Curriculum Vita


English 301 - Writing in the Professions

English 217 - Writing Reflective Essays

Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks

Ornament of Heaven: The Book of Enheduanna

CMC Committee



Mesopotamia, a definition of convenience for an ancient historical area that includes present-day Iraq and north-eastern Syria and some additional bordering areas, is in the general geographic area defined by the term, Middle-East. Cuneiform script, writing characterized by the use of a stylus and cross-hatching on clay, developed early in this area and came to be used for the next 3,000 years as the script for a number of languages. Its utility and flexibility as well as its durability–much of the writing was done on small clay pillows and cylinders allowed to harden in the sun or fired–created an enormous number of artifacts. Unlike the papyrus and vellum of the Egyptians and the Greeks, clay tablets are much more permanent. The huge number of extant artifacts means that much remains to be translated. Because of this abundance of material, scholars in Assyriology will continue to catalog and translate much of this material for the next several generations.
Among the artifacts discovered, and comparatively recently translated, are the works of the earliest known writer, Enheduanna. She lived and wrote, around 2300 B.C.E., almost two thousand years before the "golden age" of Greece. The corpus of her work so far discovered, includes at least two and possibly three major works, hymns, composed to be sung1 . They are directed to the goddess Inanna as major theistic works. She also composed and edited a collection of shorter hymns to a number of Sumerian temples and their deities, several of these hymns were added by later scribes.

The extensive existence of scribal schools, (the eduba) throughout the history of the ancient world insures that any important work will have numerous copies. For example, Hallo and van Dijk used 50 exemplars to translate The Exaltation of Inanna by Enheduanna in 1968. Recently German scholar Annette Zgoll completed a new translation and discussion of the text in which she mentioned that since the translation of Hallo and van Dijk in 1968 the text base has " increased by 49 pieces of documents, two of which have been joined together" (29). In addition Zgoll mentions that C. Wilcke has identified 10 further text documents from newly publicized texts at Istanbul (30). All of the artifacts upon which translations of Enheduanna's work are based come from the Old Babylonian period nearly a half-millennium after her existence.

Enheduanna's works are complex rhetorically sophisticated compositions, and they challenge the existence of the traditional canon of rhetoric and thereby many of the origins stories and foundational assumptions of the humanities. Yet she is barely known outside of the discipline of Assyriology. Within the discipline of Assyriology she has either largely been ignored or treated as a footnote. There are many reasons for this. There are problems with this particular text. According to German scholar Annette Zgoll2, "it belongs to the category of one of the most difficult texts handed down in the literature of the Sumerian language" (30). Other problems I treat here in general terms of some of the disciplinary methodological assumptions that operate in Assyriology, methodological assumptions that also appear to be operative in rhetorical historiography.

In The Exaltation of Inanna, Enheduanna begins the 153-line hymn with carefully arranged epithets and descriptions of the goddess Inanna to illustrate the characteristics of the goddess that become part of the unfolding story carefully building to the declaration that Inanna is the supreme deity. As she moves forward in the hymn she interweaves cultural references to the myths of the goddess gradually bringing the goddess closer. Then she steps forward in first person to tell her own interweaving story of a political rebellion and her ostracism. As a result of this rebellion she is driven from the temple and exiled to the steppes. She calls on the moon god whom she directly serves as high priestess and also the other gods to restore her to her position. Only the goddess Inanna heeds her plea Near the conclusion of the hymn, with the rebellion apparently quashed, she sings of her restoration as high priestess and praises the goddess Inanna. This powerful narrative combines strong elements of pathos. She clearly establishes her own ethos by stepping forward in the first person to tell her own story, deliberately naming herself. The argument, the underlying the logos of the narrative, has variously been interpreted as political (Hallo) and as a court case (Zgoll).

Moving narratively from the third to first person, Enheduanna also tells of her personal creative process. There is a strong authorial presence, one that helps us to understand the ancient continuum of female authorship that Jan Swearingen traces in this volume in her article "Song to Speech." Enheduanna is self-consciously present in the process of writing and in the poem. I read her description of her creative process as a very purposeful receiving. The collaborative "I" of the creatrixes, Enheduanna and Inanna, merge. Enheduanna explains that she heaps the coals in the censer and prepares the lustration to receive her greater self, her transcendent self, the goddess. For a time in the middle of the night, they seem to become one, perhaps in the ancient sense of the relationship with the muses, and out of that union comes the song which will be performed before the audience at noon.

Her process of invention is further complicated by the mention of the nuptial chamber alluding to the sacred marriage, a cultic ceremony about which little is known and much has been speculated. As Assyriologist Jerrold Cooper says it offers a "titllating scenario." Some scholars believe that it was sexual.3 Enheduanna likely participated in some such service as high priestess. However, it appears to have a cosmic dimension in that the writer, as Enheduanna describes herself, communes (receives) the sacred energies of the goddess or god. Thus, the sacred marriage may primarily have been between the individual and the sacred. Assyriologist Piotr Steinkeller reviewing the evidence for the sacred ceremony quotes with approval, Copper's assessment that it was "a way for the king and through him the people, to establish personal social ties with the gods." (135). Certainly, in this case Enheduanna, seems to imply that through her position as high priestess she is communicating directly with the sacred when she talks about her invention process:

136 One has heaped up the coals prepared the lustration
(In the censer),

137 The nuptial chamber awaits you. Let your heart be appeased!

138 With "It is enough for me, it oh exalted lady, (to this song)
Is too much for me! I have for you.
given birth

139 That which I recited to you at (mid)night

140 May the singer repeat it to you at noon!


She seems to be describing a process of invention that can be characterized as the "mystical enthyeme." As Ryan J. Stark describes it, the mystical enthymeme requires participation from the Audience/Cosmos to work.4 Authorship, then, becomes a tri-part communion among the writer, the audience and Cosmos (in this case Inanna as representative of the cosmos). Thus as Sappho, Plato and other ancient authors invoked the muse(s), so too Enheduanna invokes the muse in the form of the goddess Inanna. She calls Her, if not to participate in her invention process, at least to witness the birth of the song.

This ancient passage in particular raises questions of origins and the Other. These questions seem to me to go to the heart of the theoretical stances and approaches of traditional rhetorical historiography. Certainly, if one looks at origins, her existence, her work, and her process of invention seem a logical place to begin.