A woman picks up her stylus …

22 Oct 2020

LMU researchers have shown that one of the most significant literary texts that survives from Late Bronze Age Mesopotamia was very probably written by a woman, and not by a man, as hitherto assumed – a minor sensation for experts.

Professor Enrique Jiménez sitzt am Tisch und betrachtet einen Gegenstand in der Hand.


You recently discovered that one of the oldest literary texts in the world was written by a woman called Bullussa-rabi. Up to now, the text had been attributed to a male author. How did you come to challenge this assumption? Enrique Jiménez: In the context of our project on electronic Babylonian Literature (eBL), we are re-examining, translating and preparing commentaries on all the important literary texts from ancient Mesopotamia, based on sources that survive from the first millennium BCE. Many of these texts contain gaps, and we are developing algorithms and assembling databases with a view to finding text fragments that fill these gaps. There are huge numbers of fragments in museums, which we hope to place in their original contexts. One of these incomplete texts is the famous Hymn to Gula, the Babylonian goddess of medicine and healing.

Why did this particular text become famous? Enrique Jiménez: It is one of the most significant literary texts that we know of from Mesopotamia, dating back to the Middle Babylonian Period around 1300 BCE. Although the earliest manuscript versions we have are some 700 years younger, we know that the text itself is much older than that. Some of the most important texts that survive were composed between 1400 and 1300 BCE. It was a Golden Age of literature, a Renaissance, so to speak. Unfortunately, we possess very few original sources from that time. We have many more texts from later centuries. Most of these, including many manuscripts of the Hymn to Gula by Bullussa-rabi, come from the library assembled by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668–631 BCE). In the text, the goddess speaks in the first person and praises her own attributes. “I am the best of all goddesses, I am surpassingly beautiful,” she says. The text became a literary classic. But its Mesopotamian readers found the notion of a goddess who speaks about herself in the first person both astonishing and amusing, which prompted the composition of parodies of the original.

So in its day, this was a very popular text. Enrique Jiménez: Indeed, the hymn was probably familiar to virtually everyone, and it became an exemplary text that was used to teach the cuneiform script to students.

Experts have long assumed that the author of this hymn was a man. Enrique Jiménez: That’s because, in this hymn, the name of the author appears at the end. In cuneiform script, two characters were used to indicate a person’s gender, masculine and feminine. As a rule, the character is placed before the personal name, like Mr. or Ms. In the case of Bullussa-rabi, the sign found in later manuscripts is always masculine. Apparently, later generations automatically assumed that all authors were men.

What led you to doubt the established consensus? Enrique Jiménez: We had previously come across a similar case, which actually concerned the oldest literary text we have from Ancient Mesopotamia. As we now know, this text was also written by a woman. Her name was Enheduanna and she was the daughter of Sargon, one of the greatest kings in the history of Mesopotamia, who reigned in the Akkadian period around 2200 BCE. In fact, there are many hymns which bear her name, but there is no explicit gender marker in any of them. So the identity of the author of these texts remained unclear for a long time. Then we discovered references to Enheduanna in other texts, which indicated that she was Sargon’s daughter. She is the earliest known female author in the history of literature. Interestingly, she wrote many hymns in praise of Inanna/Ishtar, the goddess of love and the most powerful goddess in the Babylonian pantheon.

Drawing of newly assembled fragments of the "Catalogue of texts and authors". / Tonio Mitto/LMU

When did you become convinced that the case of Bullussa-rabi was worth pursuing? Enrique Jiménez: My colleague Zsombor Földi was working on the Gula Hymn in our “electronic Babylonian Literature” database, which includes images and transliterations of several unpublished fragments of the text. He also carried out a parallel search for references to the name ‘Bullussa-rabi’ in historical documents. This revealed that the name turns up in only nine administrative records. Strikingly, all of these texts can be dated to around 1300 BCE, which falls within the reign of Nazi-Maruttash (1307-1282 BCE), who was apparently an appreciative lover of literature. Very probably, this is also the time during which the Gula Hymn was composed. But the most important point is that – in all nine documents that we found – the term ‘Bullussa-rabi’ is clearly marked as a woman’s name. Given that these documents are more or less contemporaneous, it is quite possible that all of them refer to the same person.

