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Nin-shata-pada, Scribe and Poet, Princess and Priestess[1]

Mask of goddess or, more likely, priestess. Carved from alabaster. Originally eyes and eyebrows inlaid. Hair perhaps covered with gold leaf. Found in Uruk, near the E-anna, the great temple of Inanna in the center of the city. Dated ca. 3300-3000 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Aruz 2003: 25 and figure 11a; Seibert 1974: Plate 7)

Enheduanna (En-hedu-anna),[2] daughter of Sargon the Great, was princess, priestess of the moon god Nanna at Ur in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, earthly embodiment of his spouse Nin-gal[3], and the first poet whose name we know.

We know the names of many high priestesses (en-priestesses or entu), a number of whom probably also wrote hymns and other literature for the temple. We can also tentatively identify en-priestesses from the rolled cap which they often wore.[4] However, not until 400 years after Enheduanna can we identify another priestess as author of a particular piece of writing.

An offering scene to a bearded and horn-crowned god enthroned before his temple. One offering might be the musical instrument (a bull lyre?) between the god and the male worshipper. The priest holds a spouted libation vessel. Behind and larger to show her importance is an en-priestess wearing the distinctive roll-brim hat (Winter 1987). Greenish translucent stone cylinder seal. Dated around 2400 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Collon 1990: 45 #30

Nin-shata-pada, too, was the daughter of a ruler, Sin-kashid, who first governed Durum, then became king of Uruk in 1860 BCE. He married Shallurtum, a Babylonian princess, daughter of Sumu-la-El (1880-1845 BCE), thus cementing an alliance with that growing kingdom (Hallo 1991: 380).[5]

Like many other kings in Mesopotamia, Sin-karshid followed the then-accepted policy of appointing close relatives to high posts in dependent or conquered cities.[6] Kings regularly assigned provincial governorships to their sons and made their daughters high priestesses of cities whose tutelary or guardian deity was male. Thus a son could get experience in ruling a city state, and a daughter, as spouse of a god and so the embodiment of a goddess, wielded considerable religious power and extensive political influence (Hallo 1991: 378-379).

When a queen or princess was installed as a priestess, she usually took a religious name with religious meaning. Nin-shata-pada's name means "Lady Chosen by [means of] the Heart [Omens]."[7] Particularly for the city of Ur, scholars know the official names of a large number of high priestesses and, often, how long they lived (Sollberger 1954-1956: 24-46). For instance, Queen Pu-abi of Ur, whose remains and grave goods were found in the great Royal Cemetery at Ur (2550-2400 BCE), was probably also a priestess.[8] Another royal woman who was both a princess and a priestess was Tuta-napshum. She was installed as en-priestess of the high god En-lil during the reign of Sargon's grandson Naram-Sin (2260-2223 BCE) (Frayne 1993: 122-124, 175).

Banquet scenes on a cylinder seal found in the great royal Cemetery at Ur, near the body of Queen Pu-abi. The top register shows a woman with an elaborate hairdo seated on a throne-like chair and holding a cup. Female servants stand on either side of her. Opposite her is a bald male (a priest?) flanked by bald male servants, one of whom seems to be about to strike a hand bell. The scene below is an all-male one, featuring bald men who are probably priests. The inscription beside the upper register reads: Nin Pu-abi "Lady Pu-abi." So the enthroned lady is likely to be Pu-abi, the second wife of King Meskalamdug. She seems to be dressed as a priestess and taking part in a ritual (Collon 1990: 19). Lapis lazuli. Dated 2550-2400 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Aruz 2003: 109 figure 60a

The headdress and jewelry of Queen Pu-abi, made from gold leaf, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and carnelian from the Indus Valley. The circlet with spiral trim is draped with willow and beech leaves and topped with small, blue-and-white-filled, gold rosettes. The huge gold comb is surmounted by larger rosettes, also originally filled with blue and white paste. All the rosettes have eight-petals, usually a symbol of the goddess Inanna. Her enormous earrings are double crescents. Clearly the crown and its parts are symbolic, and some scholars suggest that they represent fertility (Pittman in Aruz 2003: 111). Dated 2550-2400 BCE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Aruz 2003:110 Plate 61a

