Many people, when asked to name an early scientist who is a woman, say Hypatia (Hy-pa-ti'-a). Actually they are about 2700 years too late! Women have been active in science since the beginning of written history. So cast your thoughts backward in time to 4300 years ago. This was the time of Sumer (an ancient civilization in southern Mesopotamia – modern Iraq). Writing had had not been around for very long (developed c. 3000 BCE).
Fortunately we have an abundance of Sumerian literature. They used cuneiform: imprints in damp clay, which was then allowed to harden. Initially the Sumerians used writing primarily as a form of record keeping. The most common cuneiform tablets recorded transactions of daily life: tallies of cattle, sheep, and goats kept by herders for their owners, production figures, lists for taxes, accounts, and contracts – the legalities we use today are not new.
There are tablets of letters and poetry as well. Each letter came encased in a slightly larger baked clay closed container, just as we use envelopes today. Poetry was used for other communications (e.g., stories, religious works, laws, regulations, songs). Another category of cuneiform writing includes a large number of basic texts which were used to teach future generations of scribes. By 2500 BCE there were schools built just for this purpose with female as well as male scribes(1). Cuneiform tablets are not large; they are typically less than 25 centimeters on a side – small enough to fit into a pocket. What we would deem ‘literature’ developed from these early letters and poems.
The most famous Sumerian epic, and the one that has survived in the most nearly complete form, is the epic of Gilgamesh. The story of Gilgamesh, who actually was king of the city-state of Uruk in approximately 2700 BCE, is a moving story of the ruler’s deep sorrow at the death of his friend and of his consequent search for immortality. We do not know who wrote this great epic.
The first poems whose author we do know are the wonderful poems of En’Hedu’anna (c. 2300 BCE), the en-priestess of the city of Ur. Three long poems to the goddess Inanna, three poems to the god Nanna, and forty-two temple hymns(2) are still found in translation today. I have seen the famous tablet she wrote honoring the Goddess Inanna. It is kept in the tablet vaults at the University Museum in Philadelphia. She was the only daughter of Sargon of Akkad (2334 – 2290 BCE) who established her in this leading position of the en-priestess. There are now excellent web sites describing her life and works.
En’Hedu’anna in cuneiform
With our first name, En’Hedu’anna, the tradition of women in science and technology begins. ‘En’ is a title of leadership. “Hedu’anna” means ‘ornament of heaven’, the name given to her when she was installed as en-priestess. We do not know her birth name. She was the chief astronomer-priestess and as such managed the great temple complex of her city of Ur. She controlled the extensive agricultural enterprise surrounding the temple as well those activities scheduled around the liturgical year. Although we do not have modern type technical works from her (and we would not expect to have them) we know that she was a learned, diversely talented woman of power. And we have her poems. She used her creative talents in the written word, spreading her ideas and beliefs. Her poetry forms the first written form of a religious belief system. She has been called the Shakespeare of ancient Sumerian literature because her works were studied and recited for more than 500 years after her death(3). One of her hymns, number eight, contains an interesting clue. The poem has the following lines in it:
in the gipar(4) the priestesses’ rooms
that princely shrine of cosmic order
they track the passage of the moon.(5)
There must have been some sort of calendar keeping (astronomy) intrinsic to her position. As we know, it is from the work of these early trackers of the Moon that modern liturgical calendars developed. We date Easter, Passover, and Ramadan using the work derived from the ancient Sumerians. Another of her poems describes her work
The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom,
She consults a tablet of lapis lazuli
She gives advice to all lands...
She measures off the heavens,
She places the measuring-cords on the earth.
This is the work of a scientist. I like to think of us as wise. Lapis Lazuli was rare, so it would be used to hold something of vast importance. To measure off the heavens is to engage in astronomy. To measure the Earth is surveying as well as astronomy. These are all technical subjects requiring great skill to accomplish.
There exists an alabaster disk (also in the University Museum in Philadelphia) that shows her in a procession. She appears in full religious regalia, the third person from the right on this restored alabaster disc 25.6 cm in diameter. En’Hedu’anna is our first woman of power and scholarship whose name we know, and the last in a long line of unknown powerful women of the past who followed the stars and the cycles of the Moon. For the next 500 years a daughter of the king was en-priestess of Ur.
|Alabaster disk showing En’Hedu’anna|
Courtesy University Museum
Around the time of En’ hedu’anna there were a few other early scientists (one happens to be male); however, they are more shrouded in myth than En’hedu’anna. She stands out as one of our great scientists. She certainly was not a woman scientist. That implies that the single word ‘scientist’ (without the accompanying gender) means male. Women have shared the exciting world of science and technology with men from the very beginning of written history. So we drop the identifying gender unless we use it for both.
For more information on En’hedu’anna see the Web. Our web site for students contains a little information about her and many others. The book The Hidden Giants (third edition) available from Amazon contains a lot of material on hundreds of scientists who happened to be women.
(1) Amat-Mamu was a female scribe during the time of Hammurabi.
(2) Inanna, lady of largest heart, Betty De Shong Meador, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2000.
(3) Fryner-Kensky In the Wake of the Goddesses, NY, The Free Press, 1992
(4) Her sacred private quarters in the temple were called the gipar.
(5) translation by Betty De Shong Meador, Inanna, lady of largest heart, Betty De Shong Meador, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2000.