So is this Bullussa-rabi the author of the hymn? Enrique Jiménez: That seems unlikely. Nevertheless, we can be sure that during this Golden Age, the name was given only to women. So we then asked which texts are attributed to Bullussa-rabi in the catalogs of Assurbanipal’s Library. As in the case of Enheduanna’s works, all are hymns dedicated to goddesses.

Was it a surprise for you to realize that you had identified, almost in passing, one of the earliest female authors in the history of world literature? Enrique Jiménez: Of course! It came as a big surprise and was very exciting. Nobody had previously made the connection.

Had previous researchers found no reasons to consider the possibility that the author could have been a woman? Enrique Jiménez: As I mentioned, the text is written from the point of view of the goddess herself. So it is not surprising that it sounds like a woman’s voice. – I’m not at all sure whether a male author could have written such an emotionally charged text (laughs)! It’s also interesting that it resembles the hymns written by Enheduanna, who also specialized to a large extent in hymns dedicated to goddesses. There are no known examples of this type of genre specialization among male authors.

What else do we know about Bullussa-rabi? Enrique Jiménez: All we know of this Bullussa-rabi comes from the economic texts in which the name appears. But we haven’t given up the quest for the poet. Almost all of the texts we have from this period come from the city of Nippur, one of the oldest in Mesopotamia, indeed one of the oldest cities we know of. It seems likely that the Gula Hymn was composed there. Later sources tell us that Bullussa-rabi was a native of Babylon, but that’s probably untrue. Nippur enjoyed a status that can be compared to that of Jerusalem. It was by far the most important religious center in Mesopotamia, and in Mesopotamia‘s Golden Age it was also a city of culture and literature.

The earliest surviving texts of the Gula Hymn date from hundreds of years later. At least four copies were recovered from the famous Library of Assurbanipal in Niniveh. In these sources from the first millennium BCE, Bullussa-rabi’s name is always taken to refer to a man. Is this a reflection of the attitudes that prevailed in that period, or were other motives involved? Enrique Jiménez: We have no grounds for assuming that the misattribution was deliberate, but it remains a possibility. My own feeling is that it might be an instance of what we would now refer to as unconscious bias. If all the authors who were active around 700 BCE were males, then it would not be surprising that Bullussa-rabi was also assumed to be a man. In later lists of hymns, all the authors identified are men. During the Golden Age, when the Gula Hymn was composed, personal names were not systematically written with the appropriate indicator of the person’s gender.

Do you think that there might be other instances of works by female authors being claimed by men during this period? Enrique Jiménez: Yes. In my view, that seems very likely. Our most important list of authors comes from the Library of Assurbanipal, the “Catalog of Works and Authors”. This records the names of about 20 male authors, and a few deities, who wrote literary texts. It also mentions a horse and a crow as the authors of one text each. If Bullussa-rabi is erroneously identified as a man in this list, there is no reason to think that this is an isolated instance of misattribution. For specialists in the field, our discovery was something of a sensation. Many of our colleagues have now begun to explore whether other hymns written by Bullussa-rabi can be identified in the corpus of literary texts, and whether there might not be other examples of misattribution.

How do you set about finding hymns like this? Enrique Jiménez: In the literature of ancient Mesopotamia, the first line of a text served as its title. If a cuneiform tablet is damaged and the opening line is missing, the task becomes very difficult. We actually have many hymn texts addressed to goddesses for which we lack the first lines, and it is quite probable that some of them were written by Bullussa-rabi. But the eBL project can help. Hardly a day goes by on which we fail to find fragments that can be assigned to known texts. Only last night, one of my colleagues found a small piece that restores the title of one of these “classics”. Sometimes, as in that case, it’s only a few words that fill in a gap. But for us, every new find is immensely gratifying.

So the eBL Project plays a central role in discoveries like this one? Enrique Jiménez: It is a tremendously important resource for us. In our database alone, there are 200,000 lines of unidentified text. We are making steady progress. Over the past few weeks, we have discovered in our collection four new fragments of the all-important “Catalogue of Works and Authors”. I am confident that we will find other hymns that can be attributed to Bullussa-rabi.

Interview: Hubert Filser

Enrique Jiménez is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Literature at the Institute for Assyriology and Hittite Studies at LMU Munich. In addition to Prof. Jiménez himself, Dr. Zsombor Földi, graduate student Tonio Mitto and research assistant Adrian Heinrich contributed to the discoveries described here.

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