Seal belonging to a female servant of the princess and priestess Tuta-napshum, who served as entu of the high god En-lil of Nippur. Her Semitic name probably means "She Has Found Life" (Frayne 2007, personal communication). The priestess, wearing the flounced robe of deity, sits on a dais with a sacred tree behind her. She wears an odd, pointed crown. Standing before her, a servant, probably the seal owner, holds what looks like a musical instrument. The inscription reads: "Tuta-napshum, entu priestess of the god En-lil: Aman-Ashtan, the deaf woman, the prattler, (is) her female servant" (Frayne 1993: 175). As entu of En-lil, Tuta-napshum embodied his spouse Nin-gal "Great Lady." Tuta-napshum was daughter of Naram-Sin, king of Sumer and Akkad (2260-2223 BCE) and great-granddaughter of Sargon the Great (Frayne 1993: 122-124).
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Frayne 1993: cover illustration

Priestly office was for life, and for most women it was an unusually long and interesting life.[9] When the priestess's city was conquered, however, she could be ousted from her temple and even exiled.[10]

In Nin-shata-pada's time, the southern cities of Isin and Larsa made numerous attempts to control Mesopotamia.

The large and flourishing kingdom of Larsa had three principal neighbors and rivals, Babylon, Isin, and Uruk. In 1804 BCE Rim-Sin, king of Larsa, captured Durum, the dependent city of Uruk where Nin-shata-pada lived, and in 1803 BCE he took Uruk, still ruled by Nin-shata-pada's father's dynasty. Uruk's 60 years of independence were at an end. Rim-Sin would have the longest recorded rule (1822-1763 BCE) in Mesopotamia's history (Leick 1999: 135).

According to Nin-shata-pada, Rim-Sin treated Uruk and its population with great clemency (Hallo 1991:387), and this fact likely persuaded her to plead her own cause to the conqueror, as well as that of her city Durum.

In a letter-prayer addressed not to a deity, as was more usual, but to a king, the writer describes herself:

This is what Nin-shata-pada the woman scribe,
Priestess of the divine Meslamtaea,
Daughter of Sin-kashid king of Uruk,
Your servant girl, says … (Hallo 1991: 387).

Nin-shata-pada's letter-poem tells us that, at time of writing, she had been living away from Durum for over four years. Clearly, for her, as for Enheduanna centuries earlier, this situation was unbearable: "… they make me live like a slave. I have none who understand me." She continues: "I am changed in my appearance (and) whole being; my body being dead, I walk about bowed down."

When Rim-Sin took Durum, Nin-shata-pada was already an old woman: "Though vigorous, I am abandoned in old age like a day which has ended" (Hallo 1991: 388). Nin-shata-pada makes it clear that she was used to living a very comfortable life, in a pleasant house with slaves and servants to do her bidding. On the other hand, she had her own temple work to do: attending and conducting rituals, supervising and appearing at festivals. Most of all, she was the visible embodiment of the god's wife, the goddess on earth.

Her spouse Meslamta-ea was a god of the Underworld and one of the Great or Divine Twins, his brother being Lugal-Erra. Meslamta-ea was tutelary or protector deity of Durum, and the city was the foremost cult center of the combined worship of the Twins (Hallo 1991:379). Representing the astral sign Gemini, they guarded entrances. Visually they were identical, each wearing a horned hat, bearing a mace, and brandishing an axe. Meslamta-ea's spouse, the goddess whom Nin-shata-pada incorporated or embodied, was Mamitu(m), Mama, or Mami, a mother goddess and deity of childbirth.[11] Her foremost title was "Mistress of All the Gods" (Black and Green 2003: 123-124, 133, 136; Leick 1998: 114). Neither Meslamta-ea nor Mami was among the first rank of deities, but neither were they minor. Both were identified with major deities: Meslamta-ea with the great god of the Underworld Nergal; and Mami, with the great earth goddess Ninhursag (Nin-hursaga). So Nin-shata-pada, though bereft of her city and her temple, was still a significant high priestess.

