Who Is the First Poet in the World?

by Amy

The quest to identify the first poet in the world takes us on a fascinating journey through the mists of time, into the realms of ancient civilizations where oral traditions and early writing systems first began to capture the human experience in poetic form. This exploration involves examining historical records, deciphering ancient scripts, and understanding the cultural contexts that gave rise to early poetry. The earliest known poet, often celebrated as the “first poet in the world,” is Enheduanna, a high priestess from ancient Mesopotamia. This article will delve into her life, works, and the broader significance of her contributions to the literary world.

The Historical Context of Early Poetry

Poetry, as an art form, likely predates written language, originating in oral traditions where stories, hymns, and songs were passed down through generations. Early humans used poetry as a means of preserving their history, beliefs, and values. These oral traditions eventually found their way into written form with the advent of writing systems, allowing for the preservation and dissemination of poetic works across time and space.

The earliest known written poems come from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, where the development of writing systems such as cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and early alphabets enabled poets to record their compositions. Among these ancient civilizations, Mesopotamia stands out as the birthplace of Enheduanna, the world’s first known poet.

Enheduanna: The First Known Poet

Enheduanna, an Akkadian-Sumerian high priestess of the moon god Nanna (Sin) and daughter of the famous king Sargon of Akkad, is widely recognized as the first known poet in the world. She lived around 2285-2250 BCE in the ancient city of Ur, in present-day Iraq. Enheduanna’s significance lies not only in her status as the first poet whose name has come down to us but also in the profound impact of her literary and religious contributions.

Life and Historical Significance

Enheduanna was appointed as the high priestess of the moon god Nanna in the city of Ur, a position of immense religious and political importance. Her father, Sargon of Akkad, established one of the world’s first empires, unifying various city-states under his rule. As high priestess, Enheduanna played a crucial role in consolidating Sargon’s power by integrating the Sumerian religious traditions with the Akkadian ones, thereby legitimizing his rule and fostering unity within the empire.

Her political and religious influence extended beyond her lifetime, as she became a revered figure in Mesopotamian history. However, it is her literary works that have cemented her place in history as the first known poet.

Literary Contributions

Enheduanna’s surviving works include hymns and poems that were inscribed on clay tablets in cuneiform script. Her most famous works are the “Sumerian Temple Hymns” and the “Exaltation of Inanna” (also known as “Nin-Me-Sar-Ra”). These compositions are remarkable for their literary quality, theological depth, and personal expression.

1. Sumerian Temple Hymns: This collection of hymns is dedicated to various temples and deities across Sumer. The hymns not only praise the gods and goddesses but also reflect Enheduanna’s deep understanding of the religious and cultural significance of each temple. The hymns are notable for their structured composition, vivid imagery, and the blending of personal devotion with public religious expression.

2. Exaltation of Inanna: This poem is a passionate and personal hymn to the goddess Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, war, and justice. In this work, Enheduanna expresses her personal devotion and struggles, recounting her own experiences and hardships. The “Exaltation of Inanna” is particularly significant because it provides insight into Enheduanna’s personal life, her relationship with the divine, and her poetic voice.

The Broader Significance of Enheduanna’s Work

Enheduanna’s poetry is not only significant for its literary merit but also for its historical and cultural implications. Her works provide a window into the religious practices, societal norms, and political dynamics of ancient Mesopotamia. They reveal the role of women in religious and political spheres, highlighting the influence and agency of a female poet and priestess in a patriarchal society.

Cultural Integration and Political Power

Enheduanna’s hymns played a crucial role in the cultural integration of Sumerian and Akkadian religious traditions. By venerating both Sumerian and Akkadian deities, she helped to unify the diverse peoples of her father’s empire under a common religious framework. This integration was essential for maintaining the stability and cohesion of the empire, demonstrating the power of poetry and religious devotion in the service of political objectives.

Personal Expression and Literary Innovation

Enheduanna’s works are among the earliest examples of poetry that combine personal expression with public religious devotion. Her use of first-person narrative, emotional depth, and vivid imagery set her apart from other contemporary writers. Her ability to convey complex theological concepts and personal experiences through poetic language marks a significant development in the history of literature.

Legacy and Influence

Enheduanna’s influence extended far beyond her lifetime. Her hymns were copied and studied for centuries, becoming a part of the religious and literary canon of ancient Mesopotamia. Her works influenced subsequent generations of poets and scribes, shaping the development of Mesopotamian literature and religious practice.

The Impact of Enheduanna on Subsequent Literature

Enheduanna’s contributions laid the foundation for the rich literary traditions of Mesopotamia and beyond. Her works influenced not only contemporary poets and scribes but also the broader development of literary forms and themes in ancient literature. Her legacy can be seen in the continuation of poetic traditions that emphasize personal expression, religious devotion, and the use of structured forms.

Influence on Mesopotamian Literature

The themes and styles introduced by Enheduanna were carried forward by later Mesopotamian poets. Her integration of personal and religious elements became a hallmark of Mesopotamian poetry, reflected in later works such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” The epic, while different in form and content, shares Enheduanna’s focus on the human experience, divine interaction, and the quest for understanding and meaning.

Broader Impact on World Literature

Enheduanna’s pioneering use of personal expression and structured poetic form influenced not only Mesopotamian literature but also the broader literary traditions of the ancient world. Her works set a precedent for the use of poetry as a medium for exploring personal and theological themes, a tradition that can be traced through subsequent literary developments in ancient Egypt, Greece, and beyond.

The Role of Women in Ancient Literature

Enheduanna’s prominence as a female poet and high priestess challenges modern perceptions of the roles and agency of women in ancient societies. Her position and influence highlight the complexities of gender dynamics in ancient Mesopotamia, where women could hold significant religious and political power.

Women’s Agency in Ancient Mesopotamia

Enheduanna’s role as high priestess and poet underscores the importance of women in religious and cultural spheres. Her works provide evidence of the intellectual and spiritual contributions of women in ancient Mesopotamia, challenging the notion that women were largely passive figures in ancient history.

Inspiration for Future Generations

Enheduanna’s legacy as a pioneering female poet continues to inspire scholars, writers, and feminists. Her life and works serve as a testament to the enduring power of women’s voices in shaping cultural and literary traditions. Her contributions are celebrated as a foundational part of the history of literature, demonstrating the vital role of women in the development of human thought and expression.


Enheduanna stands as a monumental figure in the history of literature, recognized as the world’s first known poet. Her contributions to poetry, religion, and politics in ancient Mesopotamia have left an indelible mark on the literary world. Her works not only provide a glimpse into the religious and cultural practices of her time but also showcase the power of poetry as a medium for personal and public expression.

As we continue to explore the origins and evolution of poetry, Enheduanna’s legacy reminds us of the enduring impact of the written word and the profound ways in which it can shape and reflect human experience. Her pioneering spirit and literary innovation continue to resonate, inspiring new generations of poets and readers to appreciate the rich tapestry of human expression woven through the ages.

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