The Poet’s Almanac ❧ Air

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry
Week One: Air 

  • Air, in terms of this series, The Poet’s Almanac, refers to the poetry of the soul, spirit and spirituality.

The oldest surviving spiritual poetry also marks the first poet whom we know by name – the Mesopotamian Priestess Enheduanna (ca. 2285-2250 B.C.E.). The author of Gilgamesh is unknown. Some will argue that Gilgamesh is a deeply spiritual poem; and it is, but the concerns of Gilgamesh are more expansive than that. Gilgamesh tells a story. The poem is, as a genre, our first example of the epic. The poems of Enheduanna on the other hand, are first and foremost religious and spiritual. Their sole purpose is the celebration of spiritual and religious devotion. Enheduanna’s father, perhaps because of her brilliance and creative genius, appointed her the high priestess at the temple of the moon god, Inana, in the city of Ur. Enheduanna’s temple hymns, are hymns in praise of different temples, as though each temple were a living being.

Enheduanna’s surviving poems are as follows:

42 temple hymns roughly the same length as modern lyrics.

3 Longer Hymns describing Enheduanna’s relationship to Inana

Inninsagurra (274 Lines) ~ A hymn of praise to Inana.
Ninmesarra (154 Lines) ~ A hymn describing Enheduanna’s tribulations and exile.
Inninmehusa (184 Lines) ~ A narrative hymn recounting Anana’s destruction of the overly prideful mountain Ebih.

There are also two fragments attributed to the poet/preistess.

The most interesting facet of Enheduanna’s poetry is what it reveals to us about women and their place in the cultural life of ancient Mesopotamia. Scholars believe that Ninmesarra hues to some autobiographical details. Enheduanna’s  non-public duties are unknown but a high priestess’s public duties are better understood by historians. She would have lead religious rituals and performed sacred rites, such as those that involved expiation through sacrifice and the sacred recitations of the priestess. As James Dale Williams asserts, in his book An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric: essential readings, what is striking about Enheduanna’s hymns are that they are both public and private. For the first time, a poet “identifies herself and speaks in the first person”. Williams credits this development to the change in how the divine was increasingly perceived as personal – being directly involved in a person’s life and affairs. In this is true, it makes sense that Enheduanna would express Inana through her own experiences in life.

Some scholars have compared Enheduanna’s tribulations — her exile from from the temple during the military leader Lugalanne’s uprisings in Ur and Uruk  — to a kind of morality tale presaging womankind’s own exile from religion during the 4000 years that followed.  Her eventual restoration, which Enheduanna credited to the Goddess Ianan and not the indifferent male God Nanna, can be compared to modernity’s gradual re-acceptance of the feminine in religion and spirituality. The restoration is not complete, but perhaps history will recapitulate Enheduanna’s own story. The place of femininity in spirituality will be recognized and celebrated as equal to that of the masculine.

These first 12 lines of Enheduanna’s Ninmesarra are my own versification of a transliteration available online.

Since I couldn’t find a versification that I liked,  I created my own. The verse is blank verse. I don’t offer it as a faithful rendition. Rather, I’ve tried to capture what might have been the spirit of the original. Given time, maybe during the next week or so, I may try to versify the entirety of her poem.

The Exaltation of Inana

Mistress of the divine, resplendent light,
Woman of radiance, righteous and beloved
Of An and Urac – Heaven’s Mistress! – breasts
Bejeweled; cherishing the headdress of your priestess –
She who grasps the seven sacred powers!
Goddess, protector of the powers, and giver –
Behold your necklaced hand and fingers. Yours,
The gathering of the powers and yours to clasp
Against your breast. In foreign lands your breath
Is like the dragon’s venom. When like Ickur
The earth receives your roar, neither leaf nor wood
Withstand you. You are as a mighty flood
To foreign lands, the might of earth and heaven, you
Are their Inana.

Copyleft 2010 by Patrick Gillespie

That’s all.

The single best online source of information can be found at Infionline. From this website, a variety of links are provided.

An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric: essential readings
Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna
Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart : Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess