Chapter One: On How the Ancient Hymn Intersects with Gender & Inequality

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • Close reading & textual analysis of early poetry where poetic devices emerged
  • Identify and negotiate roles of metaphor and mythological figures in the hymns
  • Develop close reading skills to explicate texts through activities & assignments on key passages

…a scientific understanding of nature, [provides an] advocacy of nonhuman species and indictment of those who destroy the legacy of the land.

Williams 124

Minna Sundberg’s illustration maps the relationships between Indo-European and Uralic languages. The creator of the webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent, put the illustration together to show why some of the characters in her comic were able to understand each other despite speaking different languages. She wanted to show how closely related Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic were to each other, and how Finnish came from distinct linguistic roots.

PIE Tree (Proto-Indo-European languages) shows our native languages overlapping to create new versions. CC (Wiki)

Introduction of Chapter One

What Are Early Forms of Song and How Do They Reveal Challenges for Sustainability?

The previous section introduces this first part and its three chapters by featuring the poetic element of the folk song, identifying themes, and recognizing common literary tropes and symbolism. Let’s continue to build on what literary texts are composed of what some call the ‘ingredients of literature’, by focusing on poetry and the poetic elements of early religious songs – namely hymns. The themes of featured songs are relevant to our present day, including topics on equality and sustainable communities, which are also addressed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG).

Early, ancient forms of the song are featured in this chapter to demonstrate our rich legacy of poetic devices. Ecocritical readings of these early songs will also be featured to support student learning and to encourage student engagement through close reading, analysis, and interpretation assignments on early samples of verse. At the end of this chapter, the short writing exercises are designed to inspire further inquiries concerning sustainability, especially in the literature of ancient civilizations that have come and gone, but whose legacies continue to live on in their cultural and linguistic influences and artifacts, like the first book ever known to humanity, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The first known writer in human history who signed her name to her own work is the Akkadian priestess and poet Enheduanna. Enheduanna resided in the City of Ur, Sumer and lived over four thousand years ago. The hymns attributed to her predate the Epic of Gilgamesh by over one thousand years. Clay tablets with cuneiform writing of her hymns reflect poetic devices: a narrator, invocation to a deity, setting, meter, and tone, in addition to those named in the previous section. Here are the opening lines of one of her hymns.

How Do Enheduanna’s Hymns Reflect Today’s Challenges?

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • To practice close reading skills to identify cultural and religious icons and allusions of mythological figures, like gods and goddesses in early Sumerian hymns and early lyrical poems.

Hymns are early versions of songs and poetry told in religious settings but can represent the emotions, thoughts, and worries of its communities. They are recited in oral societies with an oral tradition and are written down by early societies that developed literacy. The early hymns attributed to Sumer’s Priestess Enheduanna seem personal and dire.

It was in your service

That I first entered

The holy temple,

I, Enheduanna,

The high priestess,…

OER Enheduanna’s hymn

These opening lines express Enheduanna’s role in religious songs. In an intimate and personal tone, the lines express events in the past by the verb “was” and the first-person subject pronoun “I.” Let’s look further into the work of Enheduanna. This close reading of her hymn addresses the theme and possible intersections on any aspect of sustainability.


The first known writer in human history who signed her name to her own work is the Akkadian princess and poet Enheduanna. Enheduanna resided in the City of Ur, Sumer and lived over four thousand years ago.

How do Enheduanna’s Hymns Express Aspects of Sustainability?

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • To practice close reading skills to identify cultural references to nature and intersections with sustainability, via ecocriticism in Sumerian hymns, early lyrical poems.

Let’s look further into the same hymn. Through its first-person narrator, the lines below express concerns about political alliances and regional divisions. It is as if Enheduanna shares her own personal testimony on the consequences of belonging to an empire that is expanding, as opposing forces respond. The result is her exile. This hymn has a narrator who pleads to the Sumerian moon goddess Inanna.

I, Enheduanna,

The high priestess,

I carried the ritual basket,

I chanted your praise.

Now I have been cast out

To the place of lepers.

A close reading of these lines inspires our inquiries about aspects of the culture of the empire Enheduanna was born into. She aligns her loyalties with the empire since she was the daughter of its ruler, Sumerian King Sargon Akkad. Like an ode, this hymn praises goddess Inanna, whom the narrator has served. The poetic devices of this hymn have literal and figurative significance. She compares her exile with dispossessed “lepers” and the “ritual basket” emphasizes Enheduanna’s unbreakable devotion to Inanna. In exile, Enheduanna writes devotional hymns to affirm her role and legitimacy as the priestess to the Temple of Ur and to regain fortune.

Ecocritical interpretive approaches can assist in a further understanding of early, ancient forms of literature in regard to nature. For example, the consequences of land acquisition by the empire destabilized its civilization. Inquiries about the dependence on natural resources as inexhaustible can inform unsustainable practices.

Historians have sought a fruitful path of inquiry in literary studies by ecocriticism. With Enheduanna, they focus on her role as the priestess of the empire. They describe her contribution to peacemaking, Goal 17 of the UNSDG on peace and social justice.

“These hymns re-defined the gods for the people of the Akkadian Empire under Sargon’s rule and helped provide the underlying religious homogeneity sought by the king. For over forty years Enheduanna held the office of high priestess, even surviving the attempted coup against her authority by Lugal-Ane” (World History).

While peace was achieved, its cost was the implementation of homogeneous measures. Shown in other hymns attributed to Enheduanna, this means that the deities of the opposing communities were incorporated into Sumerian mythology, the storytelling tradition of the dominant culture. Is this act of appropriation truly a sign of solidarity? Perhaps not. But the fact still remains. Peace prevailed for forty years. And Enheduanna, as her writing shows, is credited as a contributor to peacemaking efforts, which is a topic in the United Nations Sustainable Guide (UNSDG). Representations of political structures are prevalent in the mythology and scription of other civilizations.

Here is another example of a non-Homeric hymn from Hesiod’s Theogony. It honors the birth of the Greek goddess Hecate, whose mother is Asteria (star) and her father Perses (destroyer; ravager). Through Hecate’s role and abilities, Hesiod’s hymn displaces patriarchal rule and hierarchy.

For as many as were born of Gaia and Ouranos amongst all these, she [Hecate] has her due portion. The son of Kronos did Her no wrong nor took anything away of all that was Her portion among the former Titan Gods: but She holds, as the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both in Earth, and in Heaven, and in Sea. OER on Greek Pantheon & Birth of Hekate

Hecate in this hymn by Hesiod is connected to earth, sky, and sea. A close reading of this hymn offers insights into Greek culture such as the practice of magic because one of Hecate’s talents is the power of sorcery. Sorcery in Western tradition is feminized and attributed to female mythological figures – like Circe. She, like other female supernatural figures like Persephone and Medea, represents the movement of nature, the cosmos, and the life cycle. Shakespeare’s three Weird Sisters in Macbeth also allude to these earlier representations (Pressbooks on “Macbeth”).

Let’s proceed and work with other hymns by Enheduanna.

Key Points

  • Early hymns can inform its poetic qualities and personal testimonies

  • Ecocritical readings enhance these initial readings

  • Other hymns also reveal cultural norms like the practice of magic


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Literary Studies For A Sustainable Future Copyright © 2024 by Lisette Helena Assia Espinoza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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