Saturday, February 11, 2023

Book Review Special: Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart

This was originally just going to be one of my bookpost shotgun reviews, but it swiftly became apparent that I had a lot of things to say about this frustrating, aggravating, obnoxious book.

Innana Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna

trans. Betty De Shong Meador
DNF 107/191

The author opens the book with a description of a prophetic dream. A prophetic dream of Meador's, not Enheduanna. This was the first warning. It gets worse.

For those unaware: Enheduanna is, to the best of current historical knowledge, the earliest named author in human history (There's some dissent on this point. For cleanlinesses' sake I will be sticking with the attestation being accurate). She was the daughter of Sargon, high priestess of the moon god Nanna in the city of Ur, and lived in the mid 2200s BCE. She wrote dozens of hymns (that we know about), all widely circulated throughout the empire and copied down regularly by temple scribes. More known nowadays are her devotional poems to the goddess Inanna, found under the titles Inanna and Ebih the Hymn to Inanna, and The Exaltation of Inanna.

Betty De Shong Meador is a second-wave feminist and a self-described "Jungian Analyst". She is not a historian, nor an archaeologist, nor an anthropologist. And it shows (oh, does it show). She couches the works of Enheduanna (a more skilled writer by far) in her own interpretive brackets, spending over half the book giving extremely questionable historical context and following it up by placing the lens of a second-wave feminist writing in 2000 over the works of a temple priestess / government official / daughter of Sargon McMotherfucking of Akkad who lived over 4000 years earlier. It is both aggravating and embarrassing: Meador will bend the text over backwards to support her narrative of "once there was idealized matriarchal stone-age one-with-nature goddess worship but then patriarchy happened and Enheduanna's hymns to Inanna are representative of her personally rebellion against the patriarchy" and I will direct readers two sentences back to the part where I mention that Enheduanna was the daughter of Sargon "King of War Crimes" of Akkad, and was appointed to her office by her father, and whose work was widely distributed and copied en masse throughout the empire and for centuries afterward. Enheduanna was many things, many of them cool and many of them impressive, but a revolutionary against The Man is not one of them.

In light of this, Meador's translation of the poems feels incredibly shaky. Every artist comes into a work with an intention to fulfill, and Meador is at the very least upfront that she has taken liberties with the source text, but her attached commentary and its authoritative tone remove any benefit of the doubt that might have been achieved.

Example: In her brief translation of Dumizid-Inanna P, Meador uses "peg" instead of "plough", which is enlightening: few are the people with the wrong-headedness necessary to remove the agricultural metaphors from Sumerian erotic poetry (spoilers: it is all farming metaphors, because it's Sumerian erotic poetry, they loved fucking and they fucking loved farming. Lines 18-27 of Segment C are entirely focused on making butter-churning as horny as humanly possible.)

In less damning but still disappointing news, she elected to translate the chorus of HE-ZU-AM in the Exaltation as "Proclaim!" instead of "It is known!" or "Be it known!", thereby stripping the translation of the punchy matching syllables.

But the translation is of lesser importance for this review than Meador's actual words (rather than the words she put in Enheduanna's mouth) Here are some quotes. Page numbers are all from the 2000 U. Texas Press edition.

"The image of a goddess or a god taking a person's hand that appears in many cylinder seal carvings from this era conveys the notion, heretofore unknown, of an individual's personal relationship to a deity. The world is altered by this new recognition of the value of the individual human being." (76)
Now the first sentence might have some weight to it, but the second is a hell of a claim to make. Sumeria was many things, and a humanist utopia was assuredly not one of them.

"At the beginning of a new millennium, humanity still suffers as a result of the separation of spirit from matter that took place in antiquity. Yahweh's split and Greek-influenced Christianity's additions to the separation of good and evil provide divine sanction for the dark/light oppositional mentality that pervades our psychology. Dominant monotheistic religions effectively taught generations that evil is outside ourselves, with Satan over there, in others. We learned to deny our own potential for evil. The splitting of good and evil by the Hebrew, and the subsequent Christian, god was persuasively supported by the Greek system of logical, rational thought that eventually superseded the primacy of nature and myth." (85-86)


[inhales deeply]

Satan started as a lawyer. He didn't become the adversary of God until after the Babylonian Exile, because that's when cosmic dualism got introduced via Zoroastrianism (plus a whole lot of other ideas!), which was later emphasized (but not introduced) by the influence of the Hellenic world and its philosophers. Like the ideas that went into the development of Christian hell are primarily from popular non-canonical sources like the Acts of Pilate and the Apocalypse of Peter.

