The world’s first writer was a woman and this new exhibit at The Morgan celebrates her


Pop quiz: Who’s the world’s first author?

“If you ask most people who the first known author is, you will always get a man and usually it will be Homer,” Sidney Babcock, a curator at The Morgan Library & Museum said today. “People are astonished to learn that it is a woman who lived in the third millennium BC.” 

A new exhibit at The Morgan pays tribute to that trailblazing author, a woman named Enheduanna, a high priestess and poet, the world’s first author known by name, who wielded considerable religious and political power. The exhibition, called “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400–2000 B.C.” is on view at the museum in Manhattan’s Murray Hill starting tomorrow, October 14.

Ancient sculptures, reliefs and cuneiform tablets bring to life women’s experiences in religious, social, economic, and political spheres—and much of it rings familiar today. 

For example, Enheduanna wrote about her own personal emotions, confessed her own human limitations and expressed awareness of her own humanity. She also wrote about being sexually harassed. In these works, Enheduanna was also the first writer to express her thoughts in a first-person autobiographical narrative.

Enheduanna (ca. 2300 BC) lived in southern Mesopotamia, located in present-day Iraq. She was the daughter of the Akkadian king Sargon, and she was appointed to the temple of the moon god in Ur. The name Enheduanna means “high priestess, ornament of heaven.” A beautiful disk with a cuneiform inscription depicts her wearing a tiered, flounced garment and a headdress in the form of a circlet. 

A peek inside "She Who Wrote."
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan | A peek inside “She Who Wrote.”

The author’s works in Sumerian left a major mark on the world of literature, with her poems reflecting devotion to the goddess Inanna, describing the sun god Shamash, and writing about unity. For centuries after her death, her work was copied in scribal schools. But today, most don’t know her name.

Among her work, Enheduanna wrote 42 hymns written for sanctuaries in 36 cities throughout Mesopotamia, and scholars continue to find works with her byline. The temple hymns unified the religious landscape, perhaps helping to serve her father’s political aspirations.

In addition to showcasing Enheduanna’s writing, the exhibition provides a window into the world of women during the late fourth and third millennia BC—until now, often overlooked. 

Some of the pieces on display have multiple sides, but often only the side depicting male figures were shown in the past, Babcock explained. Another sculpture depicts a woman with a cuneiform tablet on her lap. In the past, a male scholar had written “it was unclear why the woman had a tablet on her lap,” Babcock recounted. 

Seated female figure with tablet on lap Mesopotamia, Neo - Sumerian Ur III period (ca. 2112 – 2004 BC) Alabaster . © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Vorderasiatisches Museum.
Photograph: By Olaf M. Teßmer. / Seated female figure with tablet on lap Mesopotamia, Neo – Sumerian Ur III period (ca. 2112 – 2004 BC) Alabaster . © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Vorderasiatisches Museum.

The exhibition tells a story “that really hasn’t been told before,” The Morgan’s Director Colin B. Bailey said. “It tells the story of capturing the rich and shifting expressions of women’s lives in Mesopotamia and the ancient world,” he added.

In addition to items from The Morgan’s collection, the exhibition also brings in works from museums in London, Paris, Berlin, Jerusalem, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Haven. 

We’ll leave you with the words of Enheduanna herself: “The compiler of the tablet (is) Enheduanna. My lord, that which has been created (here) no one has created (before).” 

See “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400–2000 B.C.” at The Morgan Library & Museum through February 19, 2023. Special programming during the run of the show includes a lecture on October 14, a family program on November 13, a gallery talk on November 18 and a concert on January 27. 



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