Enheduanna: The world’s first named author
But change was under way, and by 2400 BC, a vessel fragment shows a female deity visualised in human form. Wearing a horned crown with leafy, vegetable-like material protruding from her shoulders and holding a cluster of dates, she has the aspects of fertility and fecundity associated with Inanna, but the animal-like crown also suggests fierceness.
With the reign of Sargon and through Eneheduanna’s hymns, an ever-more war-like female deity begins to be depicted: Ishtar, seen portrayed in the exhibition with weapons coming out of her shoulders and her foot atop a lion whose leash she wields. In her poems, Enheduanna similarly portrays Inanna/Ishtar as a powerful goddess of combat and conquest as well as of love and abundance. And, according to Babcock, cylinder seals in the exhibition actually illustrate scenes from her poem, Inanna and Ebih.
The text pits an embattled, enraged Inanna against her enemy, a mountain range that refuses to bow down or cede to her. We see the goddess, armed with knife and axes, cause the mountain’s stones to cascade downward, and kill the mountain’s male god. “She sharpened both edges of her dagger. She took Ebih’s neck as if tearing up grass. She presented the blade into its heart,” and “yelled like thunder” so that “the stones making up Ebih crashed down its back.” She then celebrates her conquest by triumphantly placing her foot atop the fallen stones. “This is the first time you have illustrations for a text, ever,” Babcock comments – another first for Enheduanna’s literary legacy.
Which is another way to say that Enheduanna not only wrote, but she continues to endure in many realms: as a significant figure in ancient Sumer, in the history of women and feminism and not least, in literature, as well.
She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca 3400-2000 BC is at the Morgan Library, New York City, until 19 February 2023.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.