The Creation (1)

comments by Patrick C. Ryan (1/10/98)

Prior to the beginning, there was nothing
but the primeval, formless ocean.


There are few questions to which practically all of humanity gives the same answer but this is one.

Every early tradition of which I have knowledge unequivocally asserts that nothing but the primeval, formless ocean preceded the formation of the universe.


"When heaven above was not (yet even) mentioned,

(nor) firm-set earth below called by name;

(when) but primeval Aps, their begetter,

and the matrix, Ti'mat

she who gave birth to them all

were mingling their waters in one."

(Enma elish [Akkadian], in Jacobsen 1976, p. 168)


Unfortunately, the most complete account of the Sumerian creation myth is the above- referenced Akkadian epic.

ura (IB), archaic sign form Another character in this cosmic drama is Ura, which Jacobsen, in my opinion, incorrectly considers a borrowing from Akkadian with the meaning "tilth", i.e. "tilled earth". Ura is a reading of the Sumerian sign IB, which, with this reading, is thought to mean "storm, garment"; but one of its archaic sign-forms seems to indicate the semantically related concept (wrapping around') in whirl, eddy, tornado, or fish-trap'.

Though Jacobsen equates Ura with Ki, the earth, I rather believe this name captures a Sumerian designation for the circular motion (analogous to that of the Northern Circumpolar Regions before the appearance of stars) in the primeval ocean that was the active component of the first entity.

We can, I think, even discover the corresponding Sumerian name of the passive component: Nam-mu, "a goddess who was considered, in some traditions, to have given birth to An (heaven) and Ki (earth)" (Black and Green 1992, p. 134). Nam-mu is written with the archaic sign for "open", HAL (a six-pointed star'), or the archaic sign for "star", AN (an eight-pointed star'), inside the archaic sign for a circular enclosure (KIL), which, I interpret as "emptiness, space" ("that which contains the stars").

The name, Nam-mu, I analyze as nam, a prefix forming abstracts + mu(-10) (SAL the archaic sign for which is a downward pointing triangle with a short vertical line almost bisecting it up from the apex, the mons Veneris, with the aperture of the vulvae indicated), which means "woman, be broad, vulva(e), spread out wide, width" = "*space"; thus Ura and Nammu are respectively the primeval motion and the primeval empty space.

d3.t, underworld, where the souls live on It is also interesting to note that the Egyptian sign for the "underworld", the d3.t, is a circle containing a five-pointed star.

Nammu is named in the An-list of alternate names for deities: (D)Ama-libir-tu-an-ki, which means "ancient mother who bore heaven and earth".

(Jacobsen 1976, p. 95)


"Heaven had not come into being, earth had not come into being,

the sons of the earth (snakes) and (even) vermin had not (yet) been created

in that place;

(myself and) them who were there was what I raised from Nu(n),

from inertness

(even though) I could not find a place wherein I could stand. (author's



jn xpr pt, jn xpr t3,

jn qm3m s3.w-t3 Ddf.t

m b(w).t pwy

Tz.n.j jm(jw).sn m Nw(nw)

m jnnw

jn qm.n.j b(w).t H'.n.j jmy

(in Budge 1969, I, p. 309)


Egyptian Nw(nw), the primeval ocean

Above is an Egyptian spelling of the name commonly transliterated as Nwn. The Egyptian bowl' (Gardiner 1973: W24) is repeated three times, an unusual spelling convention. Gardiner mentions that the bowl' can be read as jn or nw. I believe that in this name for the primeval ocean, the bowl' is to be read as jnw so that the properly transcribed name would be jnw-jnw. Now the language that was the ancestor of Nostratic and Hurrian had a sound (nh) which shows up in IE and Hurrian as /l/ but in Egyptian as n. I believe that Egyptian jnw can be found again in IE el-eu-, "be in motion", so that the Egyptian name means "completely in motion".

(listed under 6. el- in Pokorny 1959, I, p. 306)

Interestingly, we find a personage in Hurrian (borrowed by the Hittites) mythology called Alalu, who was an early king of heaven, supplanted by Ani. I believe this name is a contraction of an earlier *Alawa- alawa (becomes *All).

(for details, see Christopher B. Siren (1996) Hittite/Hurrian Mythology REF, ver. 1.1)

In addition, we have the Hebrew hallelyh, which is supposed to be derived from halll, "praise"; and to mean "may (all) praise the Lord!". Could this be a popular etymology?

If, in fact, *jnw-jnw (*Nwnw) and *All are cognate, this would be a name for the primeval ocean dating back to the time when Nostratic and the Caucasian languages were forming in Southern Russia (circa 60K BPE).


"2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the

face of the deep."

(in Holy Bible 1948, p. 1 [Genesis 1, 2] )


The word translated as "deep" is Hebrew tehm, which is feminine; and, in the plural absolute as t'homth (Gesenius 1951, p. 1062), in the meanings "deep, sea, abyss" at origin, probably a proper name since it is never used with the article.

