There are two distinct traditions about the creation of man in Sumerian literature. In one, man is created from clay, most probably an analogy to the work of potters and sculptors. This tradition is continued in Akkadian literature, where creation from clay becomes the dominant image of the origin of man, and, of course, in Israel, where creation from clay is the only story preserved of man's creation (Gen 2:6–7). In the other Sumerian tradition, man sprouts up from the earth like grass. This concept did not play a major role in Babylonian religion, possibly because it was associated with An and Enlil rather than with Enki.1 It is, however, a powerful symbol of the nature of man and survived in biblical literature as a pervasive image of man, and more particularly of the people of Israel.
Creation from clay is certainly the most widespread and best known of the Mesopotamian motifs. The major Sumerian source for this idea is the myth of “Enki and Ninmah.”2 In this text, which describes the labor of the gods before the creation of man and their distress, Enki decides to make man and to bind onto him the corvée of the gods. He creates the Siensisar to assist in the birth3 and tells his mother Ninsun, “After you knead the heart of the clay above the apsu, the Siensišar will nip off pieces of clay; after you have given it form … [the various mother and birth-goddesses] will assist in the giving of birth.” This abzu-clay here called “clay above the abzu” and elsewhere “clay of the abzu”4 is the material from which Ninmah later fashions her creatures in “Enki and Ninmah,” and from which Enki fashions the turtle in “Enki and the Turtle” (UET VI:36). It is known in the later incantation literature as the material from which Enki made the craftsmen gods (R. Acc. 46:6) and from which ritual figurines are fashioned (CT 17 29:30–33). A more oblique reference to this concept is found in Enki's creation of the