coup. As a powerful member of the ruling family, Enheduanna was exiled from Ur. However, her nephew, the legendary King Naram-Sin, ultimately crushed the uprising and restored his aunt as the high priestess. Then, after her own death, Enheduanna was deified as a minor goddess. More importantly, her poetry was copied, studied, and performed throughout the empire for more than 500 years. Although many of the clay tablets that record her words have stood the test of time, Enheduanna’s true legacy is found in the work of every writer who follows in the footsteps of the great trailblazer. As a bard, who came out of the ancient prehistoric oral tradition, she was the first person to give rise to the modern historic written tradition, thereby ushering in a whole new era, and for that, we owe her everything.