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UC Berkeley scholars help translate poems of high priestess whom assyriologists identify as the first named author in history
05 March 2001

By Patricia McBroom, Media Relations


Limestone Disk

Limestone disk shows ancient high-priestess Enheduanna
University of Pennsylvania Museum

Berkeley -Assyriologists have known for 50 years that the first named author in the history of writing was a woman, a high priestess who lived 4,000 years ago in the city of Ur, in what is now southern Iraq.

But the words of this priestess, named Enheduanna (en-hey'-du-ana), who worshipped the goddess, Inanna, have been locked away in Sumerian texts and cuneiform tablets largely available to experts.

Now, a Berkeley Jungian therapist, aided by assyriologists at the University of California, Berkeley, has created a fresh translation of enheduanna's poetry and, for the first time, made it available to a general audience.

These published writings, a portion of Enheduanna's work, contain long poems dedicated to Inanna. They are filled with struggle, agony, ecstasy and praise as they depict a goddess who was extraordinarily powerful in both good and evil directions. It is the earliest description, at the dawn of the written word, of what appears to be an all-encompassing female deity.

"Enheduanna's conception of this goddess opens the door into a whole different way of viewing women. Nothing in our western religion even touches this," said Betty DeShong Meador, author of the recently published "Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart" (University of Texas Press, Austin).

Meador, a Jungian analyst who lives in Berkeley, spent years in study with Sumerian linguist and UC Berkeley lecturer Daniel Foxvog deriving an original translation of the poetry of enheduanna, the highest religious authority in Mesopotamia for about 40 years around 2,300 B.C.

Foxvog provided alternative translations of the original cuneiform Sumerian text, while Meador reconstructed the poetry in accessible English. Meador also studied informally with other UC Berkeley scholars including Anne Kilmer, professor of assyriology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Kilmer is an authority on Mesopotamian culture and literature.

"This is a very accurate, responsible, authoritative translation with poetic license here and there, where ambiguities exist," said Kilmer. "The work is to be admired. Meador has made a tremendous effort to be faithful to the original."

"We have known at least since the 40s that enheduanna was the earliest named author in all the cuneiform material," said Kilmer. "Tablets with her writings were found even earlier, in the early 20th century, but only slowly have the pieces come together."

Kilmer said she is pleased with the university-community collaboration that this work represents. Meador began studying enheduanna's writings almost 20 years ago at UCLA and continued the work after she moved to Berkeley.

Enheduanna was the daughter of King Sargon, who united Sumer in the south and Akkad in the north in the earliest example of military-driven empire building. Toward the end of Sargon's 50 year rule, Enheduanna became high priestess to the moon god Nanna. While some of her hymns and poems honor Nanna, the priestess was far more preoccupied with Inanna, the daughter of Nanna, whose home was the morning and evening star, Venus.

As rendered by Meador, the priestess's words reveal an intimate, emotional connection with the goddess, wherein the worshipper's own struggles in life are reflected in her depiction of, on one hand, a cruel and destructive deity willing to lay waste to the land and, on the other hand, a loving source of all abundance.

It's also apparent from the text that Enheduanna takes credit for spreading Inanna's powers and influence throughout the land and grieves desperately when she feels betrayed.

"I, I am Enheduanna," she writes in the title poem "Lady of Largest Heart," a momentous introduction.

A few stanzas later she says, "I/ who spread over the land/ the splendid brilliance/of your divinity/you allow my flesh/to know your scourging/my sorrow and bitter trial/strike my eye as treachery..."

In the third poem in the book, "The Exaltation of Inanna," written apparently later in Enheduanna's career, she begins:

"Queen of all given powers/unveiled clear light/unfailing woman wearing brilliance/cherished in heaven and earth/chosen, sanctified in heaven/you/grand in your adornments/crowned with your beloved goodness/rightfully you are High Priestess/your hands seize the seven fixed powers/my queen of fundamental forces/guardian of essential cosmic sources/you lift up the elements/bind them to your hands/gather in powers/press them to your breast/vicious dragon you spew/venom poisons the land/like the storm god you howl/grain wilts on the ground/swollen flood rushing down the mountain/you are Inanna/supreme in heaven and earth..."

"In Enheduanna's poetry, Inanna is both fierce and cruel, loving and kind," said Meador. "In our society, women are not supposed to be like that. Where I grew up in Texas, there was no room in a woman's psyche for being anything but nice."

"But this is who we are as human beings," Meador said. "Both men and women have these violent emotions, and if you are taught to suppress the knowledge of these harsh feelings, you live in too narrow a range. That doesn't mean you have to express such feelings, but to know you have them makes you healthier."

Meador, who struggled with each line of text and the contradictory meanings of the ancient words, said that in these verses, Inanna is "the divine in all matter, both the harsh and the beautiful. She is reality with a sacred order and meaning."

Later patriarchal religions stripped violent, harsh power from the repertoire of female goddesses and made it totally male, said Meador. But before that time the goddess Inanna represented both light and dark sides of nature and human nature.

"Her qualities foreshadow the powers of the Hebrew god Yahweh (the god of the Old Testament). Only the names have changed," she said.