The Morgan Library & Museum in New York will open its much anticipated exhibition “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia” on October 14. In a series of sculptures, cylinder seals, and translated clay tablets, “She Who Wrote” will celebrate the Mesopotamian High Priestess Enheduanna, the first-ever named author in all of humanity’s history.
“The Morgan has done exhibitions on Emily Dickinson, Mary Shelley, the Brontés, so I thought we should do an exhibition on the first-known author ever, who happens to be a woman,” Sidney Babcock, the Jeannette and Jonathan Rosen curator and department head of Ancient Western Asian Seals and Tablets at the Morgan, told ARTnews. “Most people don’t know that. It’s not celebrated. Why? School children know about Sappho, and she’s 1,000 years later for Pete’s sake!”
Daughter of Sargon of Akkad, the first ruler of the Akkadian empire of Northern Mesopotamia, Enheduanna was born more than 4,000 years ago. She was appointed to lead the cult of Nanna, a moon goddess worshipped in Sumer, a territory in the South of Mesopotamia that Sargon had conquered, and in her position as priestess wrote many hymns dedicated to goddesses.
“Her writings were copied for hundreds of years in the scribal schools,” said Babcock. In Mesopotamia, scribes were taught to write by copying hymns and myths that previous generations had written onto clay tablets.
The hymns of Enheduanna not only represent the first authored writing but the first example of the first person singular. In a hymn, Enheduanna describes a trial in which a usurper comes, throws her out of her complex, abuses her, and offers a dagger with which to kill herself. Thankfully, the goddess Inanna saves her, and she dedicates the song to her. Another hymn is the first-known example of the creative process being likened to birth. In the hymn, Enheduanna describes the birthing process, which starts with a lit fire in the nuptial chamber. She goes on to write:
“What is enough is too much for me/I have given birth oh exalted lady to this song for you/That which I recited to you at midnight, may the singer repeat to you at noon.”
Because Enheduanna was the daughter of a king, one might expect that the privileges of equality were merely the product of her station, but the exhibition takes pains to show that, across class, women had more power in the age of Mesopotamia than the women of 19th century England did.
“These are the most important artifacts for understanding Mesopotamia,” said Babock as we toured the exhibition mid-installation, referring to the stone objects that filled the room. “Because Mesopotamia is a floodplain there is no natural stone, really, of any quality. So the entire civilization was built on one raw material: mud.”
All around us, experts in blue latex gloves carefully handled the stone statues and carved reliefs that had made the long journey from their museums across Europe and the US. Babcock relished that instead of being stuck in the corners with all the other figures, these carefully chosen statues would be placed in individual glass boxes so that they could be viewed in the round, showing off carefully sculpted hairstyles and clothing patterns. For Babcock, it’s as if he’s seeing each one for the first time. He paused at one female figure to exclaim, “This could be a Brancusi! Mercy!”
Aside from being very beautiful, the works displayed evidence of how women lived in Mesopotamian society. Carved into stone relief were many examples of women at work: weavers, potters, women taking care of livestock, women at the temple, even an all-female band.
“Why would you put that in stone, a raw material that’s rare and imported?” said Babcock. “They’re celebrating these women as part of the labor force, for their contribution to the economy.”
Many scholars of Mesopotamia have argued that feminists have been over eager to claim that such works are proof of equality, or that Enheduanna really authored her own work, but Babcock spoke back against the insistence of a totalizing patriarchy across history. He points to a figure of a woman with a tablet on her lap.
“One German male scholar, let’s not say who, wrote of this piece, ‘Woman seated with a tablet on her lap, don’t know the meaning,'” said Babcock. “But we are reviving this object because we believe it is the visual proof that women were literate.”
He then picked his way through bubble wrap, blue tape, and thousands-year-old fragments to some cylinder seals on the opposing wall whose illustrations have been enlarged. One shows a scene that is split in half horizontally. On top, a male hero is seen protecting two horned animals from attacking lions, on the bottom, a woman is in labor, a midwife at her legs.
“The subject is order versus chaos, which is a constant of human fate,” said Babcock. “Here we see that the hero and the midwife are given equal importance in this battle.”