Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Guest Post By Anna: A Literary Canon of Women Writers, Part One: Before the Common Era

(Echidne's note: This post is the first in a Sunday series about women writers by Anna.)

As you know, many attempts to create a canon of Great Literature leave women's writing out. So I thought it might be helpful to create a canon solely of Great Literature written by women. I certainly don't claim this is the final authority, and if you want to make your own canon I think that would be excellent. But I thought this might be a starting point for people who wonder where all the great women writers are, or whose teachers just can't think of any literature by women worthy of being included in the class.

I have organized the canon by the chronological order of the authors' births. The first post in this Sunday series covers the authors we know about who were active before the beginning of common era:

Enheduanna  (2285-2250 BC): She was an Akkadian princess as well as high priest of the Moon god Nanna (Sin) in Ur. She was the first known holder of the title "En Priestess", a role of great political importance which often was held by royal daughters. Her Sumerian Temple Hymns are regarded as one of the first attempts at a systematic theology. A translation of them (she wrote in Sumerian) is available in Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna,  by Betty De Shong Meador (2010).  Enheduanna is the world's first known author; that is, the first author whose writings have come down to us today and whose authorship we are certain of.

Sappho (approx. 630-570 BC): The translation of her poems (she wrote in ancient Greek) Sappho:  A New Translation by Mary Barnard, is particularly good. Her poetry was well-known and greatly admired throughout antiquity (although little of it survives today) and later Greeks included her in their list of nine lyric poets. She set her poetry to music, and there is a charming story that Solon of Athens heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho's over the wine and, since he liked the song so much, he asked the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why, he said, "So that I may learn it, then die." A few centuries later, the famous Roman poet Horace wrote in his Odes that Sappho's lyrics were worthy of sacred admiration.
I apologize if the writers in this series turn out to be rather white, straight, able-bodied, and American/European centric etc, but information about marginalized writers can be hard to come by. Suggestions for additional writers and works that might be included are welcome in the comments.