It’s Women’s History Month, so it seems like a good time to celebrate some women writers from past times...
Enheduanna, the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad, lived in the city of Ur in Sumeria over four thousand years ago. As High Priestess of the temple of the moon god Nanna, she helped her father secure his power over his empire, and raised the goddess Innana above a multitude of other deities. Enheduanna wrote poems and songs to Innana which survive on cuneiform tablets dating to about 500 years after she lived. Incredibly, while other scribes of the ancient world are anonymous, she actually writes ‘I am Enheduanna…’ She is the first author whose name is known to history.
Still in the ancient world, Sappho wrote lyric poetry around 600 BCE. Unlike Enheduanna, she is well-known today, although only one of her poems survives in complete form, and most we only know through quotations by other writers. She lived in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, where - unlikely as it may seem at a time when few people were educated, and even fewer of them were female - women often gathered to share poetry they had written. Sapho’s poems usually focus on relationships between women.
In Medieval Europe, education was still the preserve of the few, but one way women could become literate was through the church, and convents often became centres of learning. The first woman playwright Hrostvitha (aka Roswitha) of Gandersheim, who was born around 930 CE, was a canoness at one such convent, and was encouraged by the abbess to write plays on religious themes, as well as poetry and history. While we don’t know if any of Hrostvitha’s eight plays were ever performed, or if they were just read aloud, she is one of only a small number of playwrights whose work has come to us from the Middle Ages.
Travelling forward in time to the 11th century, the world’s first novel was written in Japan – by a woman writer named Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji depicts the romantic life of the hero, and was written to entertain the Japanese court.
It would be interesting to know what Lady Murasaki would have thought of the film adaptations of her novel – especially the anime version made for TV.
By the 17th century, the first woman to earn a living from her work as a professional author bursts onto the literary scene. Not much is known about Aphra Behn’s early life, except that she spent some time in Surinam. Left widowed and with no income in 1665, Aphra Behn first became a spy, and then took up her pen – both careers equally extraordinary ways for a 17th century woman to earn money. Between 1670 and 1687, sixteen of Aphra Behn’s plays were performed in London. Not only was she the first professional female playwright, she was successful. Later in life she turned to writing poetry and novels, including the famous ‘Oroonoko,’ based on her early experiences in Surinam.
For the past four thousand years, and maybe even before that, in eras when most women were confined to the domestic sphere, these remarkable women writers were creating poems, plays and novels - striding out of the mists of history to tell us their stories.