In a small dark gallery at the Morgan Library sit three clay tablets bearing cuneiform script. The text, written in the dead Mesopotamian language of Sumerian, reveals some facts that destabilized my understanding of society’s origins. Written by history’s first known author, Enheduanna—a poet, priestess, and, yes, woman—they record a hymn addressed to the goddess Ishtar. The text, a plea to a maker and destroyer of life, contains the first known recorded use of the first person singular, the word “I,” in human history. Strikingly, Enheduanna uses it when describing an experience of sexual assault in a plea to the goddess for protection and revenge. How powerful that the earliest record we have of someone insisting on their autonomy was a result of someone else’s threatening it. How enraging yet unsurprising to be reminded that women have dealt with this shit for millennia.
But to that last point, the remainder of the exhibition, titled “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400–2000 B.C.,” makes a crucial intervention, reframing narratives concerning the persistence of patriarchy. In addition to works by Enheduanna, the show includes objects—primarily small stone sculptures and cylinder seals, most not attributed to individual makers—depicting the lives of Mesopotamian women: Working with their long hair tied back, they milk cows or make pottery and textiles. Some are shown seated and wearing long robes, suggesting they are of high status, often, priestesses. This is the society in which agriculture was invented, freeing people from the need to hunt and gather, or to farm for subsistence, allowing them to take on other kinds of jobs. Here, where the society-wide division of labor likely began, women held positions of power outside the home.
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Yet catalogue essays argue that these records of ancient women have long been interpreted through the lens of scholars’ misogyny, or else their understandable inability to fathom that more equal (though still imperfect) worlds had already existed. As Columbia PhD student Kutay Şen points out in his contribution, scholarly articles and museum presentations about a group of four small but significant stone sculptures of seated women in the exhibition have repeatedly overlooked or downplayed the significance of the tablets the women hold in their lap. Instead, scholars have focused debates concerning these objects on whether their seated positions and long robes denote “goddess” or “high priestess,” emphasizing their role in the heavens over their impact here on Earth. These tablets testify to their vital roles as poets, administrators, and scribes.
Nowhere is ancient feminine power more evident than in depictions of Ishtar herself, on view in nine cylinder seals, large rounded stones carved with figurative narratives and meant to be rolled onto wet clay to produce a relief. Small and sturdy, they are often the most reliably preserved records of Mesopotamian civilization. The Queen of Heaven, as she came to be called, who is also the subject of Mesopotamia’s best-known work—the Ishtar Gate, leading into Babylon—is typically shown with a frontal gaze, slaying lions and lovers. Here, as in other depictions, worshippers bow at her feet; she bears maces and sickle axes. Rehabilitations of Ishtar and other early goddesses often emphasize her powers in the realm of fertility, but this can be misleading: Ishtar was the goddess of love and of war. Showing Enheduanna’s hymns alongside such cylinder seals, the curators suggest that the author’s descriptions of Ishtar as powerful and threatening helped establish the goddess’s preeminence and laid the groundwork for these divine visual depictions, which flourished centuries after Enheduanna penned her hymn.
We are often taught to believe that we cerebral moderns are still working to overcome various animalistic impulses and gendered roles determined by our bodies. But “She Who Wrote” emphasizes that our path has been far from linear. The exhibition also resonates with histories being written today: The curators could not have predicted that these treasures would be mounted amid a feminist revolution taking place in the same fertile crescent where Enheduanna wrote. The boldness and bravery of the Iranian women leading that rebellion feels as galvanizing as Enheduanna’s first use of “I.” Women’s resistance persists.