Readers of our blog (you know who you are, all three of you!) are well aware of our abiding interest in history, good writing, and page-turning whodunits. We love it even more if all three of those areas have a happy convergence. What may be lesser known is our occasional fascination for some historical detective work of our own — whether it is wondering when the business of sleuthing began, or how the Mayan civilization collapsed, or what mysteries lie hidden in the fossils of Ariyalur.
So when my friend and collaborator, Srikrishna, sent me a recent article in the Guardian about an exhibition of manuscripts by the earliest known women writers in English, I couldn’t help but ask the obvious question: who were the first women writers in history? We have always been fans of women writers on this blog (see our previous post, which is a great starting point for anyone who wants to explore women writers of historical fiction, and our podcasts, which highlight a number of leading women writers in this genre). So I had more than enough incentive to research the answer to my self-posed question.
And here’s what I found, in what I would like to think was my informed, but unscientific quest. The consensus among many historians and literary scholars is that Enheduana, a high priestess in ancient Sumeria, is not only the first female author and poet in history, but in all likelihood, the world’s first author by name, male or female. She was the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad and her poems about the goddess Inanna, written in the 3rd millennium BC, quite possibly influenced the psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric hymns of Greece. Paul Kriwaczek’s excellent history of Babylon, worth reading in its own right, offers a fascinating glimpse of Enheduana’s life and writings.
Other parts of the ancient world can equally lay claim to women writers of great distinction. In India, the Avvaiyars (Tamil for “wise women”), were a series of several female poets, the first of whom lived and wrote in the Sangam period, between the 1st and 2nd century AD. A second Avvaiyar lived in the Chola period in the 10th century AD, and wrote poems which remain popular even today, often recited in Tamil schools in India. In China, several sources credit the Lady Xu Mu, who lived in the 7th century AD, as being the first recorded female poet in Chinese. Her haunting poems of homesickness and longing were not only appreciated by her contemporaries from the period, but also admired by later generations. Greece, never far from any conversation about ancient culture, has its own share of the market on early women writers. Sappho’s enduring reputation as an extraordinary lyric poet of antiquity has survived the passage of time and the loss of most of her works. Plato even called her the “the tenth muse.” However, I found very little about her life, other than the broad outlines of where and when she lived (between 615 and 550 BC, on the island of Lesbos).
Regretfully, that’s about as far as I went. I know it’s a mere scratch on the surface of the vast body of women’s writing through the ages. But I would like to think it’s not half bad for a pleasant afternoon spent clicking through online sources and quaffing multiple cappuccinos (I refuse to confirm how many, out of respect for the 5th amendment). Of course, I need hardly say that being an informed fan is not the same as being an expert, so take what I have found with a grain of salt (or if you’re so inclined, a suitable glass of wine, or god forbid, multiple cappuccinos).
And do tell us what you think, especially if you feel there are other women writers from history that we should explore on this blog. We are always on the lookout for any excuse to read and write on our favorite topics!