Enheduana lived in the 23rd century BCE, and most of the manuscripts of her poems date to the 18th century BCE. The five-hundred-year gap between her lifetime and our sources for the works attributed to her has led some scholars to argue that the poems were composed later in her name, but the texts may have been transmitted in an oral or now lost written form before reaching the Old Babylonian schools. This would not be unusual, as most of our sources for Sumerian literature come from these schools.

One source of disagreement among scholars is how much importance to attribute to the language of the poems. Certain phrases and expressions in the text seem to suggest a later date, as first noted by Miguel Civil, but we also know that the text of Sumerian poems was adapted by later scribes to reflect changes in language, as argued by Benjamin Foster (207). It is therefore unclear whether linguistic anachronisms reflect a later authorship or merely a “modernization” of the poems by scribes seeking to make sense of them. Further, as noted by Brigitte Lion, the very fact that the ancient scribes saw Enheduana as the author of these texts speaks volumes for how women were perceived at the time.

Turning to the content, there is no anachronism in the Exaltation or the Hymn that would make an Old Akkadian date impossible—no technology that was invented later, for example—and the picture of Enheduana that emerges from the poems fits with what we know about the historical person: she is depicted as the high priestess of Nanna, devoted to Inana, living through a period of historical turmoil. However, the Old Akkadian period was also subject to intense mythologization in later periods, and many real aspects of Sargon’s and Naram-Sîn’s reigns were embellished in literary form, so the same may have happened to Enheduana.

Vase from Lagash probably depicting the goddess of writing, Nisaba, now in the Pergamon Museum. Wikimedia Commons.

The Temple Hymns present a particularly complicated case. One manuscript of this text comes from the Ur III period, substantially closer to Enheduana’s lifetime, but it does not preserve the final lines, in which the text is attributed to Enheduana. Further, one temple in this poem, no. 9, is explicitly identified in the text as a later addition by King Shulgi. Other temples mentioned in the poem (e.g. no. 12), however, may have been built after Enheduana’s death but are not acknowledged as later interpolations. Further, some of the hymns in the collection seem to be reworkings of older Sumerian hymns, rather than new compositions from the Old Akkadian period.

One way to think about this question is that in ancient Iraq authorship did not imply, as it does today, a closure of the text. Before the advent of intellectual property, scribes felt free to rework earlier texts, updating them and keeping them alive. This is what Enheduana may have done when she compiled the Temple Hymns, what King Shulgi did when he added his own temple to the text, and what later scribes either updated the language of the poems or turned the legends about Enheduana into new literary compositions. Just as Enheduana would have expected the high priestesses who succeeded her in the ĝipar to honor her by presenting her with ritual offerings, so did later scribes and scholars keep her memory alive by reworking her text, in a collaborative lineage that spanned centuries.

While it is important to date the poems as accurately as possible—they provide us with very different historical information if they are read as first-hand accounts of Old Akkadian rebellions than if they are read as nostalgic reconstructions of that period—the debate about Enheduana’s authorship that has raged in scholarly circles since the 1980’s has detracted from other, equally important aspects of the texts, such as their literary qualities. While we cannot say for sure whether the poems were written by Enheduana or in her name (as the ancient equivalent of historical fiction), they remain poetic masterpieces of great significance, and she remains a key figure in literary history.

Further reading

Helle, Enheduana.

Zgoll, Der Rechtsfall der En-ḫedu-Ana.

Michalowski, “Sailing to Babylon.”