Joshua J. Mark
published on 12 October 2010
Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) is the world’s first author and was the daughter (either literally or figuratively) of the great empire-builder Sargon of Akkad. Her name translates from the Akkadian as `high priestess of An’, the god of the sky or heaven, though the name `An’ could also refer to the moon god Nannar as in the translation, `en-priestess, wife of the god Nannar’ or to the Queen of Heaven, Inanna, a goddes Enheduanna helped `create’. All these translations are distinct possibilities in that merging the gods of different cultures was perhaps Enheduanna’s greatest talent. She is best known for her works, Inninsagurra, Ninmesarra, and Inninmehusa, all three hymns to the goddess Inanna which, according to the Enheduanna scholar, Meador, “effectively defined a new heirarchy of the gods (51). These hymns, translated as `The Great Hearted Mistress’, `The Exaltation of Inanna’ and `Goddess of the Fearsome Powers’, gave to the people of Sargon’s empire a personal and meaningful vision of the gods who steered their lives.
Sargon of Akkad (also known as Sargon the Great) reigned for fifty-six years over the Akkadian Empire which he had fashioned and held together through military might and skillful diplomacy. Among his many shrewd diplomatic decisions was his attempt to identify the Sumerian gods of those whom he conquered with his own Akkadian gods, those of the conqueror. Understanding the power of religion to unify or divide, Sargon appointed only very trusted associates and family members to the most important positions in the Sumerian temples where they could then gently influence those who worshipped therein. Among these religious appointees the most successful was Enheduanna who, through her poetry, was able to identify the different gods of the differing cultures with one another so strongly that the gentler and more localized Sumerian goddess Inanna came to be identified with the much more violent, volatile and universal Akkadian goddess Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven.
The Sumerian poem, The Descent of Innana, which some have claimed Enheduanna had a hand in translating, has the Sumerian goddess descend from the heavens to the underworld to visit her recently-widowed sister Ereshkigal. That the poem presents Inanna-as-Ishtar, Queen of Heaven, rather than a localized deity, reveals the underlying shift in importance from Inanna pre-Enheduanna to Inanna after her priestess had influenced the understanding of this deity. So closely were Inanna and Ishtar interwoven that the poem was famously known as The Descent of Ishtar until the 20th century when archaeological finds unearthed the works in praise of the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Whether Enheduanna actually did translate The Descent of Inanna is unimportant in that her work in shaping the understanding of the goddess (and, by extension, the other gods) would have influenced whoever did bring the Sumerian story of Inanna into Akkadian. In this way, Sargon melded the culture of the conquered with his own, crafting from the two a strong, united Empire. According to historian D. Brendan Nagle, “So successful was Enheduanna in smoothing over the differences between north and south that the king of Sumer continued to appoint his daughter to the position of high priestess of Ur and Uruk long after Sargon’s dynasty disappeared” ( 9).
Enheduanna’s importance is increasingly appreciated in modern times for the richness and beauty of her poetry (in addition to her longer works, she wrote forty-two shorter poems on a wide range of themes from personal frustration and hope to religious piety and war) but her genius in helping to consolidate an empire is often overlooked. According to anthropologist Gwendolyn Leick, “She made an enormous impression on generations of scribes after her lifetime; her works were copied and read centuries after her death”(120). Through Enheduanna’s brilliance in crafting a pantheon of gods all of Mesopotamia could believe in, she lay the spiritual foundations for the first stable multi-cultural, multi-lingual, empire in the world.