Minna Canth – Finland’s First Feminist

Because it’s my Mum’s birthday, I want to honor another badass mother today. After her husband died, she raised their seven(!) kids by herself and even found time to not only manage the family store, but also fight for gender equality, writing text that were way ahead of her time. Let me introduce you to Minna Canth.

We’re in Tampere, Finland in Spring 1844 and a after their first son had died in infancy, textile worker Gustav Johnsson and his wife Ulrika were overjoyed when their daughter Ulrika Wilhelmina, or Minna for short, was born. In 1850 another boy would follow and two years later another girl. One year after her little sister was born, her father was promoted to managing a yarn store and the whole family moved to Kuopio. Even before that she had attended the school at the factory her father worked for and continued her education in her new home. The shop was so successful under her father’s management that Minna was even admitted to an upper class school! 

That meant she was able to get a much better education than most working-class women at the time, not only learning the basics of reading and writing, but also history and geography and mathematics! Besides the main language, Swedish, she also learned to speak German, French and Russian, while at home she spoke Finnish. (Back then Swedish was the official language of Finland and it wasn’t until 1923 that Finnish was recognized in the same way.) Half the day was put aside for crafts – of course, it was a women’s school – but Minna really didn’t have the patience for that, she’d much rather devour every book she could find. 

When a school to train female teachers was established in a city near her home, 19 year old Minna was among the first to apply. The Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary was the first school in Finland to make higher education accessible for women and of course Minna wanted in. And she got in. 

In 1963 she began her education as a primary school teacher and she absolutely loved it! Not only was she elated to keep learning, but she also loved the philosophy of teaching and unexpectedly enjoyed the hour of gymnastics everyday and regular outdoor activity. In her journals she wrote: “Here, even the careless, like me, are forced to take better care of their health” and the habit of daily exercise and long walks would accompany her throughout her life. Minna also found love somewhere unexpected: in her natural science teacher Johan Ferdinand Canth. And in 1965 the two of them married. Unfortunately that also meant that she wasn’t allowed to continue her education at the Teacher Seminary, as married women weren’t allowed to study at the time. 

Even though her formal years of education were over, Minna had learned a lot and began to see society – and especially the role of women within it – in a whole new light. But for now she fully immersed herself in married life, taking care of the household while her husband worked at the school and as a newspaper editor. Her joy and pride was tending to the garden where she grew vegetables that not only fed her family but also produced a bit of income at the side. Apparently Minna had inherited her father’s talent as a salesperson. But not only her garden grew, her family did too. Between 1866 and 1890 the Canths had seven children!

Somehow in 1974 Minna found the time to start writing for the newspaper her husband worked at, focussing on women’s issues. She was incredibly happy to finally have intellectual stimulation in her life again, or as she called it “spiritual nourishment.” Her articles didn’t go over with the editors however and both her and her husband had to leave the paper only two years later. They were both immediately hired by the competition though and Minna began publishing her first fiction stories. They were even collected in a book in 1878!

But the happy family life came to a screeching halt when Johan Canth died unexpectedly in July 1879, leaving Minna alone with six children and a seventh on the way. Not only was she now a widow at 35, she was also really really broke.

She knew that continuing to write only newspaper articles would not sustain a large family like hers for long, so she thought bigger and sent a play to the Finnish National Theater in Helsinki where it was enthusiastically accepted. This would lead to a lifelong partnership with the director of the institution who taught her much. Still Minna knew it would be hard staying in the big city and after her youngest daughter Lyyli was born, she sold the family home in Jyväskylä and took her children on a three-day journey back to her hometown, Kuopio.

Returning home after 17 years of absence, Minna lost no time. Her parents had opened their own draper’s shop, but her father had died shortly after and now it wasn’t doing too well. So Minna took charge. Soon she had turned business around and was earning enough to not only take care of her seven kids and the family cat, but her mother and ailing brother as well. After her brother’s death in 1884, she took over his general store as well and she seems to have had a real talent for business: in 1895 she was elected as the first woman to be a voting representative in the General Merchant Meeting. There wouldn’t be another woman of a similar rank for the next 100 years. She also greatly enjoyed the freedom her existence as a businesswoman granted her. She made enough to hire people and finally, finally she had the time to write again!

Her home in Kuopio quickly became a meeting point for intellectuals and creative to discuss new ideas and Minna established a women’s circle to discuss social issues and needed reforms. But she didn’t just keep her ideas in her home, she wrote articles focussing on social and gender inequality for different newspapers and even planned a women’s magazine for which she ended up being too busy. Even if Swedish was the official language and she did speak it well, Minna made the choice to write in Finnish. Not only the language was unusual, but her opinions were often controversial and way ahead of her time as well – her topics included the wealth divide, public education, sexual repression and morality, as well as the stigma against sick and disabled people.

