I’ve been fascinated by Mesopotamia ever since my tenth grade history class, when my outstanding teacher, Mr. Felt, taught me about the birthplace of writing. (Although I’ve since learned that it writing was developed in other places at around the same time, give or take a thousand years.) I’ve also been in love with the epic of Gilgamesh ever since I read the novelization Gilgamesh the King by Robert Silverberg.
But I had absolutely no idea of how much Sumerian literature survives, nor the extent to which goddesses figured in Sumerian story, myth, and poem. And I also did not know that the first person ever to sign her name to a text was a woman.
Her name was Enheduanna. Her father, Sargon, came to Sumer from the nearby country of Akkadia, and conquered the city-states that had previously been warring. He appointed Enheduanna as high priestess. She collected all the temple hymns from all the city-states in one place. At the end of it, she wrote:
“The compiler of the tablets was En-edu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”
I get chills when I read that.
I first learned about Enheduanna a year or so back I went to a reading by Cass Dalglish, who wrote Humming the Blues: Inspired by Nin-Me-Sar-Ra, Enheduanna’s Song to Inanna.. It’s a “jazz translation” rather than a literal one, which makes the text come alive with passion and music. Dalglish points out that most translations of the cuneiform fix a single meaning to the words, but multiple readings are possible. So for each line, she took all the possible readings and then wrote a verse of poetry.
Having read Humming the Blues, I couldn’t help but wonder: what does the more traditional translation look like? I wanted the “authentic,” “authoritative” reading of the text. But I wanted the impossible. Sumer vanished with the birth of the Babylonian empire, and what’s left of their culture comes to us in stories passed on to other peoples and fragments of broken clay tablets.
I also couldn’t help but wonder: when did Enheduanna live, relative to the epic of Gilgamesh?
And so I began a journey into the heart of Sumer.
In the next post, I’ll write about Inanna and Nanshe — the goddess of writing and the goddess of social justice.