The historical Enheduana

Drawing on a phrase coined by the philologist Eleanor Robson, Gina Konstantopoulos argues that Enheduana has led three lives. The first was that of a historical figure: the high priestess and royal princess who lived in the Old Akkadian period. The second was that of a literary superstar, as the poems attributed to her were studied in the Old Babylonian schools, five centuries after her death. The third is her current life: that of an ancient woman in the modern world.

The first life is the one we know least about. Based on the Disk of Enheduana, we know that Enheduana was a real historical person, that she was the daughter of Sargon, and that she served as high priestess of the moon god Nanna in the city of Ur. However, we do not know when, where, or to which of Sargon’s wives she was born, nor when she died.

Enheduana’s historical life likely revolved around her duties and prerogatives as high priestess. Tellingly, the Sumerian word for high priestess, en, can also mean “lord” or “ruler,” so it seems probable that this was a position of not just great prestige, but also of great political influence and economic power.

The high priestess lived in a building known as the ĝipar, located in the sacred precinct of Ur that also held Nanna’s temple. The ĝipar was a large building arranged around a series of open-air courts. It probably held the living quarters of the high priestess and her closest staff, a large kitchen for both ritual and practical meals, work spaces, a tablet archive, a burial site for former priestesses, and a shrine for the veneration of the king who had installed the current priestess (in Enheduana’s case, Sargon).

The Disk of Enheduana, Wikimedia Commons.

The names of four of Enheduana’s servants have been recovered: her hairdresser Ilum-palil (whose grave was recovered in the same sacred precinct), her estate manager Adda, and her scribes Sagadu and …-kitushdu (the first part of the name is lost). These names are known from cylinder seals, which were used in the ancient world as proof of identity; they typically bore the name and profession of their owner.

The Assyriologist Joan Goodnick Westenholz has drawn attention to the fact that on the Disk, Enheduana identifies herself as “the spouse (dam) of Nanna,” implying that she was identified with Nanna’s wife Ningal at least in some, possibly ritual, contexts. A further argument in favor of this connection that the ĝipar also held a shrine to Ningal.

However, it is also clear that the historical Enheduana really did share in the devotion to Inana that is so clearly manifest from the poems attributed to her. The Disk was created to celebrate a new altar, the Table of Heaven, which Enheduana built for Inana, and Inana was the patron deity of the ruling family to which Enheduana belonged.

It was not unusual in the ancient world for a priestess to be devoted to another deity than the one she served. The position of high priestess of Nanna did not imply a strong faith in Nanna; it was primarily an administrative and political position that put Enheduana in charge of running the temple’s vast holdings of land and wealth.

Further reading

Helle, Enheduana.

Konstantopoulos, “Many Lives.”

Westenholz, “Enheduanna, En-Priestess.”

Weadock, “The giparu at Ur.”