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Who was the world's first author? - Soraya Field Fiorio

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4,300 years ago in ancient Sumer, the most powerful person in the city of Ur was banished to wander the vast desert. Her name was Enheduanna, and by the time of her exile, she had written forty-two hymns and three epic poems— and Sumer hadn’t heard the last of her. Who was this woman, and why was she exiled? Soraya Field Fiorio details the life of history’s first author.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Soraya Field Fiorio
  • Director Laura White
  • Narrator Christina Greer
  • Sound Designer Phil Brookes
  • Music Phil Brookes
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Fact-checker Eden Girma
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Enheduanna lived around 2300 BCE in Mesopotamia and was a princess, priestess, and poet. She was one of the most important public figures in the empire and helped her father, King Sargon, unite the kingdom with her writing. How did her writing shape the course of literature and history?

We don’t know Enheduanna’s birth name, or for that matter, Sargon’s birth name, either. Both were ceremonial names adopted when they took political office. Taking a ceremonial name was a common practice for those serving political or religious roles. In Mesopotamia, female deities were served by male priests whereas male gods had female priestesses.

Being a priest or priestess entailed serving in both municipal and religious capacities. In addition to managing the city’s grain storage, Enheduanna would have presided over religious festivals. Each month, there was a celebration for the new moon, and festivals to mark the spring and winter equinoxes were particularly important. To help support her, Enheduanna had an extensive personal staff, including a steward, a beautician, and a scribe. It was considered unseemly for a priestess to tend to her own hair or nails.

Every year, the different gods would undertake journeys. These journeys would be symbolically acted out by transporting the sacred statue of the deity from his or her temple along a specific route before finally returning the statue to the temple. Religious statues and artwork were believed to be endowed with an aspect of the divinity they represented, and special rituals were performed to incarnate the deity within the statue or artwork.

The temple was the heart of each Mesopotamian city. Since Neolithic times, settlements were founded around a sacred center where an omen had indicated the presence of divinity. Over the centuries these sanctuaries grew in size and magnificence as more people settled around them, forming the first city-states. Temples grew into ziggurats––stepped pyramids of up to seven stories that were viewed as the literal home of a god and were visible from miles away.

Each Mesopotamian city was dedicated to a patron deity who originally represented an aspect of nature or the cosmos. Observing the night sky was very important to the Sumerians, an agrarian culture who charted the position of the moon and visible planets to tell time, including when to plant and harvest crops. Three important gods were Nanna, the moon good, his daughter Inanna, who embodied Venus, and his son Utu, who was worshipped as the sun. Prayer and sacrifice were part of daily life and extensive offerings of bread and livestock were made to the gods.

Enheduanna was appointed high priestess in the city of Ur, a city dedicated to the moon god Nanna. Although she publicly served Nanna, Enheduanna had a personal affinity for the goddess Inanna. In polytheistic religions, it was common for individuals to choose one deity with whom they had a particular affinity. For Enheduanna, this was Inanna. She may have been inspired by her father to develop a fondness for Inanna; Sargon had chosen Inanna as his patron deity and dedicated his new capitol of Akkad to her. The city of Akkad has yet to be unearthed by archaeologists. Its location remains a mystery.

The Sumerian goddess Inanna was known by many names. For the Akkadians she was Ishtar and for the Phoenicians, Ashtoreth. She was represented by the planet Venus and was the prototype for later goddesses like the Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus, among others. In some form or another, she was always the goddess of sexuality and represented by Venus.

In the Old Testament, Inanna is called “the Abomination” and is the goddess referred to in Jeremiah as “the Queen of Heaven.”

Educational Podcasts:
The wonderful podcast Literature and History (https://literatureandhistory.com/) discusses the influence of Ancient Near Eastern literature in its first three episodes. Special bonus episodes in “Before Yahweh” focus specifically in Enheduanna and Inanna.

Further reading:
About Enheduanna and her writings:
Betty De Shong Meador, Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess EnheduannaBetty De Shong Meador, Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna
Books about religion in ancient Mesopotamia:
Jean Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, eds., Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated DictionaryGeneral history of the Ancient Near East:
Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City Amanda H. Podany, The Ancient Near East: A Very Short IntroductionKaren Rhea Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient MesopotamiaSumerian and Akkadian literature and history:
Jeremy Black et al, eds., The Literature of Ancient SumerBenjamin Foster, ed., Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Soraya Field Fiorio
  • Director Laura White
  • Narrator Christina Greer
  • Sound Designer Phil Brookes
  • Music Phil Brookes
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Fact-checker Eden Girma
  • See more