Why Has No One Ever Heard of the World’s First Poet?
Enheduanna is Revered by Ancient Alien Conspiracy Theorists—But Few Others
Ask a literarily inclined friend who wrote the first autobiography and they might mention in passing short works by Cicero or Saint Paul, but they’ll ultimately land on the book-length account Augustine of Hippo gave of his life. We know who the first novelist is, too: the eleventh century Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the Tale of Genji. The first novel of the western world? Don Quixote written by, of course, Miguel de Cervantes. We even know the first essayist: the tower-loving French nobleman, Michel de Montaigne. But ask any person in your life who wrote the first poem and they’re apt to draw a blank.
Though hardly anyone knows it, the first person ever to attach their name to a poetic composition is not a mystery. Enheduanna was born more than 4,200 years ago and became the high priestess of a temple in what we now call southern Iraq. She wrote poems, edited hymnals, and may have taught other women at the temple how to write. Archaeologists discovered her in the 1920s and her works were published in English beginning in the 1960s. Yet, rarely if ever does she appear in history textbooks. There are almost no mentions of her within pop culture. No one namechecks her in song lyrics, she isn’t taught in MFA courses, and there are no paintings of her except for a few crudely drawn sketches that float around the outer edges of the internet.
If you have heard of Enheduanna, it was likely in one of two contexts. She made a one minute appearance in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot which depicted her as a hybrid creature, part Walt-Disneyfied Native American and part Solomonic princess. After Tyson narrates a quasi-factual mini-bio, a shaman-like voiceover recites a line from one of her poems as a laser cuts the words into the night sky. The vibe is dusty Mesopotamia meets Blade Runner.
The other place you may have learned of Enheduanna is from one of Betty Meador’s books. Meador is a retired Jungian analyst who has tirelessly worked to get Enheduanna into mainstream conversation. Meador began this crusade after she, I kid you not, had a dream in which she dug a grave for two male Jungians. After tipping the bodies into the holes and replacing the dirt, she planted stick figures and palm fronds into the graves. Meador woke up and immediately plunged down the rabbit hole of figuring out what these symbols meant. Several years later she emerged, having produced a couple books about Enheduanna. Other than these two instances, however, people largely don’t talk about the world’s first author.
One of the reasons has to be the people who study the culture from which she comes. Have you met a professor of Mesopotamian studies? There are only a couple dozen or so of us scattered around the world, but we are very strange individuals. Meet one of us in person, and you may discover that we can hardly string together a coherent sentence. We stare at our hands and speak a German-English patois that neither the Germans nor the English can decipher. Our social problems must have begun in grad school; holing up by ourselves in small, windowless library carrels for hours on end reading the teeny tiny wedges the Mesopotamians etched into clay does something to our brains. In any case, we have an almost divine-like ability to take ultra-fascinating ideas and make them slightly less exciting than a traffic ticket. This is not the skill you need when trying to present the results of your research to a Netflix-addled public. No wonder no one knows Enheduanna’s name.
There is also, of course, sexism. It should come as no surprise to anyone that most histories have been written by men and centered on stereotypically masculine events. History, as we think of it, is structured around a sequence of political leaders. It recounts the violent conflicts that kept these leaders in power, and it charts the international commerce that fattened these leaders’ wallets. For the most part, women are considered curiosities and adornments, relegated to the harem of historical inquiry. They are neatly sequestered from the main narrative and summoned only when they are of particular use to support the main plot.
Within the overarching structure of male-dominated, nation-state warmongering, historians do recount inventions that had significant effect on human life. Most of those they consider, though, are technical in nature. The wheel, the discovery of gravity, the production of vaccines, the invention of integrated circuits. When historians have given scant attention to aesthetic and humanistic endeavors, they have tended to focus on the achievements of males, particularly those from Europe. This is partly why Don Quixote is identified as the first novel more often than the Tale of Genji. Shining attention on Enheduanna can help counteract some of the negative aspects of our historical reconstructions, but only to a limited degree.
Enheduanna and her writings produce both complications and conflicted assessments. It is incredibly inspiring that the first author that we know of in all of human history was a woman living within a kick-your-teeth-down-your-throat, highly repressive patriarchal society. I imagine it took a lot of courage for her to step out of the convention of anonymous writing and boldly attach her name to her works. People probably regarded her as conceited and arrogant, a prima donna and an iconoclast. But she was also the king’s daughter, which gave her an immense amount of privilege. She used this privilege to carry her father’s water as he brutally expanded his colonial empire.
Enheduanna employed her poetic skills to produce a collection of religious hymns. These short poems celebrated the various temples of her father’s nascent empire, and the purpose of her collection was to project the myth that all of the people shared the same religion. Enheduanna wanted to make the conquered believe they were one with their conquerers—not exactly an admirable thing for a poet to do.
She did make other compositions in addition to her propagandistic one. Most of them celebrate the goddess Inanna. Mesopotamians had a whole constellation of deities they worshipped, and each deity had a particular sphere of influence they controlled. Inanna presided over sex and war. Kind of an odd combination if you ask, me but I guess life and death are a timeless pair.
In one of Enheduanna’s Inanna poems, Inanna kills An, the chief deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and becomes the leader of the gods herself. I’m not sure how the male religious establishment felt about this, but I’m guessing they weren’t thrilled. Perhaps we could regard this as the first feminist poem?
The poem is the first in a series of three. Rather depressingly, the last one ends with Inanna coming to Enheduanna’s aid, so we’re back to propaganda once more, as the poem suggests that the chief deity lends her imprimatur to Enheduanna’s activities as the leader of one of the nation’s most important temples. Nothing lends a person more rhetorical power than asserting that God is on their side.
Nonetheless, it’s important that we add the first poet to our ready list of world-first inventors, even if she isn’t a pristine example. If we interpret her charitably, she produced the most beautiful things she could within the demands and strictures of her environment. She did not fully separate herself from the violent tendencies of her culture, but no poet is able to do so entirely unless they are content to write on scraps of paper and bury them in the sand.
This reminds me of the late poet David Budbill who, inspired by Chinese hermit-poets, moved to rural Vermont. His poem “Gandhi Said Once” reflects the conflicted state that all poets at all times have always faced:
it took a thousand people
and a million dollars
to keep him in his poverty.
Okay. I’ll tell the truth for once.
I couldn’t dawdle away my life
watching birds and sky,
playing flutes and making poems
about how poor I am, if it weren’t
for somebody else’s money.
The very first person to deal with the poetic conflict of which Budbill writes was a Mesopotamian priestess. Enheduanna is an inspiration—and example—to us all.
 I hate to pedantic here but I need to add a small caveat. If you ask your really weird but creepily enduring step-cousin who thinks aliens visited the ancient Middle East and helped the Egyptians build the pyramids then he will definitely know of Enheduanna. In fact, he probably has set her picture as the background image on his phone. For folks like him Enheduanna is sort of a cult-hero and quasi-religious figure. Trust me on this. Don’t go digging around the web to find out more about it unless you’re ready to encounter something really bizarre and NSFW.
 There is one other mention I did not include in the main text. Becky Ferreira gives Enheduanna a shoutout in Vice for her ability “to write hooks that could (and did) edge out her competition.” The particular hook that Ferreira celebrates is what Meador claims is the opening line of one of Enheduanna’s poems. Meador translates it like this: “Peg my vulva.” This translation made no sense to me on a number of levels, so I googled the phrase. It turns out that was a profoundly bad idea and it did not bring me any closer to understanding why Meador read the phrase in the way she did. Maybe she had a dream about it?
 It’s taking every ounce of self-control I have to avoid comparing her to Ivanka Trump.