Patricia Sargent’s ‘Power Women’ names history’s anonymous with Enheduanna of Sumer

By Annie Burky

Sep 25, 2020 | Badass Women, Features | 0 comments

//High Priestess Enheduanna of Sumer as depicted by Sarah Holle | cfs.sholle@gmail.com

In most history books, Enheduanna might be omitted, deemed inconsequential, or perhaps her work might be marked under the same name as her female peers: anonymous. 

Patricia Sargent began her career with a doctorate in education, specializing in education administration. She’s continuing to educate the masses with a new type of history book. Her most recent book, titled “Power Women: Lessons from the Ancient World,” is the kind she wishes she had, the type that names anonymous. 

“Why did I start to write the Power Women series? Because I didn’t know anything about women,” Sargent said. “I went to my shelf and I only have four books about women. I said, ‘I’ll fix that.’”

Sargent’s path reflects those of famous female historical characters, such as Sanmao and Isabella Byrd. She spent the 1960s traveling to places like Guam and the Panama Canal Zone before returning to Colorado to pursue a doctorate in education administration. 

While she taught extensively at various institutions, including the University of Denver, her thirst for knowledge was unquenched. She satiated that desire with travel abroad to Egypt, Anatolia and Japan, to name just a few. Her Power Women series is a chance to remedy what she found lacking after a career as an educator and traveler.

“When I look in the history books, I look in the index first. If that doesn’t mention any woman’s name, then I don’t bother with the book,” Sargent said. 

Sargent isn’t alone in her discontent for underrepresentation. The National Women’s History Museum’s 2019 report, “Where are the Women?” offered some telling takeaways after reviewing National and State Social Studies Standards. 

According to the report, 53% of topics discussing women placed them in domestic roles. Non-domestic activities for women generally don’t emerge until the 5th and 6th-grade curriculums. 

While 178 women are found in all 50 states’ curriculums, it is often only the same 15 women, denying variation in female role models. Out of those 15 women, only six are women of color. 

Sargent’s series not only hopes to name these ignored women but also illuminates history outside the ubiquitous euro-centric curriculum. In her upcoming three books, Sargent reveals women from the power centers of the ancient world: Sumer, Egypt and China. 

The first of her books covers Sumer and the high priestess Enheduanna of Akkad.

For those who forgot their brief world history classes, Akkad was a city in Sumer, an ancient civilization in Mesopotamia. The region is also known as the Fertile Crescent, today constituting southern Iraq. The Sumerians and the structures they built shaped ancient Greece, Rome, and by extension, modern Western society. In the same ripple effect, Enheduanna shaped poetry, history and how we conceptualize deities. 

She lived from 2285-2250 BCE and was the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad. It was King Sargon that appointed her as a high priestess near the city of Ur to consolidate his power. The prefix of En- indicates her high political standing within her father’s civilization. 

The role of High Priestess could encompass many duties in the ancient world. Often priestesses were society’s designated spiritual shield. Priests and priestesses prayed to all-powerful beings to protect their people from their wrath and beseech their grace. 

Enheduanna took both tools of time and devotion afforded to her and turned it into poetry. She offered her words in devotion to the goddess Inana and the moon god Sin. 

“Mistress of heaven, with the great pectoral jewels, who loves the good headdress befitting the office of en priestess, who has seized all seven of its divine powers!” writes Enheduanna in “The Exaltation of Inana.” “My lady, you are the guardian of the great divine powers!”

Over time, more pieces of Enheduanna’s story were revealed, with her work’s unearthing by archeologists in 1920. The public has come to better understand her poetry’s impact on Sumerian works and the integral political role she played. 

“[King Sargon] wanted his daughter to put together the worship of Inana and the worship of Ishtar,” Sargent said.

Often the two gods are thought of as interchangeable, both being the god of love and war. But Ishtar was from Akadia, as was Sargon and Enheduanna, while Inana was the goddess of  Ur, the city King Sargon was seeking dominion over. 

As the old saying goes, “he who rules the priests rules the nation.” Sargon understood that to consolidate his power he needed to tap into the hearts of the people. Enheduanna was sent to meld two belief systems together, offering her father hegemonic rule. 

What historians deemed a shrewd political move was successful over time but also is believed to be the reason for Enheduanna’s temporary expulsion.  

“You can imagine that these priests of these two individual places, worshipping two different goddesses, did not like the idea that a woman was in charge of them,” Sargent said. “After a while, there was a little political skirmish, and they exiled her.” 

“He made me walk through the thorn bushes of the mountains. He stripped me of the rightful garment of the priestess. He gave me a knife and dagger, saying to me ‘These are appropriate ornaments for you,’” writes Enheduanna.

From our modern-day understanding of religion, it is difficult to fully encapsulate Enheduanna’s devotion to Inana as a priestess and expellee. Scholars, including William W. Hallo and J. J. A. Van Dijk, believe that while Enheduanna’s writing is under the guise of devotion to Inana, it may perhaps be autobiographical. While most modern religions denote that humans are servile to their gods, Sumerian belief was more fluid. When Enheduanna writes about Inana she is referring to herself, implying that god and subject become one. 

“Thus Enheduanna appears to be confused, if not precisely identified, with one or another of the deities whom she served, particularly Inana,” Hallo and Van Dijk wrote.

Therefore through her hymns and poems to the great goddess, we can trace Enheduanna’s life: fall and rise. 

“He stood there in triumph and drove me out of the temple. He made me fly like a swallow from the window; I have exhausted my life-strength,” Enheduanna wrote. 

The person in question is the orchestrator of Enheduanna’s ousting when power was usurped from her father’s line. It is uncertain what she did in this time of exile. But with reading, her exile’s impermanence is proven. 

“The powerful lady, respected in the gathering of rulers, has accepted her offerings from her. Inana’s holy heart has been assuaged,” Enheduanna wrote.

With a change in ruling Enheduanna’s broken spirit is healed, again seated in power as high priestess. As she continues to compose poetry and hymns, she marks her name at the end of her works, crowning herself the first author and poet in recorded history. 

This is not to say the world lacked for poetry, hymns or writing before a Sumerian princess priestess poet signed her name, but rather, no other had marked their individual work. 

“Writing in an alien ancient (pre-Greek) oriental culture, she stands at the beginning of written tradition, a notable exception to the early western canonical tradition in which women are virtually nonexistent,” Scholar Roberta Binkley wrote in “Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks.”

Beyond the revolutionary act of female ownership, Enheduanna’s life continues to ripple through history. Her confluence of Inana and Ishtar united Sumer, consolidating power of the most powerful empire at the time. The subsequent propagation of her hymns can be traced to religious works centuries later while also expanding modern scholars’ understanding of variations in worship practices. 

Despite Enheduanna’s story being ancient, her bones certainly dust, her words perhaps scattered, her name and the triumph of a woman determined, remain for readers nearly 4000 years later. 

“She was proud of her position, and she was so grateful to her goddess,” Sargent said. “Be proud of what you do whether it’s waitress, whether it’s teacher, or whether it is the senators that we are now seeing coming on, be proud of that work and do the very best you can. Shine.”


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