Often the deeper meaning of her work was overlooked in order to criticize the imperfect but very human characters and progressive ideas; some of her works were even banned! In 1889 she started a newspaper where she translated texts from all over Europe to debate international ideas with her readers, but that too was censored after just one year. She knew that she was ahead of her time – “a woman of a completely new age,” she called it – but she never gave up trying to usher in that new age for everyone else. 

And she had her personal reasons to keep standing up to against the system. As her daughters grew older she once again realized how difficult it was for a woman to get a good education. Without further ado she hired high school boys to teach her daughters what they learned, like mathematics and Latin, in addition to their regular lessons at the girls’ school. Of course Minna didn’t just stop at that. She and some members of her women’s group saw the need for women’s education and In 1886 the first Finnish-language co-educational school in the country was established – all paid for via fundraisers! One of her daughters, Elli, followed her mother as an intellectual, even going to Switzerland for a few years to study natural medicine. I imagine that must have made Minna very happy, as she firmly believed that to achieve true gender equality, we must empower our young women, not only by educating them but also by teaching them to navigate the world outside the home without relying on a husband.

And we know that at least with Elli she did a great job in doing so for her own daughters. When Minna died in 1897, at age 53, Elli and her brother Jussi continued their mother’s businesses and they kept operating (under various names) until 1974! But Minna’s story is not completely over yet. Ten years after her death, Finland became the first European country to give women the right to vote. It is not unlikely that her writings had at least a little influence on that progress. 

image credits:

1: “Finnish author Minna Canth (1844-1897) in her youth (age 13-16)” from her biography “Monisärmäinen Minna Canth : kirjoituksia hänestä ja hänen tuotannostaan” by Liisi Huhtala, 1998 – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
2: “Finnish author Minna Canth (1844-1897) and lecturer (teacher) Johan Ferdinand Canth (1835–1879) in Jyväskylä” from the biography by Liisi Huhtala, mentioned above – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
3: “One of the first uses of photographs in Finnish newspapers – Uusi Kuvalehti, June 1891, published in Kuopio – In picture: Kuopio-based authors Minna Canth and Juhani Aho” – from the biography by Liisi Huhtala, mentioned above – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
4: “Landscape from the cathedral tower” – Kuopio between 1889 and 1893, Minna Canth’s house is the light one at the corner. Photo: Aug. Schuffert [cropped] – Link
5: “Screw game in Kanttila [Minna Canth’s house in Kuopio]” – Pictured are Hanna Levander (left), Alma Tervo, Maiju Canth and Minna Canth, between 1890 and 1896. Photographer unknown – Digitized at the Kuopio Museum of Cultural History – Link
6: “Finnish author Minna Canth (1844-1897)” – date and photographer unknown – via Wikipedia Commons – Link

Li Qingzhao – Protector of History

Today I want to bring you a story of a happy marriage between two bookworms. They were collecting historical artifacts and writing each other love letters …until they lost their home and most of their beloved collection. And then her husband died too. It’s a lot. This is a story of a picture perfect life turning to ashes, but it’s also a story of resilience and protecting what we love. This is the story of Li Qingzhao. 

Born around 1084 in Zhangqiu, China as the first child of a family of scholars and government officials, Qingzhao had a great start in life! Her father was the headmaster of the capital’s university and saw to it that all of his children, one boy and three girls, received a thorough education. The family seems to have been fairly progressive as the girls’ feet were not bound, a popular custom throughout China at the time. Furthermore when Qingzhao started writing in her teens, she was taken seriously by her family and encouraged to pursue her passion. And so she developed into an intelligent and outgoing young woman.

When she was 18 years old, she entered an arranged marriage with Zhao Mingcheng, who was 23 years old and a poet as well. I’m a bit confused as to why he was chosen for her, as their parents had different opinions in politics (her father was a conservative, while his father was a reformist) and they were not particularly wealthy. But it turned out to be a wonderful match. Although Mingchen was often gone for work and they were never particularly wealthy, they were very happy. Both loved history and the little money they had, they used to buy statues, paintings, calligraphies and reproductions of historical inscriptions. They would spend hours upon hours examining the pieces and cataloguing them. Whenever they could, they would write each other little love letters – with Qingzhao being the better poet. And during their tea ceremonies they would play a game in which whoever could name the origin of a quote was the one to drink first. They were very much in love. 

