Geb was the most important of the Egyptian earth gods. Worshiped mainly in Heliopolis, he was the son of Shu and Tefnut. He married his sister Nut, goddess of the sky, a union that led to the creation of the world. Their children were the famous deities Osiris, Horus, Seth, Nepthys, and Isis.
In ancient Egypt, unlike in other cultures such as Greece, the celestial realm was ruled by goddesses and the earth belonged to male gods. There were various gods of the earth, such as Ta-Tjenen, "the Mountain that rises up," and Aker—represented as two lions in a single body, with their heads looking in opposite directions—but Geb was the most important and best-known earth god.
Geb was represented as a man, either lying on his back or standing up. When lying down, he symbolized the surface of Earth. Sometimes he was shown with an erect penis, which represented his future joining with the goddess Nut to create plant life. For this reason, he was sometimes depicted with green skin or with plants springing from his body.
In his standing position, Geb wore either the white crown of Upper Egypt, called the ateph, or the crown of Lower Egypt, or even the double crown, which made him a god of the united kingdoms. Geb was believed to be the third most important god, just lower in rank than Re and Osiris. It was Geb who conferred the divine legitimacy of kingship. Every pharaoh was believed to be an incarnation of Horus, the falcon god, but Horus owed his position to Geb. So, although the pharaoh was primarily identified with Horus, he also received the title Heir of Geb.
Geb was also represented with a goose on his head. Theologians gradually turned Geb into a god of creation, who, like a goose, laid the "cosmic egg" from which the sun god was born, incarnated in the bird Benu. The Benu was the Egyptian equivalent of the Greek phoenix, a golden bird that threw itself into the fire, only to be reborn again from the ashes. The bird thus represented the daily cycle of the sun. It was also a powerful symbol of rebirth, renewal, and fertility.
As a result of Geb's association with a goose, he became known as the Great Cackler, an epithet that had formerly belonged to another god, Gengen-Ur, who was also represented with a goose on his head. He, too, was believed to have laid the egg from which the sun was born. These similarities suggest that Gengen-Ur was probably an aspect of Geb rather than a separate god.
According to the Egyptian creation myth, Geb mated with Nut to bring about creation. Re, the sun god, then ordered them to be separated from one another. He did this by placing Shu, the air, between the two gods.
This version of creation is similar to the one narrated in the biblical Book of Genesis, where in the beginning there were only heaven and earth, heaven lying upon the surface of the waters. God created the skies by separating the waters of heaven from the waters below. Then he created the dry land by gathering the waters under the heavens into a single place, so that the dry earth could appear.
No one knows whether the Egyptian myth was later adopted by the Hebrews, who lived among them for many centuries, but the similarities between the two versions suggest that there may have been a close relationship.
In the Egyptian account, Geb did not want to be separated from Nut. Thoth, an Egyptian equivalent to the Greek messenger of the gods, Hermes, was also in love with Nut, but he felt sorry for the couple. Thoth, like Hermes, was a trickster. He decided to deceive Re by challenging him to a game of senet (the world's oldest known board game), with the condition that if Re lost, he would have to grant Thoth whatever he desired. Thoth won the game and then asked Re to allow Geb and Nut to reunite for five days in the year. These days became the epagomenoi, or intercalary days, placed at the end of the calendar year to complete the annual cycle. It was during these days that Nut gave birth to the last generation of gods: on the first day, Osiris; on the second, Horus; on the third, Seth; on the fourth, Nepthys; and on the fifth and last day, Isis.
Originally Geb may not have been a god of Heliopolis, but of a place somewhere near the city. During the Third Dynasty (c. 2650–c. 2575 BCE), theologians needed to provide a father for Osiris and explain how he became the god of vegetation. They decided that his parents should be the sky and the earth—Nut and Geb. Geb replaced the ancient god Aker, who symbolized the journey of the sun across the sky.
Thus Geb became the creator of all living creatures. He was also the creator of minerals, particularly precious stones, which made him the god of mining. Geb's bones rising from the ground formed mountains; when he had sex with Nut, he caused earthquakes. In his role of creator, Geb was depicted as black, the color of the fertile soil left on the banks of the Nile River after the annual flood.
Geb's son Osiris was the judge of the dead, and Geb became the guardian of the underworld. He watched the weighing of the hearts of the deceased in the Judgment Hall of Osiris. The righteous escaped from the earth, but the wicked were held by Geb, who owned the stakes to which condemned souls were tied.
Geb was also associated with rituals for the dead. The bottom of a sarcophagus was thought to be Geb, while the lid was thought to be Nut. When Nut joined Geb as the sarcophagus was closed, their union enabled the deceased to return to earth and acquire a divine nature.
The infernal snake Apophis, who personified darkness, evil, and the forces of chaos, lived in the underworld. Geb became associated with Apophis and was sometimes depicted as a man with the head of a serpent, and named the Lord of Vipers or Lord of Serpents. This serpent nature was probably responsible for his title of Lord of Magic, since poisons were employed in magic by cultures around the world.
Geb's main center of worship was Heliopolis. He was also worshiped in Idfu, Thebes, and Kom Ombo, although archaeologists have not yet found any temples to him. Some evidence suggests, however, that there may have been a temple to him in the ancient town of Coptos (present-day Qift).
See also: CREATION MYTHS; DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE; EGYPT; HORUS; ISIS; NEPTHYS; NUT; OSIRIS; RE; SETH.
- The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. .
- The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003. .
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