Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Book 89, Iraq: "Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna"

This is the most ancient text I’ve covered so far, and unless groundbreaking archaeological discoveries are made, it’s the most ancient text I’m going to cover in this project, period. It dates from 2300 BCE: the first known text to be accompanied by an author’s name, hailing from Sumer, a civilization was already two millennia old at the time of composition; arguably the very civilization that invented writing, in fact. Fascinatingly, it’s written by a woman: the daughter of Sargon, builder of the world’s first empire, High Priestess of the Moon God Nanna at Ur.

But oh lordy. It’s the wrong book. I made the National Library order this because it looked like the most up to date, complete version of Enheduanna’s corpus, and what do I discover halfway through? That the princess’s most famous works which I’ve heard quoted here and there as evidence for her genius and even her lesbianism, her hymns to the goddess Inanna – they’re her devotional hymns, compiled in an earlier book.

The Temple Hymns are quite a different matter. They’re a political work: one hymn written for every temple in Sargon’s new patchwork of conquered empires. What Enheduanna did to forge their unity was to sing praises to each of their local gods and goddesses, denying none of them, crafting a holy text that would endure as canonical scripture, copied and recopied on cuneiform blocks through the centuries. Note also that the different regions didn’t even speak the same language, but this was ok: she spoke both Akkadian from her dad’s side and Sumerian from her mum.

Mind you, the sum and significance of these works is terribly interesting, but ploughing through Betty de Shong Meador’s work tests one’s patience a little – she’s an academic as well as a literary translator, and there’s pages of annotations and explications after each hymn; no way you can read this casually. Even if you skim the hymns themselves, they get a bit repetitive after a while: they’re not narrative, like the anonymously authored Epic of Gilgamesh; they’re fragmentary gasps of glory. Yeah, sometimes they’re studded with dazzling imagery, but even brilliant oohs and aahs can provoke zzzs after a while.

Of course, the annotations do pay off sometimes: without them, I’d never have known that Sumerian religious culture was so, shall we say, womanist; there are notes about female warriors, female religious scribes, female kings, female viziers; gipars (convents for priestesses; monasteries did not exist) and goddesses with tremendous sexual agency: how Ereshkigal of the Underworld sentences the warrior god Nergal to the worlds below to be executed for his intransigence but seduces him instead; bridal songs about erect nipples and throbbing vulvas. And of course, Inanna herself, “the lady of largest heart”, a savage lion battering a wild bull, bearing seven maces, washing her weapons in the blood of battle. Makes the bacchanalian Greeks look positively Puritan.

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I was going to reproduce a hymn to Inanna for you guys, but on second thoughts, there’s another more intriguing piece dedicated to Nisaba, the goddess of writing, she of the gold or silver stylus. Hers is the temple that ends the sequence, allowing Enheduanna to punctuate the entire corpus with her own name.

Representative text:

Temple Hymn 42
The Erest Temple of Nisaba

this shining house of stars bright with lapis stones
has opened itself to all lands
a whole mix of people in the shrine every month
lift heads for you Eresh
all the primeval lords

soapwort the very young saba on your platform
great Nanibgal Nisaba Lady of Saba

brought powers down from heaven
added her measure to your powers
enlarged the shrine set it up for praising

faithful woman exceeding in wisdom
opens [her] mouth [to recite] over lined tablets
always consults lapis tablets
[and] gives strong council to all lands

true woman of the pure soapwort
born of the sharpened reed
who measures the heavens by cubits
strikes the coiled measuring rod on the earth

praise be to Nisaba

13 lines for the house of Nisaba in Eresh

the person who bound this tablet together
is Enheduanna
my kind something never before created
did not this one give birth to it

the incipit: é-u-nir
the count of its lines is altogether 548

Next book: Al-Ghazzali’s Deliverance from Error and The Beginning of Guidance, from Iran.

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