Their happy married life took a little hit three years later, when not only Qingzhao’s father died, but so did Mingcheng’s two years later. There was some political tension involved and so the couple decided to lay low for a while and move out into the country, located in what is now Shandong Province. In favor of acquiring new artifacts, the couple lived a minimalist life and often went out themselves in search for new items for their collection. For the longer trips however, Qingzhao was left in their home and spent her time writing …and drinking a fair share. Many of her poems from that time are about loneliness and intoxication – a scandal for a woman of her status, as these topics had been reserved for prostitutes, not honorable wives! It’s not like she cared about that though. 

Generally they seem to have been happy in their secluded little life though, and even when the political climate calmed down after five years in their new home, they decided to stay there. They never had any children and there is no word of that in neither her nor his writings, so I assume they didn’t really care. That’s highly unconventional as it was an important part of Chinese culture to continue the family line. Instead of doing that however, they amassed one of the most valuable collections of historical artifacts in all of China. And for nine more years, they lived a quiet life, content in each other’s company and surrounded by their biggest passion. 

Until in 1121, Mingcheng was ordered to move to Laizhou to occupy a political post. Even though this time Qingzhao could come with him, it meant they had to leave their beloved home. And that wasn’t the end of it. In 1127, the capital of the Song Dynasty, Kaifeng, fell to the neighboring Jin. The government had been buying peace so far, but eventually that wasn’t enough anymore.

Although Qingzhao was advocating for a strong offense against the invaders, in the end she had no choice but pack her stuff and flee. And packing she did. With her husband, she hand-picked every little piece to take with them, ending up with fifteen (15!) carts of the most valuable artifacts in their collection. Still that meant ten more rooms (!) left behind for certain destruction. 

Arriving in Nanjing, the two lovers parted ways. Mingcheng had to see to the funeral of his mother who had just died, while Qingzhao was determined to save whatever she could from their old family home in Shandong Province. Travelling against the stream of refugees, she finally reached her destination. However the Jin were fast approaching, so she had to leave with only a few pieces, seeing her beloved collection burn behind her. 

After a long journey she returned to Nanjing where she was reunited with her much-missed husband. Together they travelled south on the Yangtze River to find a safe place for their prized collection. However their time together was cut short once again when Mingcheng was ordered to take a political post once again. Shortly after the lovers parted ways, he fell sick with malaria. As soon as Qingzhao heard, she left for Nanjing where he was staying. She didn’t even think about her collection that she went through so much to safe, she took off to see her husband again. 

She did arrive in time to see him again before he died. According to custom it would be the eldest son writing the epitaph, but as there was no son, Qingzhao wrote Mingcheng’s. A final little love letter. 

Now Qingzhao was 45. She was completely alone, homeless and didn’t even really have a solid country to return to. After burying her beloved husband with all honors, she recovered her second love, her artifacts, so at least she wasn’t broke. But once again the Jin were not far and she had to flee again. Her journey took her through all of Southern China and gradually she had to sell more and more of her collection until almost nothing was left. With all the refugees, finding her family was impossible and she had nowhere to go. After three years the new borders were finally relatively established and Qingzhao moved to the new capital of Hangzhou in Eastern China. 

In the same year, just after the mourning period had passed, she apparently remarried (although this is not 100% verified.) Another highly unorthodox move as Confucianist law forbids widows from marrying again. I can only guess as to why she chose to do this. Maybe it was the longing for stability and a home, maybe the wish for another companion, someone to share her passion with. Her new husband however was not that. Not only was he far from being on her level, intellectually speaking, but it appears he also harmed her physically. Not even 100 days into marriage, Qingzhao demanded a divorce. In another unorthodox move, she took her case to court – and she won! Her ex-husband was banished and she never looked for another. 

Instead she threw herself into writing. Once so outgoing and unconventional, her poems are now about her lost home, her lost love and her lost happiness. Also a lot more about drinking. But her intellect and abilities as a poet didn’t suffer and even though she seems to have become severely depressed, she didn’t give up entirely. 

After five years, in 1134, she published a monumental catalogue of antique inscriptions in bronze and stone which her husband had assembled. She herself wrote the foreword (and probably helped with cataloguing too, but she never took credit.) It is still a recognized educational book on the subject. All the while she continued to write poems criticizing the Dynasty’s politics regarding the new borders. Her last known poems were written in 1143, when she was almost 60, then she vanishes from history. 

It is unknown when exactly she died, but it must have been around 1155. But she isn’t forgotten. In China she remains one of the greatest poets in history, even though most of her writing has been lost to time and war. There is even a crater on Venus named after her, as well as one on Mercury! And although she couldn’t protect her collection, who knows how many pieces of Chinese history in our museums went through the hands of Li Qingzhao?!

image credits:

1: Li Qingzhao and Mingcheng Zhao (presumably), artist unknown – Link
If you happen to know the creator, please let me know, I couldn’t find them!

