Sophus Helle

Photo: Maiken Kestner.

Myths about authors provide new knowledge about ancient literary view

Sophus Helle has found new ways to study the history of the concept of authorship. In ancient Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, the concept of a personified author arose.

By Filip Graugaard Esmarch

The world’s first known author was the Sumerian princess Enheduana. She lived around 2300 BC in ancient Iraq. However, the oldest preserved clay tablets with Enheduana’s dramatic hymns to the capricious goddess Inana are from 4-500 years after the author’s death.

Philologist have therefore been wanting to find out whether the texts are actually Enheduana’s own or whether they have just been ascribed to her. Because unlike characters such as Homer from ancient Greek literature, Enheduana is without a doubt a historical person. Those are the words of Sophus Helle, who provides an alternative approach in his thesis.

“I have reconsidered the very way of studying the history of the concept of authorship. When studying pre-modern cultures, you often come across methodological problems if you become too focused on the real human being behind the literary works. Ancient literature was created in a more collaborative and gradual manner,” says Sophus Helle.

A new explanatory framework
Using his own methodology, he focuses on the stories or myths told about an author in Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. So far, research has tended to disregard such stories about authors as historically unreliable.

“Instead, I look at them and see what they tell about people’s way of viewing literature. I am not the first to introduce such a methodological approach, but I refine some of the methods which can then be applied for research,” Sophus Helle adds.

In his subsequent historical studies of the stories about the authors, he shows position to build bridges. A comprehensive list of publications testify that he is well on his way towards his goal of establishing conversation between comparative literature and Assyriology.

“As a subject, Assyriology has been rather unapproachable. So, much of what I do is about providing interesting information about Assyriology, both to an academic and a wider audience,” Sophus Helle explains.

Most recently, he has also translated Enheduana’s main work Queen of all powers from cuneiform into both Danish and English, and along with his PhD studies he published, in collaboration with his father, the poet Morten Søndergaard, a critically acclaimed Danish translation of the best known epic from the Babylonian world, Gilgamesh.

Sophus Helle now continues his studies in an international postdoc project where he will be investigating interdisciplinary connections between philology, comparative literature and translation theory.