“She Who Wrote”

This clever word play on “Murder She Wrote” is not mine but the title of an exceptional exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue in New York City.

A nerdy bibliophile, who volunteers at the Library of Congress, I have long wanted to visit the Morgan. The novel: The Personal Librarian whet my appetite. It’s the story of the very real Belle da Costa Greene. This remarkable African-American woman — passing as white in a bigoted and segregated world, at the turn of the 20th century — traveled the male dominated echelons of rare book dealers and antiquity brokers — to build the Morgan collection into a library of great renown.

On a recent jaunt to Brooklyn to see my filmmaker son, I spent half a day at the Morgan. Entering the Victorian rooms, darkly paneled, brocaded in red, and gilded in gold, I marveled at the brightly illuminated Medieval Book of Hours, the Renaissance portraits of Madonna and Child, and the 15th c. Gutenberg Bible.

The Morgan has a modern museum wing as well, exhibiting other incredible treasures from J.P.’s collection. I got to visit two while I was there. One was a delightful display of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s original watercolors from the classic French children’s book The Little Prince. And the other nearly took my breath away: “She Who Wrote.”

Jennifer Schuessler, who writes for the New York Times, could not describe it better.

It was a random morning in November, and Enheduanna was trending.

Suddenly, the ancient Mesopotamian priestess, who had been dead for more than 4,000 years, was a hot topic online as word spread that the first individually named author in human history was … a woman?

That may have been old news at the Morgan Library & Museum, where Sidney Babcock, the longtime curator of ancient Near Eastern antiquities, was about to offer a tour of its new exhibition “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400-2000 B.C.” Babcock was thrilled by the attention, if not exactly surprised by the public’s surprise.

Ask people who the first author was, and they might say Homer, or Herodotus. “People have no idea,” he said. “They simply don’t believe it could be a woman” — and that she was writing more than a millennium before either of them, in a strikingly personal voice.

Enheduanna’s work celebrates the gods and the power of the Akkadian empire, which ruled present-day Iraq from about 2350 B.C. to 2150 B.C. But it also describes more sordid, earthly matters, including her abuse at the hands of a corrupt priest — the first reference to sexual harassment in world literature, the show argues.

“It’s the first time someone steps forward and uses the first-person singular and gives an autobiography,” Babcock said. “And it’s profound.”

Enheduanna has been known since 1927, when archaeologists working at the ancient city of Ur excavated a stone disc bearing her name (written with a starburst symbol) and image, and identifying her as the daughter of the king Sargon of Akkad, the wife of the moon god Nanna, and a priestess.

In the decades that followed, her works — some 42 temple hymns and three stand-alone poems, including “The Exaltation of Inanna”— were pieced together from more than 100 surviving copies made on clay tablets.

In Search of Enheduanna, the Woman Who Was History’s First Named Author, New York Times, Nov 9, 2022

As I walked through the exhibit, I came face to face with Enheduanna carved in stone, along with her words in cuneiform pressed into clay. Tiny little wedges of meaning — how in the world did scholars of the ancient world ever translate this? It’s mind boggling.

I lean in closer to read the English translation posted next to the original, and I am transported back in time. Enheduanna’s poem praises the goddess Inanna.

“Queen of all cosmic powers, bright light shining from above,

Steadfast woman, arrayed in splendor, beloved of earth and sky,

Consort of Heaven, whose gem of rank is greatest of them all,

Favored of the noblest diadem, meet for highest sacral rank,

Who has taken up in hand cosmic powers sevenfold.

My Lady! You are warden of the greatest cosmic powers. You bore them off on high, you took them firm in hand. You gathered them together. You pressed them to your breast.

You spew venom on a country like a dragon.

Wherever you raise your voice, like a tempest no crop is left standing.

You are a deluge bearing that country away. You are the sovereign of heaven and earth, you are their warrior goddess.”

The Exaltation of Inanna

Enheduanna was a professional priestess praising a goddess of power and might. Separated by five millennia, so am I a professional priestess — praising a God of power and might. And what professionally and personally surprises me is not the chasm between her time and ours, but how incredibly this ancient hymn of praise echoes the songs of adoration in our own scripture and hymnody. Besides being a nerdy bibliophile, I am a nerdy liturgist as well, and my head is regularly buried in the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and “Hymns, Ancient and Modern.”

Take a listen to Psalm 66:

 Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;
     sing the glory of his name;
    give to him glorious praise.
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
    Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.
All the earth worships you;
    they sing praises to you,
    sing praises to your name.” 

Come and see what God has done:
    he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.
He turned the sea into dry land;
    they passed through the river on foot.
There we rejoiced in him,
    who rules by his might forever,
whose eyes keep watch on the nations—
    let the rebellious not exalt themselves. 

Bless our God, O peoples;
    let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living
    and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us;
    you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
    you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
    I will pay you my vows,
those that my lips uttered
    and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatted calves,
    with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats. 

Come and hear, all you who fear God,
    and I will tell what he has done for me.
I cried aloud to him,
    and he was extolled with my tongue.
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened;
    he has heard the words of my prayer.

Blessed be God,
    who has not rejected my prayer
    or removed his steadfast love from me.

Psalm 66

And listen to #423 from the 1982 Hymnal.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
thy justice like mountains high soaring above
thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all life thou givest, to both great and small;
in all life thou livest, the true life of all;
we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
and wither and perish but naught changeth thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
all praise we would render, O help us to see
’tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.

Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908)

We Episcopalians, of course, do not worship Inanna; we worship Yahweh, embodied in Christ. But God is eternal, ineffable, beyond time and words, and as I am wont to say, God did not just fall from the sky two thousand years ago. We modern humans, for our two hundred thousand years evolving on this earth, have been crafted, as Blaise Pascal so wonderfully said, with a God-shaped hole in our souls. It is a primal and visceral yearning that faith traditions of all stripes attest to in their sacred texts.

Since the dawn of time, we are all made of the same stuff; and we are not so different from our ancient ancestors, as we may have thought. Cosmically across the centuries, geographically across the globe, and in many down to earth ways in our DNA, we are brothers and sisters, all made of stardust and connected to one another across the same vast universe.

All created in the image of God.

Soli Deo Gloria,


Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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