2: Li Qingzhao’s “Summer Judgment · Life as a Master” illustrated by Wang Xijing in 1990 – Link

3: Wu Shanming: “Poet Li Qingzhao” – Link

4:  Li Qingzhao statue at Li Qingzhao Memorial, Jinan by User Gisling in Wikimedia Commons – Link
The inscription reads: “Li Qingzhao 1084-1156”

Gabriela Mistral – The Unlikely Poet Who Won a Nobel Prize

Thinking of poetry in Chile, the first that comes to mind is Pablo Neruda. But there was another important poet before him – and she was a woman. Enter Gabriela Mistral, who overcame many, many obstacles to become a famous writer, eventually earning the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Latin American to ever do so.

But before she became Gabriela Mistral, she was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, a girl of Basque and Indigenous heritage born on April 7, 1889 in the city of Vicuña in northern Chile. Before Lucila turned three, her father, a teacher with the heart of a traveling poet, left the family for good and his abandoned wife moved herself and her two daughters to the Andean village of Montegrande. You can see the family’s home below.

There she found work as a seamstress and the older sister, Emelina Molina, was employed as a teacher’s aide in the same school that Lucila soon attended. But despite their hard work, their life remained a humble one. As their money was running out, Lucila had to be taken out of school when she was only twelve, but she did not give up learning and with her sister by her side, she was able to feed her thirst for knowledge. By the time she was 15 she even got a position as a teacher’s aide in the seaside town of Compañia Baja and soon she taught in the near La Serena school as well. Around the same time she published her first poems in the local newspaper, using different pseudonyms such as Alguien, Soledad and Alma.

In 1906, when she was 17, she met her first love, a railway worker named Romelio Ureta. Only three years later the young love ended abruptly, as Romelio took his own life. This had a huge impact on her life, turning her to poetry even more and melancholy and the feeling of loss should become recurring themes in her work. It was then that Gabriela Mistral was born – a name chosen in remembrance of the archangel Gabriel and the warm Mistral wind of the Mediterranean. Or maybe it was a combination of the names of two of her favourite poets, Gabriele d’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral.

She was determined to pursue a higher education, but was turned down from attending the Normal School without explanation. Later she found out that it was her writing that had blocked that path, Gabriela’s advocacy for universal access to education did not agree with the conservative views of the school’s chaplain. Undeterred, she decided to become an educator instead. Her task was made easier by the significant lack of teachers in the country. With the help of her sister’s contacts she got hired quickly and climbed the ladder utilizing her reputation as a published author and being willing to move wherever she was needed. By 1911 she was teaching several schools at primary level and worked as an inspector as well, often in remote areas. One year later she was hired to teach at a high school in Los Andes, near the capital of Santiago, where she would stay for six years. It was there that she wrote her “Sonetos de la Muerte,” her Sonnets of Death, in memory of her lost love, processing her grief. These Sonnets were what brought Gabriela to the attention of the wider masses when they won her the prestigious National Flower Award in 1914, aged 25.

When her stay in Los Andes ended, she moved on to a high school in Punta Arenas and then to Temuco in 1920, where she met and taught the young Pablo Neruda. The next year she was elected the director of Santiago’s newest and most prestigious girls’ school, so she moved back to the capital. Not everyone agreed with her nomination though and to escape the controversy, she accepted a job offer in Mexico only one year later to work with the Mexican Minister of Education to reform the national education system.

All the while she had been publishing her work and had acquired a considerable reputation as a journalist and public speaker. In 1922 she brought out her first book, “Desolación.” And she didn’t just publish it anywhere, she did so in New York! She was just getting started though. The next year she finished another text, “Lecturas para Mujeres,” Lectures for Women, celebrating Latin American culture. Her second book came out the year after; it was a children’s book of stories and lullabies, called “Ternura,” Tenderness. This one was published in Madrid, Spain! For she had left Mexico for Washington and then New York to tour Europe.

While she was a brilliant writer, she was not very good at taking care of herself; housework wasn’t really her thing and neither were finances, she didn’t like to cook and above all, she couldn’t stand being alone. Interestingly she still never married but preferred to live with women, all of them highly intelligent as herself and accomplished in their fields. One of them was Palma Guillén, a Mexican diplomat and educator, whom she met in 1922 during her time in Mexico. The two women should stay together for more than 15 years.