Nin-shata-pada's prayer-letter was preserved as part of the curriculum of scribal schools, and its "very language was that of the royal scribes…" (Hallo 1983: 17). This is not surprising, given that, in the letter, she identifies herself as a scribe. It is arguable that scribes were the most important persons in ancient Mesopotamia (Saggs 1965: 72). To be a scribe was to be the cream of the cream. Few men, and even fewer women, achieved that height. A person needed both the connections to get admitted to a scribal school and determination to survive long, hard, and expensive years of rigorous training. Despite her elite status, Nin-shata-pada still had to overcome the limitations imposed on her sex. So becoming a scribe was no mean achievement (Hallo 1983: 17). Then she became a high priestess, a position for which her training had fitted her. And then, from exile, she wrote her famous letter-prayer.

Whether Rim-Sin greeted Nin-shata-pada's plea favorably we do not know. Certainly her scribal training was a great asset, in that she was able to employ the language normal in hymns and inscriptions to draw a very flattering picture of the conqueror. I like to think that Rim-Sin responded positively to her prayer by restoring her to her place in the temple at Durum and that she lived out the remainder of her life as Mami, the goddess of birth and motherhood.


  1. I should like to thank Prof. D. Frayne of the University of Toronto for suggesting this topic to me and for providing me with references and translations.
  2. The name she took when she became a priestess. Means "Priestess, Ornament of Heaven." We do not know what her birth name was.
  3. See my article "Inanna, Goddess of Infinite Variety" in MatriFocus, Samhain 2004, for some discussion of En-hedu-anna and a drawing of the disk in which she is depicted. See also Frayne 1993: 35-36.
  4. According to Irene Winter, the rolled cap was the headdress of the high priestess. See Winter 1987.
  5. Eventually Hammu-rapi the Great of Babylon invaded and conquered the south and included all the city-states there in his short-live kingdom of Sumer and Akkad (Frayne 1989: 28). He conquered Rim-Sin and Larsa in 1783 BCE.
  6. Perhaps as crown prince, he himself had previously held the governorship of Durum. See Hallo 1991: 379 and Hallo 1983: 14.
  7. The word sha refers to innards, here particularly to the innards of a sacrificial animal, the reading of which by a specialist priest would produce an omen. Undoubtedly the omens confirmed the choice of the king's daughter, who was already pre-selected.
  8. The inscription on a seal found near Pu-abi's body reads: Nin Pu-abi "Lady Pu-abi" (Aruz 2003: 110).
  9. Perhaps explained by the fact that some priestesses, especially the highest-ranking ones, were forbidden to bear children. Childbirth was one of the leading causes of death for women in ancient times.
  10. See Meador 2000: 171-180 for a translation of the poem Enheduanna wrote about her exile from Ur.
  11. In "Creation of Man by the Mother Goddess," part of an incantation, Mami the Wise functioned as divine midwife. Then, as creator of destiny, she shaped seven female/male pairs of humans from clay mixed with the blood of a slain deity (Speiser in Pritchard 1969: 100).


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  • Charpin, Dominique. 2004. "Histoire politique du Proche-orient amorrite [Teil I]." Pages 25-480 in D. Charpin, D.O. Edzard, and M. Stol. Mesopotamien: Die altbabylonische Zeit. Fribourg, Switzerland: Academic Press
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  • Frayne, Douglas. Forthcoming. "Excursus: Notes on the History and Location of Al-[Sh]arraki." In D. Owen. Unprovenanced Texts Primarily From Iri-Sagrig/Al-[Sh]arraki and Ur III Period. In press
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