Meet the World’s First Known Author: Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna

Watch­ers of West­world will have heard a char­ac­ter in the most recent episode utter the line, “for the first time, his­to­ry has an author.” It’s as loaded a bit of dia­logue as the series has dropped on fans, not least for its sug­ges­tion that in the absence of a god we should be bet­ter off with an all-know­ing machine.

The line might bend the ear of lit­er­ary schol­ars for anoth­er rea­son. The idea of author­ship is a com­pli­cat­ed one. In one sense, maybe, every­one is an author of his­to­ry, and in anoth­er, per­haps no one is. But it’s dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend these abstractions—we crave sto­ries with strong char­ac­ters, hence our ven­er­a­tion of Great Men and Women of the past.

Still, in many times and places, indi­vid­ual author­ship was irrel­e­vant. Renais­sance thinkers reval­ued the author as an auc­tori­tas, a wor­thy fig­ure of influ­ence and renown. “Death of the author” the­o­rists point­ed out that the appear­ance of a lit­er­ary text could nev­er be reduced to a sin­gle, unchang­ing per­son­al­i­ty. In reli­gious stud­ies, ques­tions of author­ship open onto mine­field after mine­field. There may be no com­mon­ly agreed-upon way to think about what an author is.

Does it make sense, then, to talk about the “world’s first author”? Per­haps. In the TED-Ed les­son above by Soraya Field Fio­rio, we learn that the first known per­son to use writ­ten lan­guage for lit­er­ary pur­pos­es was named was Enhed­u­an­na, a pow­er­ful Mesopotami­an high priest­ess who wrote forty-two hymns and three epic poems in cuneiform 4,3000 hun­dred years ago.

Daugh­ter of Sar­gon of Akkad, who placed her in a posi­tion to rule, Enhed­u­an­na lived about “1,500 years before Homer and about 500 years before the Bib­li­cal patri­arch Abra­ham.” (There’s con­sid­er­able doubt, of course, about whether either of those peo­ple exist­ed, whether they wrote the works attrib­uted to them, or whether such works were penned by com­mit­tee, so to speak.)

Sar­gon was also an author, hav­ing com­posed an auto­bi­og­ra­phy, The Leg­end of Sar­gon, that “exert­ed a pow­er­ful influ­ence over the Sume­ri­ans he sought to con­quer,” notes Joshua J. Mark at the Ancient His­to­ry Ency­clo­pe­dia. But first, Enhed­u­an­na used her posi­tion as high priest­ess to uni­fy her father’s empire with reli­gious hymns that praised the gods of each major Sumer­ian city. “In her writ­ing, she human­ized the once aloof gods,” just as Homer would hun­dreds of years lat­er. “Now they suf­fered, fought, loved, and respond­ed to human plead­ing.”

Her hymns to Inan­na are her most defin­ing lit­er­ary achieve­ment, but Enhed­u­an­na has some­how been com­plete­ly left out of his­to­ry. “We know who the first nov­el­ist is,” writes Charles Hal­ton at Lit Hub, “eleventh cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Noble­woman Murasa­ki Shik­ibu, who wrote the Tale of Gen­ji.” Like­wise, we know the first nov­el­ist of the west­ern world, Miguel de Cer­vantes, and the first essay­ist, Michel de Mon­taigne. But “ask any per­son in your life who wrote the first poem and they’re apt to draw a blank.”

Maybe this is because, unlike nov­els, we don’t think of poet­ry as being invent­ed by a sin­gle indi­vid­ual. It seems as though it must have sprung from the col­lec­tive psy­che not long after humans began using lan­guage. Yet from the point of view of lit­er­ary history—which, like most his­to­ries, con­sists of a suc­ces­sion of great names—Enheduanna cer­tain­ly deserves the hon­or as the world’s first known poet and first known author.  Learn more about her in the les­son above.

 Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

Watch a 4000-Year Old Baby­lon­ian Recipe for Stew, Found on a Cuneiform Tablet, Get Cooked by Researchers from Yale & Har­vard

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in its Orig­i­nal Ancient Lan­guage, Akka­di­an

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • David M says:

    We know about the first nov­el­ists and essay­ist because they legit­i­mate­ly were the first — the true pio­neers of their forms and a huge influ­ence on those that fol­lowed.

    By con­trast, Enhed­u­an­na is the first poet we have a ver­i­fied record of, but is with­out a doubt NOT the orig­i­nal pio­neer of poet­ry or any lit­er­ary genre. That she should be bet­ter-known is a rea­son­able asser­tion; to call her the “first poet” is mis­lead­ing at best. The “known” caveat is nec­es­sary.

  • Annunaki says:

    „4,3000 hun­dred years ago.” More than 4 mil­lion years ago… Inter­est­ing.

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