After a year of travelling she returned home to Chile in 1925 and retired from her teacher’s life at 36 years old. And not a moment too soon, for a law had just been passed that required teachers to have finished training at university. She had however been awarded the title of Spanish Professor by the University of Chile two years prior, although she had not had any form of formal education past the age of twelve. This shows what a remarkably intelligent woman she was and how determined to fill her head with all the knowledge she was denied by the system. This secured her a pension for life.

When she was invited to represent Latin America in the newly formed Institute for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, she moved to Marseilles, France with Palma and the couple adopted adopted the infant son of Gabriela’s half brother after his mother had died. Little Juan Miguel was physically disabled, which is why his father could not take care of him, but Gabriela did not care, she loved the boy as if he was her own. She supported their small family first with her journalism and then by giving lectures at universities in the US as well as Latin America. She also took up consular work, mainly in Italy and France but also in Spain, Guatemala and Brazil among others. In 1935, she was named consul for life. While working at the consulate in Madrid she once again met Pablo Neruda and was amongst the first to discover her fellow writer’s talent and originality.

All the while she kept writing and publishing her work in the Spanish-speaking world, with the help of her confidantes, the presidents of Colombia and Chile, as well as the First Lady of the US, Eleanor Roosevelt. And finally in 1938 she returned to Latin America, albeit not her home country, but Uruguay and Argentina. Her second major volume of poetry, “Tala,” was published in Buenos Aires that same year, with the proceeds going towards children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War. The book itself once more celebrated Latin American culture and heritage, but also the traditions of Mediterranean Europe – a fusion of different cultures, reflecting Gabriela’s own identity as both, European Basque and Native South American.

While they were living in Brazil, 17-year-old Juan Miguel took his own life in 1943. Gabriela was grief-stricken for she felt like she had lost a son and she blamed herself. Just one year before, her close friends, the Austrian couple Lotte and Stefan Zweig, writers who had taken residence in the city of Petrópolis like her, had chosen to end their lives as well. Furthermore her mother and sister had died not too long ago. All those wounds had not yet healed and now they were torn open once more. In 1946, Palma married a man, although she did continue to be Gabriela’s secretary and to support her emotionally. Gabriela, unable to move on, stayed in Brazil. And she remained there until two years later, when word arrived that she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Latin American to ever do so, and only the fifth woman. Just as bad things seem to only come in packs in her life, so did the good. In that same year her path crossed with that of Doris Dana, a beautiful and bright young woman from New York. Doris admired the poet, who was 31 years her senior, and although Gabriela did not remember their first meeting, Doris decided to write to her. A correspondence, and eventually a friendship, ensued.

Having found herself again, she once more felt restless. And so she packed her bags and moved to San Francisco, a delegate of the United Nations and soon also a founding member of UNICEF. She then took off to Los Angeles and later took up residence in Santa Barbara, California. In 1948, Gabriela finally invited Doris to visit her, after two years of regular correspondence. Soon the friendship turned romantic and Doris, then 28, decided to stay with the poet who was 59 at the time. Soon the two women travelled together to Mexico, where Gabriela was awarded a plot of land in Veracruz to build a house on (which the couple did.)

Oh, she also snatched a doctor honoris causa from Mills College in Oakland, California in 1947 and the Chilean National Literature Prize in 1951.

Although their relationship was very happy, Doris frequently had to return to her family in New York and every time she left, Gabriela feared that she would never return. But each and every time she did. Together they left Mexico around 1950 and spent the next two years in Italy, where they met Palma again. Doris and her became fast friends and she was only too happy to have a little help in handling Gabriela’s affairs. In 1953 the poet’s health began to decline and she realized she would not be able to travel anymore; after all she was 64 years old already. She wanted to spend the rest of her life with Doris but knew that her love could never call any other place than New York her home. So they settled on a compromise.

That same year, Gabriela set out for one last triumphant visit to her home country, with Doris accompanying her of course, and she was welcomed enthusiastically. And then the couple returned to their new home. Because Gabriela hated New York City, they settled in Roslyn Harbor, not too far away. There she continued to represent Chile in the General Assembly of the United Nations and, of course, to write. One year later her final book, “Lagar,” Winepress, was published and in it were all the grief over her son, the tension of World War II and more. It was the last one to be published in her lifetime. In early 1957, Gabriela was admitted to Hempstead Hospital in New York, where she died only a few days later on January 10, aged 67. Doris had not left her side.