Meador's retroactively applying theological stances to contexts separated from those ideas by centuries. And that's not even going into the audacity of trying to say that all Abrahamaic monotheism has the same ideas about evil. It'd be absurd to claim that all the denominations of a single one of the brothers would have the same worldview (Why you gotta do my friend and brother Pelagius dirty like that, Meador? Spinoza too.) Doubly absurd when you consider how Judaism and Islam treat the subject of personal responsibility and repentance wrt moral offenses (spoilers: it's nothing like Christianity)

(Meador makes no mention of Islam at all in this book, of course, though I suspect that's a blessing in this case.)

This is someone trying to score a slam dunk against Christianity but, instead of using the many, many legitimate avenues that already exist, has decided to try for something special and new against a target they know nothing about.

Also featured a bit before this segment - taking at face value the idea of Abraham as a historical figure she can conveniently use as the thru-line between the Sumerian pantheon and the Abrahamaic traditions, which is almost as absurd as "Moses was a priest under Akhenaten". I did not include a quote because I was tired of looking at the book and wanted to return it to the library as soon as possible. But she really does hinge an argument on the least-critical literalism I've seen outside of Christian fundamentalists.

"After Enheduanna's death, the superiority of her goddess was eroded bit by bit. the disregard for the fundamental primacy of nature and the increasing centrality of conquest, war, and armies in Mesopotamian culture glorified the conquering hero and diminished the role of goddesses in the pantheon." (109)
Let me remind you that, of the three poems dedicated to Inanna as featured in this book, the first one involves her choke-slamming a mountain named Ebih. Inanna murders a geographical feature because it exists and isn't currently groveling before her. That's it, that is the entire justification. In what conceivable universe is Inanna not associated with war and conquest? Inanna is Ishtar is Astarte is Asherah is Aphrodite is Venus Genetrix the mother of fucking Rome. Sargon (you know, Big Murder McGee?) specifically gave her credit for backing his ascent to the throne and his conquering of Mesopotamia! With an army!

"Enheduanna is caught between two vast ages, the ancient one dominated by the feminine principle of the divine in matter and the emerging new age dominated by the masculine spirit in a god that eventually existed entirely separate from matter as a result of Greek-influenced Christianity." (105)
Fuck right off with this gender-essentialist spirituality bullshit. Whatever point that could have been made about the changing of  spiritual worldviews that comes with drastic technological leaps like agriculture, metallurgy, organized states, organized warfare etc gets thrown right out the window because just like a romance language, Meador insists on gendering things that have no intrinsic gender to them. And conveniently ignores the fact that Inanna was not worshipped exclusively by women (Sargon "I got here thanks to Inanna's blessing" of Akkad, remember). She was an incredibly popular goddess.

And wasn't she decrying dualist morality systems where evil is an outside force earlier?

"The story of Ebih echoes the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis" (109)
Genesis was written two thousand years after Enheduanna lived, and furthermore drew inspiration from / was a response to the Enuma Elish, which was the primary creation account of the Babylonians during the time containing the Exile. And Babylonia =/= Sumeria.

"In the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden the author..."(109)
Authors. The Documentary Hypothesis first cropped up in the 1880s, this is not new or revolutionary information. This is literally week 1 of any decent collegiate biblical studies course.

