Ironically, when ancient people are expanded from the sparse evidence of their former existence into characters of modern fiction, they tend to become larger-than-life everywomen representing the full sweep of forgotten history. But in She Wrote on Clay (Hadley Rille Books), Shirley Graetz presents a right-sized portrait of a young woman driven to follow a long-forgotten path towards independence in the time of Hammurabi (1792–1750 BCE, contemporaneous with Genesis and Exodus).
The forgotten world recreated here defies all expectations of the options available to women in a time when society agreed that women needed protection. Graetz, a scholar of the ancient Near East, introduces the fascinating world of the gagû (cloister), where our heroine, Iltani, is initiated as a naditu (“barren” temple servant). The daughter of a scribe, she longs to follow in her father’s footsteps — and amazingly, becoming a naditu is an acceptable, even prestigious, way for her to do so with her family’s encouragement. These naditu were an elite class in Babylonian society, comprised of free women who could own property, earn significant wealth, and in general “use whatever talents they [possessed] to enrich their lives.” Iltani’s advancement came through learning how to read and write cuneiform on clay tablets from an older naditu scribe. Though the gagû felt like a prison to those initiates who had wanted to marry and bear children, to Iltani the walls of the gagû “betoken pride, security, rank, and privilege.” She Wrote on Clay traces the obstacles Iltani must overcome in her training, which turn out to be significant — though entirely unrelated to the patriarchal gender norms of the time.
The significance of Iltani’s rank emerges both in contrast to other women she encounters who sell themselves into service, feud with their brothers over family inheritances, and suffer physical and sexual abuse, as well as from the sea of minor characters wholly dependent on the services of her kind, such as a tanner who cannot enter the city until his slate is read to the soldiers, a seamstress who needs her petition against a non-paying customer recorded, even a fellow naditu who cannot read to herself for pleasure. Graetz’s rendering of Iltani’s world is fully realized at every level — family, religion, business, courts, law, trade, and especially literature. She brings her sources to life, producing as genuine a reflection of the earliest recorded history as a reader can get outside of academic sources.
With her eye for period detail and her sensitivity in dramatizing an ancient society, Graetz has produced a novel that satisfies both as history and as fiction.
tammy a. hepps is the founder of Treelines.com, a website for writing and sharing family stories.