Below a bonus picture of the two lovebirds because they were so darn cute: 

Nine days later Gabriela’s body was transferred back to her hometown of Montegrande, just as she had wished. Hundreds of thousands Chileans attended her funeral and paid their respects and the country declared three days of national mourning in her honor. At the same time her “Messages describing Chile“ were published posthumously. According to Gabriela’s testament the proceeds of her book sales in South America were to be used to help the impoverished children of Montegrande, one of which she had been too, so long ago. The proceeds from the sales in the rest of the world were supposed to go towards Doris Dana and Palma Guillén, who decided to give their parts to Chilean children in need as well. At first it looked like this wish could not be carried out as there was a law against inheriting profits yet to be made, but the decree was repealed and so her final wish came true. Doris was also the one holding all her literary legacy and she is the one who translated a selection of her poems into English and managed their publication.

Gabriela Mistral’s legacy can be found in many names all over the country. Within months of her death, a museum was opened in her birthtown of Vicuña. In 1977 an order for teaching and culture was named after her and in 1981 a private university was founded that bears her name. Once she had mentioned, jokingly I presume, that she would love the Hill of Montegrande to be named after her one day and indeed, on the day that would have been her 102nd birthday, on April 7, 1991, the street Fraile Hill was renamed Gabriela Mistral. Practically every major city in Chile has at least one street or plaza named after her. She certainly has left her mark and will not be forgotten.

image credits:

1: “House of Gabriela Mistral, Montegrande, Valle del Elqui, Coquimbo Region, Norte Chico” – © Educarchile – Link
2: “Manuscript Los Sonetos de la Muerte” – © Educarchile – Link
3: “Gabriela Mistral,” 1923 (© Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores) – Link
4: Palma Guillén and Gabriela Mistral, undated – Link
5: “Gabriela Mistral (1889 – 1957)”  – © Educarchile – Link
6: “Gabriela Mistral and Doris Dana in the garden of their house in Long Island” – © Educarchile – Link
7: “Gabriela Mistral reading on her terrace” – © Educarchile – Link
8: “Gabriela Mistral and Doris Dana on the Beach” – © Educarchile – Link

Enheduanna – The World’s First Author

Did you know that the first author ever was a woman? Well, we can’t say for certain as for a long time all writing was anonymous. But the first person to ever put their name on their work was today’s heroine: Enheduanna, Sumerian High Priestess. As far as we can tell, her opus encompasses 42 temple hymns and a number of longer texts, representing the first human attempt to compose a systematic theology. Isn’t that amazing?!

Enheduanna’s story takes us way back in time, to the ancient city of Ur in 2300 BC. Given how little information we have about people from that time, even royalty, it is fascinating how much we know about her. So let’s get started!

She was the daughter of one of history’s earliest empire builders, Sargon the Great, king of Akkadia. And great was his conquest indeed: his reign extended from all of southern Mesopotamia to parts of Syria, Anatolia and western Iran. In the late 23rd to early 22nd century BC, he incorporated a number of Sumerian city states into his kingdom and this is where our knowledge of Enheduanna’s life begins. While the Akkadians and Sumerians were culturally not quite that dissimilar and worshipped the same gods, their languages still differed and tensions arose. So Sargon appointed his daughter High Priestess of the city of Ur. That way she could keep an eye on the population and exert Akkadian influence.

The position of High Priestess was a powerful one indeed as the temples were not only religious places but social and economical centres as well. And the Ziggurat of Ur was one of the most significant temples in the Mesopotamian valley – in the picture you can see the modern reconstruction behind the ruins of the original.

Enheduanna’s religious duties included caring for the statues of their gods, offering sacrifices (animals, but also jewellery and produce) and interpreting dreams and omens. She and her staff were also responsible for cataloguing astronomical movements, a scientific process, although it is unclear how exactly they did this. Furthermore she controlled quite a large plot of land, employing an array of people such as fishermen, farmers and shepherds. Her land brought in a good amount of money, so the temple also functioned as a bank – which was overseen by Enheduanna as well. On top of that she also had to maintain relationships with the other temples in the area, advocating for her deities but also for her father.

I’d like to get into her daily religious duties a bit more because her role and status were tightly bound to her position of High Priestess. You can see her performing those alongside her staff on the disc in the picture; Enheduanna is the one in the middle with the frilly dress.

As High Priestess she was known as the “Wife of Nanna,” the Akkadian moon god and served him as well as his divine wife Ningal and their daughter Inanna. And she seemed to have had a real soft spot for the latter, starting a whole cult revolving around her which eventually made Inanna one of the pantheon’s highest-ranking deities. The temple was adorned with statues of the gods which were bathed and dressed ritually every day by the priestesses, but not before they themselves had cleansed themselves thoroughly and brought their offerings. Once a year, Enheduanna took part in a ritual of sacred marriage, where she lay with a mortal representative of Nanna. Another theory is that Enheduanna represented Inanna, a goddess of love and fertility, in this rite. Whether it involved literal intercourse or not is unclear, but is is far from improbable – there are a few lines of poetry that strongly suggest a physical component to these rituals. Certain is that this union was intended as some sort of blessing, ensuring the land’s fertility and the temple’s prosperity.

