UW News

May 5, 2015

Documents that Changed the World: The Exaltation of Inanna, 2300 BCE

UW News

The disk of Enheduanna shows the high priestess making an offering to her god.

The disk of Enheduanna shows the high priestess making an offering to her god.University of Pennsylvania Museum

To be the author of a creative work is to stand ready to take either credit or blame for it — to claim responsibility.

In the latest installment of his Documents that Changed the World podcast series, Joe Janes looks back more than 4,000 years to what might be the first-ever claim of authorship.

In the podcasts, Janes, professor in the University of Washington Information School, explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents, both famous and less known. UW Today presents these occasionally, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

The work in question was a then-untitled, 153-line hymn since labeled the Exaltation of Inanna, composed by the high priestess Enheduanna in the Sumerian city-state of Ur, in about the year 2300 BCE. Inanna was the mythical Sumerian Queen of Heaven and goddess of love whom Enheduanna praised in the work and asked for help with vengeance after a political exile.

Documents that Changed the World:


“It’s remarkable we know so much about a woman who lived over 4,000 years ago in what is present-day Iraq, at the same time as the Old Kingdom in Egypt and the rise of maize and pottery in Mesoamerica, at roughly the middle of the Bronze Age in Europe,” Janes said in the podcast. “It’s even more remarkable why we know so much about her, which is primarily through her writings.”

Janes added a bit of historical context, noting that the Exaltation is 700 years older than the Egyptian Book of the Dead, more than 1,000 years older than the I Ching and 1,500 years older than the “Odyssey,” the “Iliad” and the Hebrew Bible.

Janes said, “As I began to research her and the work, that led me to the idea of ‘authorship’ and what that meant, including ‘responsibility’ for works, in all senses of that word.”

He learned that Enheduanna’s writing also served political purposes, providing support for her father (the rather Vulcan-sounding Sargon), who was busy uniting city-states into the first Mesopotamian Empire.

“That clearly worked, as evidenced by the fact that the hymn seems to have been current and used for at least 500 years.”

Joe Janes. Story is about the latest installment in his Documents that Changed the World podcast series.

Joe Janes

Janes said he used this podcast, and one about the Rosetta Stone, in a UW freshman seminar to get students thinking about some of the oldest-known documents, and what they reveal about life in their era.

The students also raised questions about preservation, he said: “How likely is it that the works we create today, in exclusively digital form, would survive for millennia?”

Of Enheduanna, Janes said in the podcast, “She not only was responsible for a series of works, which have survived a long time, she may also be responsible for the idea of being responsible.”

  • The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, with more than 210,000 downloads there so far.

Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series