"...attempts to grapple with the problem paradise poses. Like Mt. Ebih, the paradise where [YHWH] places Adam and Eve in is eternally abundant...A snag in the plan develops when Eve is drawn to the theriomorphic goddess, Snake, who, like her Neolithic snake sisters, carries the wisdom of the sacred in the natural world. Snake beckons Eve back into their ancient alliance where cyclic dark and light are held in a unifying round. Snake in this story plays the role of Inanna, the goddess who upholds the fundamental processes of the natural, material world." (109)



It's called THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH. A story that everyone in Mesopotamia would have known - including a bunch of exiled Israelite scribes and nobles currently living in Babylon. The Serpent in Eden is the same genre of literary trick as someone using a Darth Vader voice for the Devil when he's tempting Jesus in the desert.

Instead of using that rather reasonable stroke of Occam's Razor (again, literally week 1 of Intro to Theology), Meador is projecting the snake and lizard-headed goddess figurines of the Ubaid Period (~6700-3700 BCE) forward thousands of years while simultaneously projecting backwards her own belief in an idealized matriarchal one-with-nature goddess-worship that never existed because human beings are complicated. She's manufacturing a mythos whole-cloth and has the gall to claim that it has support from the archaeological record. Write a fantasy novel like the rest of us.

Lilith is a great character and all but she was invented to fill an editing mistake.

"None of the four directions Enheduanna depicts - warrior, priestess, lover, androgyne - represent traditional female domesticity [...] [Inanna] is not the tamed wife and mother, heavy with child, her fury cooled and softened by impregnation, her protective instincts raised to shield a child." (151)


Joke aside...actually no, no jokes aside. This bit's just bad. I had flipped ahead just to see if there was any reason to continue, found this passage, and decided that there was not.

I could almost see what she is going for with the pre-ellipsis bit... but what the fuck is "traditional female domesticity"? Traditional to whom? To an American audience in 2000? To the Akkadian Empire in 2250 BCE? To medieval Hungarian peasants? To Martians? There's going to be shit tons of variation within culture groups, both geographically and over time! Meador's making an argument by appealing to the idea of monolithic cultural legacy and setting up Inanna as a counter to those quote-unquote "traditional gender roles", which are spurious fabrications to begin with. People are complex! Culture is complex! Life is complex! "Traditional female domesticity", "traditional masculinity", that shit doesn't exist, it has never existed - it's branding. It's motherfuckers trying to sell you a past that never was. "Inanna is the opposite of this thing that has no basis in reality" is not a home-run argument - it self-undermines and turns right around to say "this image I have constructed of Inanna also has no basis in reality." (which, as we have seen, it doesn't)

And then post-ellipsis (the ellipsis is a brief mention of the Sumerian mother goddesses) we get...that. And perhaps I am blind to the rhetorical device Meador is using, but it certainly sounds like a casual dismissal of great swaths of human experience and I cannot tell if she is clumsily attempting to evoke the voice of a misogynist or if she does indeed hold that position. Considering the incredible conceptual stretches Meador makes throughout the book, I don't have enough benefit of the doubt to spare for the presumption of good faith at this point.

"I'm going to combat patriarchal oppression by replacing their needle-eye restrictive view of femininity with my own, equally restrictive view of femininity" is masterclass in hypocrisy and emblematic of this book's total failure. In trying to force Enheduanna and her work into the mold of a turn of the millennium American feminist, Meador has managed to blindly and clumsily argue for the point-of-view of the patriarchy she so fervently attempts to strive against - that there is only one correct expression of gender, that personhood is intrinsically tied to the capacity to do violence and everyone else is a kind of livestock. 

Inanna is cool. Enheduanna's poems are cool. I find the whole thing inspiring. But Inanna is also portrayed in those poems as violent to the point of psychosis and Enheduanna was the daughter of Sargon "I have run out of variants of this joke" of Akkad. We can appreciate without idolizing. I might channel the Exaltation when writing about Lu, but the whole smashing-the-foreign-nations-and that's-a-good-thing bit maybe isn't what I want to port over for that particular character and theme, you know? If the current spiritual landscape is unfulfilling, by all means make your own gods - but don't try to prune the past into shape so you can claim the benefits of an imaginary legacy.

Maybe Meador was just incapable of writing clearly, in which case the book is still bad, just for different reasons.

If you want better, freely available translations, look 'em up on ETCLS. Their version of the Exaltation is more proselike, but still pretty good. My favorite remains the Hallo / van Dijk 1968 translation, which is easy to find with a wee bit of snooping.


