Take a Seat Guys, Historians Say World’s Oldest Author Was a Woman

Photo Credit: This brilliant photo was created by Rori for her 100 Days, 100 Women project. I highly recommend checking it out!

Mesopotamian civilization developed in Western Asia thanks to the resource-rich valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Women and Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia

For centuries, history (the discipline) was dominated by a bunch of old, posh European guys with tons of biases. They studied ancient cultures through the lens of their era, largely ignoring the many types of roles women played throughout history.

From excavation sites dating back to prehistoric times, we encounter female figurines that emphasize breasts and hips. Some scholars believe that these figurines may have been fertility goddesses, suggesting that many early societies worshiped ‘mother’ goddesses.

While ancient Mesopotamian peoples worshiped a pantheon of gods, there were a number of important female goddesses whose powers also revolved around life and fertility.

In ancient Mesopotamia, individuals existed to service the ‘state,’ which in turn serviced the gods. Everything within the city practically revolved around the gods – Inanna, Enki, Marduk, etc.

The temples were stocked with food, which was a direct result of their ability to farm. Along with farming and the maintenance of this sort of society, came the need to have specialized offices, such as scribes (as evidenced by contracts, payrolls, and vouchers that have survived).

In addition to the maintenance of the state itself, families were created for monetary and political protection. The first main purpose of marriage was to have children, which would secure the family line and consolidate control over property.

“In a world where governmental protection of the individual was minimal, it was essential to have the support of as strong a family as possible…hence, the more children, especially male, the better.”  

D. B. Nagle on importance of family.
The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History

Childbirth was invaluable to societies that were constantly threatened by unpredictable weather, foreign invaders and diseases. Therefore, the ability to have children was both practical and precious.

Under “Marriage and Children,” a set of laws provided protection to a childless woman whose husband would divorce her:

“If a man would divorce his wife who has not borne him children, he shall give her money to the amount of her marriage settlement and he shall make good to her the dowry which she brought from her father’s house; then he may divorce her…” 

“Marriage and Children,” The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History

This quote illustrates the importance of childbirth and the legal protections a woman received. Although lack of a child was a justifiable reason for divorce, this law allegedly ensured the woman received a fair sum. This woman also had the ability to re-marry. 

I know. It sounds pretty bleak, but this is kind of amazing. Compared to, say, ancient India, where women didn’t have many options after their husbands died. They could either commit ritual Sati or remain a widow. Better options didn’t exist until after Buddhism spread (~500 BC).

The World’s Oldest Author, Enheduanna

I’ve made a point in reading some of the oldest works by the oldest writers. My list ranges from the ancient far east to the west and encompasses many classics. I’ll write up a list soon. On that note, if you have any recommendations, I welcome all!

The fact that information on Priestess Enheduanna’s life (2285 – 2250) has survived thousands of years is testament to the political and literary legacy she created.

She was the daughter of the great king and conqueror, Sargon of Akkad (2334 – 2279). She was sent to Ur and fused the Akkadian beliefs with Sumerian beliefs. She wrote hymns that reconciled cultural and personality differences among the gods. She was apparently so successful that high priestesses after her became the link that legitimized following dynasties!

She wrote around 40 short poems on general life, war and religion. Her most famous works are: ‘The Exaltation of Inanna,’ ‘The Great Hearted Mistress,’ and ‘Goddess of Fearsome Powers.’

Excerpt from ‘The Great Hearted Lady”

The Great-hearted Mistress, the Impetuous Lady,
Proud among the Anuna gods [annunaki]
and pre-eminent in all lands,
the great daughter of Suen [moon god],
exalted among the Great Princes [a name of the igigi gods]
the Magnificent Lady who gathers up the divine powers
of Heaven and Earth and rivals Great An [sky god],
is mightiest among the great gods — she makes their verdicts final. The Anuna gods crawl before her august word
whose course she does not let An know;
he dare not proceed against her command.
She changes her own action,
and no one knows how it will occur.
She makes perfect the great divine powers,
she holds a shepherd’s crook,
and she is their magnificent pre-eminent one.
She is a huge shackle clamping down
upon the gods of the land.
Her great awesomeness covers the great mountain
and levels the roads.

Poem Source:
Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Ebeling, J., Flückiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., Taylor, J., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/), Oxford 1998–2006.

by Alan Fleming

One thought on “Take a Seat Guys, Historians Say World’s Oldest Author Was a Woman

  1. Pingback: Reading Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe – Peaks Journal

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