    We have seen that the Akkadian creation epic, Enma elish, names two deities as creators: "... primeval Aps, their begetter, and the matrix, Ti'mat . . . "

    Akkadian Aps is a borrowing from Sumerian ab-zu, which designates fresh water (Black/Green 1992, p. 27).

    Akkadian Ti'mat is, I believe, also a borrowing from Sumerian: ti, "life" + ama, "mother" + an Akkadian -t, which creates a feminine noun. That Ti'mat also represented water is shown by the phrase "were mingling their waters in one", which indicates that both represented water; and by the existence of the Assyrian timtu/tmtu, "sea", which, is rather transparently derived from Ti'mat.

Though Akkadian Ti'mat should ideally correspond to Hebrew *t'm(t), interchanges of (/?/) and h are familiar in Northwest Semitic (Moscati 1969, p. 42) so Hebrew thm(t) would not be an unusual correspondence for Akkadian Ti'mat.

So, in view of the semantic and phonetic correspondences, it is highly likely that Hebrew tehm is a distant echo of Akkadian Ti'mat (and ultimately, Sumerian *ti-ama), a designation for the passive female component of the celestial ocean.

Thus, the Hebrew account corresponds to the general pattern with the small exception that the name of the male component has been suppressed in the creation story itself, however according to Graves and Patai, even Akkadian Aps has found its way into the Old Testament as aphsayim, "waters" (Graves/Patai 1983, pp. 32-33).


"In the beginning, Eurynome, the Goddess of All Things, rose naked from

Chaos, but found nothing substantial for her feet to rest upon,

and therefore divided the sea from the sky,

dancing lonely upon its waves".

NOTE: Greek khos, "wide, empty place", is a metaphor for the surface of the celestial ocean.

(in Graves 1959, I, p. 27 [I, 1, The Pelasgian Creation Myth] )


"In the beginning, in the dark, there was nothing but water.

And Bumba was alone."

(in Leach 1956, p. 145)


"...the substance of the life-force of the world, from which derives the

motion and persistence of created being. This force is water (Nummo), and

the Pair are present in all water."

(in Griaule 1975, pp. 18-19)


"In the beginning was darkness swathed in darkness. All this was but

unmanifested water."

(in Zaehner 1966, p. 11)


"Verily, in the beginning, this (universe) was water, nothing but a sea of

water. The waters desired, How can we be reproduced?' They toiled and

performed fervid devotions, when they were becoming heated, a golden egg

was produced."

(in Eggeling 1900, Satapatha-Brahmana, XI, i, p. 12)

NOTE: I have included a reference to the "egg" which some traditions have introduced in lieu of a vague male-female primeval entity though it is a relatively recent metaphor.


"In the beginning,

when there was yet no earth, but water covered everything..."

(in Holmberg 1927, Vol. 4, p. 328)


"In the beginning, when there was nothing but water . . ."

(in Holmberg 1927, Vol. 4, p. 317)


"The creation epic of the Popul Vuh...'There is not yet one person, one

animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, forest. Only

the sky alone is there; the face of the earth is not clear. Only the sea alone is

pooled under all the sky.'"

(in Taube 1993, p. 54)


"In the beginning there was no sun, no moon, no stars. All was dark, and

everywhere there was only water."

(in Roland B. Dixon, The Maidu Creation Myth, in Thompson 1968, p. 24)


"In the Fiji Islands, the people say that in the beginning there was

no land---no land but the land of the gods. There was only the sea and the

sea was everywhere."

(in Leach 1956, p. 176)


"Io dwelt within breathing-space of immensity.

The Universe was in darkness, with water everywhere.

...(Io) then looked to the waters which compassed him about,

and spake a fourth time, saying:

'Ye waters of Tai-kama, be ye separate.

Heaven, be formed.' Then the sky became suspended.

'Bring-forth thou Tupua-horo-nuku.'

And at once the moving earth lay stretched abroad."

(in Hongi 1907, p. 113-14)


We have attestations from many early cultures that associated the bringing of civilization to them by creator-deities connected with the planetary deity associated with water, which was Venus (Osiris in Egypt; Enki in Sumer; Quetzalcoatl in Mexico).

This, of course, is a blurring of the distinction between the primeval, celestial ocean; and earthly waters; and a gradual loss of identity by the former as the planetary deities grew in importance.

Similarly, the ancient sky and earth deities eventually were subsumed by the deities representing planetary Jupiter (originally only weather) and Saturn (old age and decay).

The Milky Way, once a deity of shamanic wisdom reached through spiritual traveling among the worlds (heaven, earth, underworld), was absorbed by planetary Mercury; and the functions of the constellation Draco, which represented conflict, were taken over by Mars.

The two stars which were deities in the very earliest beliefs, the Sun and Moon, retained their duties of social harmony (justice), (camp-)fire; and animal fertility.


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Leach, Maria. 1956. The Beginning. New York: Funk and Wagnalls

Moscati, Sabatino, et alii. 1969. An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages: Phonology and Morphology. Wiesbaden: Otto Harassowitz

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