Life's Little Mysteries

Who was the world's first author?

Disk of Enheduanna, an Akkadian priestess and poet
Disk of Enheduanna, an Akkadian priestess and poet (Image credit: Hoberman Publishing / Alamy Stock Photo)

The oldest known writing dates back more than 5,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia, in what is now mostly present-day Iraq. But who was the first author known by name?

Archaeological discoveries have revealed the earliest known writing was invented about 3400 B.C. in an ancient Mesopotamian area known as Sumer, near the Persian Gulf, according to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. This writing, known as cuneiform, took the form of wedge-shaped marks made by pressing a pointed tool into wet clay, the British Library notes.

Many people might cite ancient Greek luminaries such as the epic poet Homer, the lyric poet Sappho or the historian Herodotus as the first author known by name, said Erhan Tamur, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. However, preceding those figures by about a millennium was the princess, priestess and poet known as Enheduanna, Tamur told Live Science. 

"By first author, we mean that she is the first author whom we know by name whom we can connect with an existing text," Benjamin Foster, an Assyriologist at Yale University, told Live Science. "For much of Mesopotamian literature, we do not know who wrote it, but she is the exception."

Enheduanna was the daughter of the Akkadian king Sargon, who lived from about 2334 B.C. to 2279 B.C., Tamur said. Tamur is co-curator of an exhibition about Enheduanna, "She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, 3400-2000 BC," at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which began in October 2022 and runs until February 2023.

By about 2300 B.C., Sargon united the majority of Mesopotamia under his rule when the Akkadian culture of northern Mesopotamia conquered the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia. This paved the way for the Akkadian Empire, the world's first empire, or collection of states under a single authority, Tamur noted.

Related: Who were the ancient Persians?

Sargon appointed his daughter as the high priestess of the Sumerian moon god, Nanna, in the Sumerian city of Ur as part of his efforts to consolidate his new empire. When she assumed this role, she received the name Enheduanna, which means "high priestess, ornament of heaven" in Sumerian, Tamur said.

As high priestess of the moon god and her father's representative in Ur, "she was clearly a very important figure in the city of Ur," Tamur said. "And on top of all of these responsibilities, she wrote poetry."

The modern world first learned of Enheduanna from the remains of an alabaster disk unearthed in 1927 during British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley's excavations of Ur, Louise Pryke, an Assyriologist at The University of Sydney, wrote in The Conversation. The disk, which is normally kept at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, depicts Enheduanna on the front and identifies her by name on the back, as she dedicates a dais to the Sumerian goddess Inanna, the daughter of Nanna, in her temple.

A few of Enheduanna's poems honor Nanna. However, the priestess was far more preoccupied with Inanna, whose home was the morning and evening star, Venus, according to Jungian analyst Betty De Shong Meador, author of an English translation of Enheduanna's poems, "Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart" (University of Texas Press, 2001).

In Enheduanna's poems, Inanna was equated with her Akkadian counterpart, Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, Tamur said. In the writings of the priestess, "Inanna is both fierce and cruel, loving and kind," capable of both destruction and generosity, Meador noted.

Enheduanna's poems were rich with autobiographical details, such as her struggle against Lugalanne, most likely the king of Ur, who attempted to forcefully remove her from office. "Enheduanna is the first author we know of who incorporated autobiographical details into her narrative," Tamur said. "In addition, she is the first author who tells us something about how she created these poems. She likens the act of literary creation to childbirth, the first known use of this metaphor, which will remain in use for millennia in world literature."

Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.