Now that her background is laid out, let’s get to the interesting part: her poetry. Yes, I too am wondering where she found the time to write besides all her duties and responsibilities. And yes, it gets even more interesting than ritualistic sex.

I already said before that Enheduanna wrote a total of 42 temple hymns – for comparison, Shakespeare “only” wrote 37 plays, and her count does not even include her other texts! To be fair, it might be that other authors used her fame and put her name under their own manuscripts but analyzing the style, it is pretty likely that most if not all of them were written by Enheduanna herself. Her work is generally divided into these temple hymns and her other texts which are mainly poems to her favourite goddess Inanna. In the picture you can see that they carved their letters into clay (the depicted text is not by Enheduanna though, I couldn’t find a plate that was certainly hers.) The former were means of communication between the temples and were not only used for religious exchange but also as propaganda for King Sargon, meant to dissolve tensions between the two people of the kingdom. However these texts are so lyrical in nature that they are unlikely to be purely political in nature – and if they basically were political pamphlets, why should she have signed them with her name when this was unheard of?

Here is why: she was proud of her work! It was not that she felt immortalized in her poems, or at least she never mentioned if she did, but she was fascinated by the fact that she created something entirely new and she took pride in it.

This kind of self-reflection was also completely new to poetry and writing in general. It wasn’t until more than 700 years later that the likes of Homer and Sappho started on that path – just to put things into perspective. Before Enheduanna there was no clear distinction between emotional and physical experiences, between mortal and divine in writing; she was the first to write about her inner turmoils and thoughts, marking the beginning of the human understanding of self.

Now back to an episode of her life when she was basically evicted from her temple and replaced by a man called Lugalunne, who was either a priest as well or a foreign king. Anyways, Enheduanna was not amused and wrote one of her most dramatic poems, one of those addressed to Inanna:

truly for your gain / you drew me toward
 my holy quarters
 / I 
the High Priestess / 
Enheduanna /
 there I raised the ritual basket 
/ there I sang the shout of joy /
 but that man cast me among the dead / 
I am not allowed in my rooms 
/ gloom falls on the day
 / light turns leaden 
/ shadows close in 
/ dreaded southstorm cloaks the sun 
/ he wipes his spit-soaked hand 
/ on my honey-sweet mouth 
/ my beautiful image 
fades under dust
 / what is happening to me
 / O Suen [i.e. Inanna] 
/ what is this with Lugalanne?… / he gave me the ritual dagger of mutilation / he said / “it becomes you.”

The remarkable thing about this poem is that it was the first of its kind! Today we are used to emotions wrapped in words, but this was the first time that was ever done, more than 4000 years ago! And it’s poetic too! I’m not sure by the way if there truly was bodily mutilation involved, if it was a specific ritual or just another metaphor. Her exile however does not seem to have lasted very long as in the next part of her story she was already back home.

Another interesting part of her writing is the religious shift we are able to learn about from her diaries. As I already said, before her time the divine was one with the worldly, god was everything. This understanding however began to shift towards the belief that god is IN everything, a small but significant difference that implies that god transcends the worldly instead of being one with it. And Enheduanna did not like that notion, so she composed a poem (which is pretty long so a summary has to do): While Inanna was a relatively “young” goddess, she still stood for the old way, uniting the contradictions of life; the lover and the warrior, birth and death, growth and destruction. When the mountain Ebih defied her, she unleashed all her fury upon him, completely destroying her adversary.

What makes this story so fascinating is that Ebih is described as an almost utopian place with lambs and lions living in peace (bible, anyone?) and Inanna flat-out bulldozes it which Enheduanna is obviously more than okay with. Why is that? Because it is unnatural. Nature is not merciful an harmonious, there are contrasts, there is good and bad, light and dark. Eternal peace does not fit into this world view and Enheduanna has Inanna annihilate it entirely.

Obviously that opinion didn’t stick and was eventually replaced by a more distinctive view on religion and the gods – although Inanna did stick around for around 2000 years still, donning the names of Ishtar and Cybele among others. Ironically it was Enheduanna who lay the groundwork for this development. Had she not began her journey of self-awareness people might not have differentiated between divine and worldly for another 1000 years or so and the old gods would have survived a little longer. On the other hand, is there nothing divine in creating something that never was before? And in this aspect maybe Enheduanna was not all wrong.

