Enheduanna, the First Composer

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I figured for the first post we should start at the very beginning: with Enheduanna, High Priestess of the ancient Sumerian city-state of Ur. Enheduanna wasn’t just the first female composer in music history – she is the first composer that we know of, period, as well as the earliest known poet and first named author in world history. Enheduanna (Sumerian: 𒂗𒃶𒌌𒀭𒈾) wrote hymns in honor of the goddess Inanna and the moon god Nanna. As a disclaimer, since archaeologists haven’t found any written music with her hymns, we can’t be sure she is actually the first composing musician we know of – but according to a letter from Dr. Kilmer, a professor of Near Eastern studies at UC Berkeley, “Enheduanna’s religious poetry was certainly sung, and probably accompanied by a stringed instrument. Enheduanna seems to have composed the music and written the words.” So it’s a pretty good bet that she was an all-around artist with word and song. 

She also held the title of EN, a role often given to royal daughters that carried great political significance (and, as far as we know, the first woman to own this title). According to James Stewart from Vermont Public Radio, “Her duty was to unite the empire together around two religions, the worship of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and fertility, with Sargon’s own personal deity, Ishtar, goddess of war and sexuality. She did this by composing hymns and poems in praise of Inanna and admonishing the people to sing and worship together.”

O house Kinirsha created for its Lady

Rising from the platform, a verdant mountain

O house, joyful cries erupt deep in your interior

Your princess, a storm wind astride a lion

Lifting holy song and countersong

Loud voices constantly singing

And he goes on to further claim that she did write and play music: “This temple hymn refers to antiphonal singing, call and response. It was probably accompanied by drum and lyre, an instrument that Enheduanna most likely played.”

Disk-of-Enheduanna

It’s not uncommon for societies around the world at different points in history to have given political duties to the role of musician. Louis Armstrong, for example, was so internationally famous that in 1960 the U.S. State Department officially gave made him an “Ambassador of Jazz” and had him travel to Europe, Asia and various countries across the African continent – before Black people at home in the US were missing their federally-recognized civil rights. In some Central Asian countries, like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Bagshy’s are not only musicians – they’re shamans who hold political roles and support major life events in a community and for its citizens. In West Africa, Griots are traveling bards who “knows everything that is going on… He is a living archive of the people’s traditions”. And there are so many more that I am not naming here, mostly because I don’t know🤷‍♀️ But seeing as music has been present in every society we know of, seems like it’s a pretty safe bet.

Composition, at least in classical Western music history, has traditionally been considered a masculine occupation. The same is true for conducting and, maybe to a lesser extent, performing. Only the vocalist role has been historically acceptable for women. And while this attitude has improved a little today and across all styles, male domination of the music industry is still a huge problem. Just look at the lack of visibility of women instrumentalists or composers in jazz, or the exploitation of women in pop, such as the abuse Kesha endured Dr. Luke, her producer. Or the small (but growing) number of women represented in hip hop. And it’s still rare to find a woman conducting a major orchestra. But it’s not that they aren’t there – great women have been occupying and contributing to music throughout music history, at its highest levels. They’ve just been hidden. Which is why it’s so important now to shine a spotlight on musicians like Enheduanna, who helped to shape music from the very beginning.

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