POSTSCRIPT EDIT: It occurs to me just now that if Meador really wanted to make a case of an ancient goddess getting gradually transformed and then erased through the influence of the Mediterranean powers, she should have just written about Cybele.


  1. If I ever talk about the kings of Neo-Assyria I will need to come up with a new gag.

  2. I was hoping this was going to be a "this book's flaws are so complex and so intertwined with its good qualities that I must unpack them for a whole post" long negative review, rather than a "fuck this fractally wrong bullshit" long negative review. Not for my sake--this was a great post--but for your own.

    Love it when self-hating Christians blame Christianity on the Jews. No, not love, the other thing. Yeah. Hate.

    1. The idea that she's a Christian seems pretty questionable.

    2. She's from a culturally Christian background even if she professes a vague spirituality--which is what I meant by "self-hating Christian".

    3. Yep. She is definitely someone who grew up surrounded by a particular strain of Christianity and decided that she never needed to learn anything else about it.

  3. This post made me relive my childhood discovery of Walker's "The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets" at a library book sale, which was good in some ways for a preteen boy to come across (certainly not the worst thing I've found at one of those) but included a lot of stuff that I had to unlearn in a piecemeal manner over a decade. I think that the argument Diane Purkiss made in "Women's Rewriting of Myth" on mother-goddess writing of this strain is a good one - it's ultimately beholden to the imaginations of male writers like Robert Graves and Erich Neumann, and as Adrienne Rich pointed out (for Neumann's Great Mother but it's prob true in general) that vision of the divine mother was more a product of their own gendered weirdness + an attempt at releasing men from their psychological issues. I'm less sure about Purkiss' broader argument in that paper - it feels Irigarayian without Irigaray, basically an odder narrower version of the point…plus I *like* Angela Carter - but that part in specific seems very hard to argue with, esp. in light of the above post.

    FWIW, I am sympathetic; in African hist, we deal with a lot of this kind of ostensibly liberatory mythmaking chained to actively harmful ideas and it's always more sad than anything else. Sucks that you didn't even get much value out of the translation.

    1. It feels like this sort of thing comes from the convergence of a personal spiritual need that needs filled plus the sort of unimagination that insists that something has to be literally true in order for it to be meaningful. So instead of admitting to themselves "yeah, it's not real, but it's representative of something meaningful" they have to invent a history for it.

  4. Sargon 'For Arts and Crafts day let's cover this pillar in flayed human skin,' that Sargon?
    Looks like RETVRN is kind of a garbage ideology from just about any perspective. Akkad was not, to my understanding, a very nice place.

    I shall have to look up the better translations you suggest!

  5. Sargon "Nice City State Shame if Something Happened To It" of Akkad

    As a rule, anyone who tells you ancient women were nice but ancient men were bastards is not to be trusted. Or, frankly, that any group of women are nice while the corresponding group of men are bastards. Or that almost any group in history were nice. Or that any group today are nice.

    Bastardy is a great constant of power and of groups, is my point.

    Also, of course farming is a metaphor for fucking. Have you SEEN farming? It's all creating stuff and things getting bigger and lots of fluids and seeds splashing around. Honestly, it's indecent. Scarcely know where to look when I see a field.

    I am guessing you may not be aware of this site:

    This one also seems decent:

  6. Replies
    1. Adoptionism and Pelagianism are the best of early Christian heresies, for sure.

  7. Aw man, this reminds me of feminist archaeological theory I encountered back at university. It was analysis of the ruins of Çatalhöyük and how the presence of a bull's head was a clear sign that this must have been a peaceful, ideal and perfect matriarchal society. Why? Because a bull's head is obviously a representation of a uterus. Seriously that was the line of argument. And moon symbols. Clearly the only possible interpretation was that this was a society that worshipped femininity.
    The past isn't a foreign country, it's an ideal projection surface, I guess.

    1. Woof, that's a stretch to give you cramps.

    2. "The past isn't a foreign country, it's an ideal projection surface, I guess."

      This line is amazing and I want you to know that.