Imagine a world where the pronoun ‘I’ isn’t used in writing.
The entire genre of narrative writing probably wouldn’t exist. Op-eds, personal essays, even music and poetry. Most of these writing styles are a product of our inner feelings and personal reflection, and are usually the styles of writing that we emotionally connect with the most.
It seems natural for this form of writing to always have existed, being so related to human opinion, but like almost everything else, it was invented by an author.
4300 years ago, in the Ancient Sumerian civilization, lived the princess of Ancient Sumr, Enheduanna.
She is history’s first known author, and she is the reason we use ‘I’ when we write.
Enheduanna was a triple threat of her time.
Her father, the king of Sumr, ruled when the old Sumerian culture and the new Akadian culture opposed each other and would often rebel against him.
Enheduanna was a triple threat of her time.
He appointed Enheduanna as high priestess, in an effort to bridge the cultural divide and bring peace to the nation.
Becoming high priestess meant that Enheduanna was able to receive an education in which she learned to read and write the languages of both opposing cultures, as well as learn how to make mathematics calculations.
It was with her acquired education that Enheduanna was able to unite both rebelling cultures via the 42 religious hymns she wrote, combining the mythologies of both cultures.
In those times, the form of writing used was cuneiform.
Its main purpose was for merchants and traders to communicate about their businesses over long distances – writing did not have a personal purpose, let alone a sentimental one.
So, when she began to write religious hymns and poetry, Enheduanna took the deities her hymns were dedicated to and humanized them.
In doing so she made the gods who once seemed so intangible feel emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, betrayal, love.
Her writing made the hymns emotionally relatable to read and connect with.
By playing on their emotions, she was able to appease the people of both Sumerian and Akkadian cultures, honoring their deities, bringing them together as one.
It was when she wrote her three hymns, Inninsagurra, Ninmesarra, and Inninmehusa, dedicated to deity Inanna, goddess of war and desire, that Enheduanna established a style of writing that was personal and attributable to the writer.
Thousands of years later, it’s impossible for us to imagine a world without saying ‘I’.
Inanna was known to be a powerful deity, so mighty that she transcended gender boundaries and was considered to be the very force who animated the universe.
In these poems, Enheduanna placed Inanna on a pedestal, marking her as the most important deity.
Her odes to Inanna marked the first time an author used the pronoun ‘I’ in a written text, and the first time an author describes their personal, private emotions in writing. It was the beginning of how narrative writing led to self-reflection and emotions could be recorded.
This is said to be her greatest contribution to literature.
Above is an excerpt of one of Enheduanna’s dedicated hymns to Inanna. The full poem can be found here.
After the death of her father, Enheduanna was exiled in a coup, and it was when her nephew reclaimed the throne that she was reinstated as high priestess. She served as high priestess for 40 years, and after her death she was honored as a minor deity, with her poetry written, performed, and copied for over 500 years.
What Enheduanna succeeded in doing was taking the essence of emotions and translating them in a way that was able to unify two conflicting people.
She used emotion and ethos, and manipulated them in a way that began a form of writing that could connect with people’s emotions, rather than practical needs.
Know it was this Sumerian high priestess who invented it.
The creation of the written pronoun ‘I’ was the beginning of multiple perspectives being recorded.
It was the beginning of written storytelling.
So the next time you write in your private journal or read diary entries, the next time you study a soliloquy in Macbeth or read the emotional personal essays of critically acclaimed authors where the first person style is prominent, know it was this Sumerian high priestess who invented it.
Enheduanna changed history and humanity. Thousands of years later, it’s impossible for us to imagine a world without saying ‘I’.
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