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World’s First Author and Museum Curator were Women from Mesopotamia

The Word's First Author and Museum Curator were Women from Ancient Mesopotamia

The world’s first known author and first known museum curator were highly-educated princess priestesses from ancient Mesopotamia and Babylon. Nevertheless, their names are little known today.

Enheduanna was a Mesopotamian princess, high priestess of the moon deity Nanna-Suen, writer, and poet. Her name translates to “Ornament of Heaven.” She is widely considered the first-known author in the world.

At the time, one of the first methods of writing, cuneiform, had only just begun around c. 3000 BCE.

Later, Ennigaldi-Nanna became possibly the first museum curator in the world. She was an ancient Babylonian princess, priestess of the moon deity Sin, and high priestess.

First Author: Enheduanna by Mefman00 via Wikimedia Commons, CC0

The Word’s First-Known Author: Enheduanna

Enheduanna (or En’Hedu’anna) lived in 2285 – 2250 BCE and dedicated long hours of writing by night, dedicating her work to the praise of celestial deities. 

She was educated to read and write in Sumerian and Akkadian and wrote poems to the goddess Inanna (Ishtar), the moon god Nanna (Sin), and forty-two temple hymns. 

Her most important contribution may be her poems to the most powerful deity, Inanna, goddess of war and desire whose energy “gave spark to the universe.” Enheduanna uses the pronoun “I” for the first time in her poetry to Inanna, describing generally private emotions. (see video below)

In her comments, she talks about her challenges, a first record of the scourge of “writer’s block.”

Additionally, as chief astronomer-priestess, she described stellar measurements and movements, leading some to consider her among the first scientists in history.

For 500 years after her death, people studied and cited her works, which were among the first written religious beliefs. Her name became elevated to that of a minor deity.

During this time, a king’s daughter was en-priestess of Ur, a powerful position influential to study and commerce.

Due to Enheduanna’s lasting influence, some call her the “Shakespeare of ancient Sumerian literature.” 

Following her temple hymns, an inscription named her as the author:

“The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”

Enheduanna was the daughter of Sargon the Great and worked at the temple to the moon deity Nanna-Suen in Ur. 

See more about Enheduanna from TED-Ed:

Daughter of Sargon the Great

It’s interesting to note where Enheduanna’s father came from.

According to folklore, a gardener found Sargon floating as a baby floating down a river in a basket. Thus, it’s very much like the biblical story of Moses. He had an unknown father, and his mother was thought to be a priestess from a town along the Euphrates river. 

Nevertheless, he rose to become king, and the Sumerian king list recorded his reign for 56 years. Sargon was known as the first great empire builder, uniting north and south Mesopotamia.

Sargon ruled in the capital city of Agade (Akkad), the capital of the Akkadian Empire. At the time, it was one of the largest cities in the world. Notably, Agade was erected to honor the goddess Ishtar. 

Today, the location of the city remains lost but thought to be somewhere in central Iraq.

After Sargon’s death, a general exiled Enheduanna from Ur, and she was left in exile until her nephew, King Naram-Sin, restored her to the temple. In all, she served as a priestess for 40 years.

Mask of Sargon via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Ennigaldi-Nanna: The World’s First Museum Curator

Considered possibly the curator of the world’s first museum, Ennigaldi-Nanna,(or Bel-Shalti-Nana) lived around 530BCE. She was a Mesopotamian princess, daughter of the Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus, considered among the first archaeologists. 

Ennigaldi-Nanna’s ancient Sumerian name translates to “the priestess, the desire of the Moon-god.” 

Importantly, her work at the site of one of the word’s earliest museums places her among the first curators.

“Her 6th century BCE collection had all the trappings of a modern-day Met: special cases for artifacts, catalogues of objects and (most critically) labels for the items on display,” writes Julia Carpenter.

Ennigaldi-Nanna and her father may have taken part in archaeological digs as they collected antiquities for her temple. Then, they would catalog the items using carefully labeled clay cylinders written in three different languages, including Sumerian. Scholars have referenced the curator’s work as among the first examples of metadata. 

A clay cylinder inscribed with a description in three languages, as used in Ennigaldi’s museum to accompany an ancient artifact; these are the earliest known “museum labels” by Sir Leonard Woolley via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Besides curating the first museum, there is evidence the priestess also ran a scribal school for elite women, reviving ancient cultural traditions relating to the moon deity, Sin (Sumerian Nanna). 

Before appointing Ennigaldi-Nanna to her role, King Nabonidus researched the role she would play. He described using a stela belonging to Nebuchadnezzar I as a guide and the 1,200-year-old writings of a previous priestess named En-ane-du.

Then, Ennigaldi-Nanna carried on traditions started by author Enheduanna over a thousand years before her.

Related: Did The Hyksos Influence the Alphabet, Exodus, and the Sphinx?

A Museum Hidden for 2,500 Years

In 1952, archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered Ennigaldi-Nanna’s “mini-museum” hidden under the sand for 2,500 years. The location was just 490 feet from the famous Ziggurat of Ur.

Due to Ennigaldi-Nanna’s meticulous labels, Woolley, who was baffled at first, realized he had found a museum collection. Objects in the collection came from different geographical areas, dating from 2100 BCE to 600 BCE. 

In some cases, objects appeared to have been carefully restored to preserve the writing on them. 

Notably, Ennigaldi-Nanna’s brother Belshazzar is mentioned in the Book of Daniel in the Bible. In the story, the prophet Daniel sees the proverbial “writing on the wall” foretelling the destruction of Babylon. 

Her grandmother, Adad-Guppi (649–547 BCE)became a powerful priestess and author of a cuneiform “autobiography.” She lived to be 104, attributing her long life and her son’s reign as king to blessings from the moon god Sin.

Related: Discovery of Golden City of Aten May Shed Light on Pharaoh Akhenaten

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq by M.Lubinski from Iraq,USA, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Featured image: A boundary stele/kudurru showing King Melishipak I (1186–1172 BC) presenting his daughter to the goddess Nannaya. The crescent moon represents the god Sin, the sun the Shamash, and the star the goddess Ishtar. Wikimedia CommonsCC BY 3.0

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