Enheduana’s poems

Five poems were attributed to Enheduana by the ancient Babylonian scribes: the Exaltation of Inana, the Hymn to Inana, the Temple Hymns, and two very fragmentary poems. Some modern scholars have also attributed to her the poem Inana and Ebih, but while references to this story are scattered throughout the Exaltation and the Hymn, there is no real evidence for her authorship of the text.

Enheduana lived during the 23rd century BCE, in the Old Akkadian period, and the manuscripts of the poems come from the schools of the 18th century BCE, in the Old Babylonian period. This gap in time has led sime scholars to wonder whether she was indeed the author of these texts or whether they were composed in her name in the intervening centuries. Briefly put, the question cannot be answered definitively one way or the other.

The poems were certainly revised and modified over the centuries, but that is a normal feature of Sumerian poetry. No anachronism in the Exaltation or the Hymn makes an Old Akkadian date impossible (the Temple Hymns present a more complicated picture); but it should be noted that the Old Akkadian Empire was subject to heavy mythmaking during the Old Babylonian period, which would have affected Enheduana’s legacy too.

However, whether the poems are the authentic compositions of Enheduana herself or the ancient equivalent of historical fiction, retelling stories about the famous high priestess in a partly fictionalized form, they are a stunning literary achievement and deserve to be celebrated as such.

A manuscript of the Exaltation: Tablet CBS7847, now in the Penn Museum. CDLI.

The Exaltation combines a hymn to Inana as the goddess of war and devastation with the narrator Enheduana’s account of her plight: the rebel king Lugal-Ane has seized power in Ur and cast her into exile. Enheduana prays for help to Inana, but words fail her; her vaunted eloquence has disappeared. In a climactic scene, Enheduana meets with Inana in a night-time ritual, where she finally manages to regain her poetic powers and compose the hymn.

The Hymn is the most radical celebration of Inana preserved in the Sumerian language. It is much, much bolder in its elevation of Inana than even the Exaltation; in this hymn, Inana is declared the ruler of the universe, superior in every way to the other gods of the pantheon. The set piece of the hymn is a long listing of Inana’s paradoxical properties and powers of transformation.

The Temple Hymns is a collection of forty-two hymns to the temples of Sumer, and by association, to the gods who lived in the temples and the cities in which they stood. Taken together, the hymns create a poetic map of the Sumerian world, uniting what was once a set of disparate city states in a single, ordered composition.

The two fragmentary hymns contain Enheduana’s name, but one of them is so completely broken that it is hard to make sense of. The other is dedicated to Nanna, the god that Enheduana served as high priestess, and describes the glory of his temple and the preparation of his food.

Further reading

Helle, Enheduana.

Zgoll, Der Rechtsfall der En-ḫedu-Ana.

Black et al., Literature of Ancient Sumer.