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Enheduanna: Seven Sumerian Temple Hymns (2300 BCE)

The High Priestess Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad, is the first author whose name is known.

Commentary and translation by Betty De Shong Meador

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These seven hymns are among the forty-two “Sumerian Temple Hymns” attributed to the high priestess Enheduanna, 2300 BCE. While some literary texts have been found in what was ancient Mesopotamia, dating from 2600 BCE, the texts of Enheduanna are the first by a known author. There is strong evidence that the Sumerians invented and developed the first written script in the final third of the fourth millennium BCE. The territory of Sumer encompassed the southern half of present-day Iraq.

Enheduanna was the daughter of the first king to build an empire, Sargon. He appointed his brilliant daughter, Enheduanna, to the position of high priestess at the temple of the moon god, Nanna, in the ancient city of Ur. There she presided for forty years over the prestigious temple in Ur. Holding the most important religious office in the land, she spread her theological ideas throughout the country, writing hymns to each of forty-two major temples.

Each hymn is written to the temple itself, as though it were a living being with power and influence over its divine occupant, in most hymns the patron deity of the city. Enheduana addresses the temple in the second person: “O house you wild cow,” she says in Temple Hymn 22. The temple seems to listen as she describes its resident: “your lady a water bird — sacred woman of the inner chamber,” she says in TH 40 as she describes Inanna to the temple in the intimate conversation that characterizes each hymn.

The expression “wild cow” as a description of the goddesses comes up over and over again. Inanna is the principle “wild cow.” The image conveys the unpredictability which the goddesses all embody in one way or another. With Nanshe, the hymn describes her paradoxical character. She is carefree playing in the waves, but also a great storm / strong dark water. The Sumerians had great respect for the whims of nature on whom they so depended. The wild cow is unexpected in a docile herd, but there she is!

Each hymn ends with an identical two-line colophon, except for the final hymn 42. There, instead of ending with a colophon, Enheduanna signs her name, saying she herself gave birth to this composition, something never before created.

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Temple Hymn 7
The Kesh Temple Of Ninhursag                   The Lofty

high-lying Kesh
in all heaven and earth   you are the form-shaping place
spreading fear like a great poisonous snake


O Lady of the Mountains    Ninhursag’s house
built on a terrifying site


O Kesh    like holy Aratta
inside is a womb dark and deep
your outside towers over all


imposing one
great lion of the wildlands    stalking the high plains
great mountain
incantations fixed you in place


inside the light is dim
even moonlight (Nanna’s light) does not enter
only Nintur Lady Birth
makes it beautiful


O house of Kesh
the brick of birthgiving
your temple tower   adorned with a lapis lazuli crown


your princess
Princess of Silence
unfailing great Lady of Heaven
when she speaks heaven shakes
open-mouthed she roars


Aruru    sister of Enlil
O house of Kesh
has built this house on your radiant site
and placed her seat upon your dais

 
Temple Hymn 15
The Gishbanda Temple Of Ningishzida

ancient place
   set deep in the mountain
   artfully


dark shrine    frightening and red place
   safely placed in a field
   no one can fathom your mighty hair-raising path


Gishbanda
   the neck-stock    the fine-eyed net
   the foot-shackling netherworld knot
   your restored high wall is massive
   like a trap


your inside    the place where the sun rises
   yields widespread abundance


your prince    the pure-handed
   shita priest of Inanna    heaven’s holy one


Lord Ningishzida
   his thick and beautiful hair
   falls down his back


O Gishbanda
   has built this house on your radiant site
   and placed his seat upon your dais


Temple Hymn 17
The Badtibira Temple Of Dumuzi                  Emush

O house


jeweled lapis herbs fleck the shining bed
   heart-soothing place of the Lady of the Steppe


Emush    brickwork glistening and pure
   its burnished clay placed firmly (on the earth)


your sky-rising wall sprawls over the high plain
   for the one who tends the ewes
   and over the Arali House for the shepherd


your prince   radiant one of the Holy Woman
   a lion pacing the steppe back and forth
   the wonder-causing pure breasted one
   the Lord    spouse of pure Inanna


Dumuzi     master of the Emush
   O Badtibira    (fortress of the coppersmith)
   has built this house on your radiant site
   and placed his seat upon your dais


Temple Hymn 20
The Lagash Temple Of Ningirsu                     Eninnu

Eninnu
right arm of thick-necked Lagash in Sumer
with heavy-cloud bird Anzu’s eyes
that scan insurgent mountains


Ningirsu’s crowd-flattener blade a menace to all lands
battle arm    blasting storm drenching everyone
battle arm    all the great gods    the Annuna
      grant again and again


so from your skin of bricks
    on the rim of the holy hill    green as mountains
you determine fates


a holy whirlpool spins in your river
blowing whirlwinds spawn from your glance


at the gate facing the Holy City
they pour wine into fine stone vessels of An
    out under the sky


what comes in cannot be equaled
what goes out never ceases


at the fiery face of the Shugalam gate
    its radiant brilliance the    fate-cutting site
Lord Ningirsu besieges with hair-raising fear


all the Annuna appear at your great wine festival


your prince    furious storm-wind
destroyer of rebel cities
your king    angry bull flaunting his brawn
    savage lion that makes heads shake


warrior the lord of lords who plots schemes
king of kings who mounts victories
mighty one great hero in battle has no rival


son of Enlil    lord Ningirsu
O Eninnu
has built this house on your radiant site
and established his seat upon your throne


Temple Hymn 22
The Sirara Temple Of Nanshe

O house you wild cow
    there to conjure signs from divination


you arise    splendid to behold
    bedecked for your princess


Sirara    great and princely place
    you    dream-opener
    highly prized in the shrine


your lady Nanshe


a great storm
    strong dark water


    born on the shore of the sea


laughing in the sea foam
    playing playing in the waves


divine Nanshe    mighty Lady
    O house of Sirara
has built this house on your radiant site
and placed her seat upon your dais


Temple Hymn 26
The Zabalam Temple Of Inanna

O house    wrapped in beams of light
wearing shining stone jewels    wakening great awe


sanctuary of pure Inanna
    (where) divine powers the true me spread wide


    Zabalam
               shrine of the shining mountain
    shrine that welcomes the morning light
    she makes resound with desire


the Holy Woman grounds your hallowed chamber
    with desire


    your queen    Inanna of the sheepfold
    that singular woman
    the unique one


who speaks hateful words to the wicked
    who moves among the bright shining things
    who goes against rebel lands


and at twilight makes the firmament beautiful
    all on her own


    great daughter of Suen
    pure Inanna


O house of Zabalam
    has built this house on your radiant site
    and placed her seat upon your dais


Temple Hymn 42
The Eresh Temple of Nisaba                           Ezagin

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 cooled 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


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

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[Note: Betty De Shon Meador worked with a specialist in the Sumerian language at the University of California, Berkeley, John Carnahan, to create a word-for-word literal translation of each hymn based on variants from numerous tablets, from which she rendered the final poetic version.]


Source: Jacket2 Poems and Poetics. Compiled and edited by Jerome Rothenberg

Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad, circa 2300 BC (source: Wikimedia)

Transcription of text chiseled into a wall in ancient Sumer

One comment on “Enheduanna: Seven Sumerian Temple Hymns (2300 BCE)

  1. Barbara Huntington
    May 15, 2022

    The knowledge and joy I get from Vox Populi! Thank you!

    Like

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