Do you want to read all of her poems now? Because I did!

Unfortunately there is no complete collection on the internet, but you can find a selection of her temple hymns here (click) and there is one of her Inanna poems here (click.)
You can also hear one of her texts in the original Sumerian here (click and scroll down to the bottom.)

image credits:

Ruins: Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq by M. Lubinski in Wikimedia Commons – Link
Disc: Penn Museum, British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1926 (B16665)
Clay Tablets: CDLI – Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, photo by Thomas Fish, 1982 (P212927)

Dada Masiti – Expanding Her Traditional Duties

Thinking about Somalia, literature might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but unbeknownst to many, Somalia is a country of bards and poets. This is the story of one of them.

Mana Sitti Habib Jamaladdin was born around 1810 in the city of Brava on the southern coast of Somalia to a family that took pride in the fact that they were part of the Ashraf clan, direct descendants of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. As the Somali people follow an oral tradition of storytelling, there are a lot of uncertainties regarding her life. Though it is confirmed that she was abducted as a child and taken to Zanzibar where she lived in slavery, opinions differ on how exactly this happened. 

One source says, she was kidnapped and sold, while another states that the kidnapping was voluntary so she could marry a suitor her family had turned down. They were said to have married on the Kenyan island of Pate, but soon sweet young love turned bitter and she ended up enclosed in her home, a mere maid. Mana herself seems to have hinted on the latter version to be true, writing in one of her poems that she was “led astray by worldly lures.” But however things went down, they ended the same way: in slavery. After ten years she was finally found: one of her cousins was in town, recognized her and brought her home.

Having grown into an intelligent young woman (albeit slightly remorseful regarding her “worldly adventure”), she immersed herself in religious studies, earning a reputation as a Muslim scholar. Contrary to other religious texts and the oral tradition of the Somali people, Mana began to write poems in her own language and dialect, Chimbalazi or Bravanese. And they were well-received. Showing eloquence and a deep understanding of religious scripture, they found their way into mosques and Quranic schools all over the region and eventually became a staple piece of literature in and around Brava. And not only that, her work helped to spread and revive the Sufi order of the Qadriyya in Somalia, finding a new purpose as prayers! Her poems were memorized and recited and even the Sheikh wanted his eulogy written by the famous poetess. Eventually she was even revered as a Muslim saint.

She went on to be more than one hundred years old in which she never stopped writing. As she grew older, she was regarded a treasure of the town and known by everyone as Dada Masiti (Grandmother Masiti). Until her death in the summer of 1919 she continued to live in her little house in her hometown and was buried there as well. After spending the earlier part of her life away from home, it seems she didn’t even want to leave it in death.

Still remembered fondly throughout Somalia, each year a pilgrimage to her house can be observed in the streets of Brava. It were (and still are) mainly the women who are keeping the poems of Dada Masiti memorized, looking up to her. You see, she never married and lived a self-determined life, all while still contributing to society and fulfilling her traditional duties. In Brava men and women are strictly separated and women are prohibited from attending and performing many functions. Nonetheless their role as teachers is essential to a functioning community, providing intellectual but also cultural knowledge.

Dada Masiti managed to carve out a place of her own in this society by following her traditional role and expanding it.

Finally here is an excerpt from her work. It’s the final part of her eulogy for the Sheikh: “After Life”
It is one of her most famous pieces and the most famous eulogy in all of Somalia.

Hu xuzuniko mpeengele
Kutta schinendhroowa
Hu xuzuniko ni darsa
Fadhi schitalicoowa

Miskiti huwa miinza
Ataa tarha ichashoowa
Tarha waarhiko niyeeye
Nuuru ya ku rhangaaloowa

Sawarataani turhaani
Sheekhi siwo wakhpatoowa
Sheekhi karheente Jannaani
Na kurhiindra kendreloowa


The pathways he walked daily
Will feel sad,
As will his daily circle of students
And the lessons he used to teach

The Mosque will be dark
Even when it is lit
For he was the light
A bright light we all watched

Calm down and be consoled
For the Sheikh is out of our reach
He is residing in Heaven
Waiting for us to join him

image credits:

Brava today: User Vascoscream in Wikimedia Commons – Link

As there were no images of this week’s heroine available, I reached out to the community that started this project and was lucky to have had three awesome artists interpret her in their very own styles. Check out their amazing work:

1st picture: Anna Latchman
2nd picture: Annassez – on facebook, patreon and etsy
3rd picture: Kateryna Kateryna – on instagram and patreon