The first poet

The oldest literature known to man, the oldest written poetry we have yet discovered, was written by a woman.  The topic about which this female poet wrote the most was the goddess Inanna, Queen of Heaven, Goddess of Love and War, who was the Morning and Evening Star, sister of the sun and daughter of the moon.

The eight-pointed star, a symbol of Inanna/Ishtar, who is identified with the Morning and Evening Star (known to us as the planet Venus)

Who was the poet? Enheduana, whose name means literally “lady (or priestess) ornament of An (heaven)” was a princess and high priestess of the Moon God Nanna in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia, now Iraq) during the period when a group called the Akkadians had seized control.  She lived from 2285-2250 BC, about four centuries before Abraham, father of the three monotheistic religions of the present era. Enheduana may have been the daughter of Sargon, an Akkadian prince who conquered the ancient country of Sumer about that time.  She was part of a tradition in which the daughters of the kings often held the powerful role of En Priestess and she may have been the first to hold that title.  Although technically a high priestess of the Moon God Nanna, Enheduana’s writings elevated Nanna’s daughter Inanna to the highest position in heaven. This woman poet persuaded the people that it was Inanna who determined the fates of individuals, poured out blood upon the king’s opponents in war, and caused the crops to grow, among other things.  She also established that the Semitic Goddess Ishtar was identical to the Sumerian Goddess Inanna, which meant that the Queen of Heaven would be worshiped for thousands of years as power shifted back and forth in the region between Semitic and Sumerian peoples.

What did she have to say? Enheduana’s writings tell us that An, a God who personified Heaven, and Enlil, Wind God and King of the Gods, were in awe of the magnificent Inanna and installed her as Queen of Heaven.  Inanna, who had stolen all the arts of civilization from the God of Wisdom Enki, ruled the world below from her lofty position in the  sky.

One of Enheduana’s poems of praise to Inanna begins like this:

Lady of all the divine powers, resplendent light, righteous woman clothed in radiance, beloved of An and Uraš! Mistress of heaven, with the great diadem, who loves the good headdress befitting the office of en priestess, who has seized all seven of its divine powers! My lady, you are the guardian of the great divine powers! You have taken up the divine powers, you have hung the divine powers from your hand…

And ends like this:

Mistress, you are magnificent, no one can walk before you. You dwell with great An in the holy resting-place. Which god is like you in gathering together …… in heaven and earth? You are magnificent, your name is praised, you alone are magnificent!

In between these lovely assertions of Inanna’s radiance and power is a rather shocking display of blood and gore.  As Goddess of War, Inanna was a brutal and bloodthirsty advocate for those who worshiped her properly.  The enemies of her people were cut down as violently as were those of our Old Testament God:

At your battle-cry, my lady, the foreign lands bow low. When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest, you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers. Because of you, the threshold of tears is opened, and people walk along the path of the house of great lamentations. In the van of battle, all is struck down before you….Lady supreme over the foreign lands, who can take anything from your province? {Once you have extended your province over the hills} {If you frown at the mountains}, vegetation there is ruined. Their {great gateways} are set afire. Blood is poured into their rivers because of you, and their people {must drink it}. They must lead their troops captive before you…

And so on.

Also like the Old Testament God, the Queen of Heaven was the source of all things, and showed great favor to those who worshiped her (in this translation Inanna is written Inana):

Desirability and arousal, bringing goods into existence and establishing properties and equipment are yours, Inana. Profit, gain, great wealth and greater wealth are yours, Inana. Profit and having success in wealth, financial loss and reduced wealth are yours, Inana. {Everything}, choice, offering, inspection and embellishment are yours, Inana. Assigning virility, dignity, guardian angels, protective deities and cult centres are yours, Inana.
… mercy and pity are yours, Inana … To cause the …… heart to tremble, …… illnesses are yours, Inana. To have a favourite wife, ……, to love …… are yours, Inana. Rejoicing, being haughty, …… are yours, Inana. Neglect and care, raising and bowing down are yours, Inana. To build a house, to create a woman’s chamber, to possess implements, to kiss a child’s lips are yours, Inana. To run, to race, to plot and to succeed are yours, Inana. To interchange the brute and the strong and the weak and the powerless is yours, Inana. To interchange the heights and valleys, and raising up and reducing, is yours, Inana. To give the crown, the throne and the royal sceptre is yours, Inana…

The enduring popularity of the Queen of Heaven:

The reconstructed front portion of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Photo by Rictor Norton.

In part due to Enheduana’s efforts, the Queen of Heaven would enjoy lasting popularity throughout the Middle East for thousands of years.  Sumerian and Babylonian stories would be written explaining how Inanna stole the wisdom of  her uncle Enki, and how she descended to Hell and returned to tell the tale.  Her underworld journey and her relationship with her husband Dumuzi, who she condemned to the underworld for half of each year, are among the earliest written tales explaining the widespread beliefs of the ancient world about the role of a sacrificial god in assuring the return of agricultural bounty each year.

She is remembered not only in the ancient writings of Sumer, but also receives mention in the Old Testament.  More than a thousand years after Enheduana’s time,   the people of Israel (to the great displeasure of the Jewish priesthood) are said to have  been baking cakes to the Canaanite version of this Queen of Heaven.  More than 1,500 years after Enheduana’s time, from the 6th century BC onward, visitors to the city of Babylon went through the magnificent lapis lazuli and golden Ishtar Gate built by Nebuchadnezzar II, which had a place for a time on the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Ishtar would be revered in Babylon until the region was conquered by Muslims in the 7th century AD. Inanna/Ishtar, in other words, ruled the heavens for at least 2,800 years in Mesopotamia, and has been absent from the throne for only 1,300 — less than half the length of her rule.

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This entry was posted in goddess, Inanna, Ishtar, Queen of Heaven, sky goddesses, Sumerian/Babylonian and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The first poet

  1. tj says:

    Is not Ishtar actually still with us in the spring celebration of Easter? I think so. she still reigns.

  2. cora511 says:

    I wrote thus linked to ….!

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