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.
Meanwhile, Enheduanna has been repeatedly discovered, forgotten, and then discovered again by the broader culture. Last fall, the “Exaltation” was added to Columbia’s famous first-year Core Curriculum. And now there’s the Morgan exhibition, which celebrates her singularity while also embedding her in a deep history of women, literacy and power stretching back nearly to the ancient Mesopotamian origins of writing itself.
The exhibition, on view until Feb. 19, is also a swan song for Babcock, who will retire next year after nearly three decades at the Morgan. The idea began percolating about 25 years ago, he said, when he saw Enheduanna’s name on a lapis lazuli cylinder seal belonging to one of her scribes — one of five artifacts where her name is attested independently of copies of her poetry.
He sees “She Who Wrote” — which assembles objects from nine institutions around the world — as part of the Morgan’s long history of exhibitions on women writers like Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Dickinson.
It’s also a tribute to a long chain of woman scholars, including his teacher, Edith Porada, the first curator of J. Pierpont Morgan’s celebrated collection of more than 1,000 seals.
Porada, born in Vienna, fled Europe in 1938, after Kristallnacht. One of the few things she brought with her to New York was the plate copy of her dissertation, complete with her drawings of seal impressions from European collections, which she presented to Belle da Costa Greene, the Morgan’s first director.
In ancient Mesopotamia, cylinder seals — often carved with exquisitely detailed scenes — were used to roll the owner’s unique stamp onto a document produced by scribes, attesting to its authenticity.
“For the first time,” Babcock said, “you have an image that represents an individual connected with what the individual is responsible for.”
Since 2010, about 100 of the Morgan seals have been on permanent display in Greene’s jewel-box former office, in the opulent original library building. But for years they were stored in a gym-style steel locker in a basement, where Porada would hold a weekly seminar.
“We would sit down, and out of her purse would come a little change purse with a key inside,” Babcock recalled. “She would open another locker, and inside a Sucrets tin was another key. Then we would gasp — out of the locker would come this legendary collection.”
Babcock, to put it mildly, has a zeal for seals. And — unusually for curators these days, he said — he rolls his own. The impressions in the Morgan’s permanent display, as well as most of the dozens in “She Who Wrote,” are his handiwork.
“Sometimes it takes me an hour, sometimes a minute,” he said. “It all depends on the day and the atmospheric pressure.”
Babcock is equally passionate about the two dozen sculptures of women that form the nucleus of the exhibition, which are all displayed three-dimensionally, in dramatically lit cases.
Most institutions “treat this material as artifacts,” he said. “But we believe they are part of the canon of great art.”
Entering the gallery, Babcock (who curated the show with Erhan Tamur, a curatorial fellow at the Metropolitan Museum) paused in front of a tiny alabaster sculpture of a seated woman, from around 2000 B.C. She’s wearing the same flounce garment seen in the image of Enheduanna on the disk found in 1927, and has the same aquiline features. A cuneiform tablet rests on her lap, as if she’s ready to write.
Is it Enheduanna?
“My colleagues won’t let me go that far,” Babcock said. But the figure “certainly represents the idea of what she meant — women and literacy, over successive generations.”
Many of the sculptures on display, the show argues, depict actual individuals, not generic women. “This was the beginning of portraiture,” Babcock said. And over the course of a nearly two-hour tour, he repeatedly broke off his narrative to marvel at the beauty of this or that figure, as if spotting a fashionable friend across the room.
At the center of the gallery is an item that would spark a paparazzi frenzy at any Met Gala: a spectacular funerary ensemble from the tomb of Puabi, a Sumerian queen who lived around 2500 B.C., complete with an elaborate beaten-gold headdress and cascading strands of semiprecious stones.
But equally remarkable, for Babcock, is the gold garment pin displayed nearby, which would have held amulets and cylinder seals, like the one carved from lapis lazuli found on Puabi’s body.
Enheduanna lived three centuries after Puabi, following the ascendence of the Akkadians, who united speakers of the Sumerian and Akkadian languages. Compared with Puabi’s ensemble, her surviving remnants might seem drab.
But Enheduanna’s glory lies in her words, some of which address startlingly contemporary concerns.
Pausing in front of a case that held four tablets inscribed with portions of the “Exaltation,” Babcock recited a passage in which Enheduanna describes being driven out of office by a priest named Lugalanne.
“He has turned that temple into a house of ill-repute,” Babcock read, his voice filled with emotion. “Forcing his way in as if he were an equal, he dared approach me in his lust!”
Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and war (known to the Akkadians as Ishtar), ultimately restored Enheduanna to her position. “To my queen arrayed in beauty,” the “Exaltation” continues, “to Inanna be praise!”
Some scholars have questioned whether Enheduanna wrote the poems attributed to her. Even if she was a real person, they argue, the works — written in Sumerian, and known only from copies made hundreds of years after her lifetime — may have been written later and attributed to her, as a way of bolstering the legacy of Sargon the king.
But whether Enheduanna was an actual author or a symbol of one, she was hardly alone. The recent anthology “Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia” gathers nearly a hundred hymns, poems, letters, inscriptions and other texts by female authors.
In one passage of “Exaltation” — unique in all of Mesopotamian literature, Babcock said — Enheduanna describes herself as “giving birth” to the poem. “That which I have sung to you at midnight,” she wrote, “may it be repeated at noon.”
And repeated it was. While the Akkadian empire collapsed in 2137 B.C., Enheduanna’s poems continued to be copied for centuries, as part of the standard training of scribes.
By about 500 B.C., Enheduanna was “completely forgotten,” Babcock said. But until February, she and her fellow women of Mesopotamia will command the room at the Morgan.
“Even the backs are so exquisite,” Babcock said, taking a last look at the stone figures before returning to his office. “It can be hard to leave.”