Geb

Geb
in hieroglyphs
G39 b A40

Geb (also spelled Seb, and Keb) was an important member of the Ennead, the pantheon of deities revered in ancient Lower Egypt. Geb represented the earth and its fertility, and, over time, came to be associated with rituals surrounding death and rebirth, given that he was the final resting of all living beings. In this guise he was most prominent in Egyptian religious practice, as a large portion of Egyptian practical theology centered around funerary rites. Given ancient Egyptian's emphasis on the afterlife, they accorded Geb a preeminent place in their rituals involving death and rebirth. Additionally, he was credited with fathering (with his wife Nut (the sky)) the fourth generation of deities, including Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys, which became important in later Egyptian mythology.

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Geb in an Egyptian Context

As an Egyptian deity, Geb belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system developed in the Nile river basin from earliest prehistory to 525 B.C.E.[1] Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded.[2] The cults within this framework, whose beliefs comprise the myths we have before us, were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities.[3] Despite this apparently unlimited diversity, however, the gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes: “the Egyptian gods are imperfect as individuals. If we compare two of them … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.”[4] One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanental—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world.[5] Thus, those who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Also, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e. the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complementary.[6]

The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely appropriate to (and defined by) the geographical and calendrical realities of its believers' lives. Unlike the beliefs of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians and others within their cultural sphere, the Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical, and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it.[7] The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was ultimately defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence.[8] Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.

Geb was one of the most ancient deities in the Egyptian pantheon, whose centrality was attested to by both his place in the cosmos (as the fertile earth that sustained the lives of the early Egyptians) and his place in the mythic corpus (as the father of such manifestly important deities as Osiris, Isis, and Set). He was revered primarily in Lower Egypt, especially in the area around Heliopolis, and was a member of the Enneadic Pantheon.

Mythological Accounts

Characterization

In early Egyptian mythology, Geb was revered as the personification of the earth, whose name could literally be translated as "earth" or "ground." In fact, his rumbling, chthonic laughter was seen as the cause of earthquakes [9] He was understood to be the grandson of the primal creator Atum,[10] the son of the primordial elements Tefnut (moisture) and Shu (dryness), the husband of Nut (the sky), and the father of four young (and mythically central) gods—Osiris, Set, Isis, and Nephthys.

Over time, the hieroglyph used in his name became associated with the habitable land of Egypt, and thus with vegetation and fertility. Given the immanental identification between the god and the physical substance of the earth, this association was understood in very concrete terms: barley was said to grow upon his ribs, his iconic images were often colored green (representing vegetation) or were covered with the glyph meaning "fertile." All things in this world, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, were described as being "on the back of Geb."[11] Likewise, Geb's character (as an anthropomorphization of earth) also meant that he was a component of Egyptian funerary practice, as the dead were literally returned to his bosom through interment. This correspondence, and its relevance to ancient religious practices, is discussed below.

Finally, Geb was understood to be one of the primordial rulers of the natural world, ensuring the regular and systematic operation of the cosmos. In some archaic accounts, he was described as ruling in concert with the other members of the Ennead, though such models of egalitarian leadership fell into disfavor with the rise and consolidation of the Egyptian monarchical system.[12] In later versions, he was appointed as the successor of the Sun God, who realized that (after he retreated to the sky) someone would need to defend the world against the darkness and chaos of Apep.[13] In a later, sycretic version of the the succession story, Geb was described as usurping the throne from his father (Shu) and taking his mother (Tefnut) as his primary consort. This forms an explicit parallel to the Greek account describing Cronus's rebellion against his father, Uranus.[14] Regardless of the specifics of the account, the character of Geb retains a strong association with rulership. As Wilkinson summarizes, "the Egyptian king himself was called the 'heir of Geb' and was said to sit upon the 'seat of Geb'. The god was thus involved in the transmission of kingship, and in the mythical story known as the 'Contendings of Horus and Seth' (preserved in the twentieth-dynasty Papyrus Chester Beatty I), it is Geb who acts as the presiding judge in determining the rightful heir to the throne. This role of support for the king is present even as early as the Pyramid Texts where Geb champions the king as Horus over Seth."[15]

Creation accounts

The role of Geb (the earth) and Nut (the sky) in the early mythic cosmos is described in the typically "concrete" style of Egyptian mythology. Namely, the two deities were understood to be engaged in an eternal act of copulation, wherein Nut came to conceive her four exemplary children (Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys). However, the embrace of the two deities was so passionate that there was literally no space between them, which meant that nothing else could possibly come to exist. As a result, it was necessary for Shu (air) to intercede, forcibly lifting Nut away from her lover and holding her at a distance. This separation allowed for the birth of the next generation of gods, and for the eventual flowering of the earth. As a result, many depictions of the two deities feature Geb lying prone beneath the arched body of Nut, who is held in place by Shu—the earth god is often seen reaching vainly towards his erstwhile lover with his arms and/or his erect phallus. [16]

Geb and Nut were also seen as the origin of the Great Egg, from which the sun god (in the form of a phoenix) was born. As a result of this myth (and likely due to a homophone in the original language), Geb came to be associated with geese and was referred to as the Great Cackler.[17]

Geb in Egyptian Religion

Given the fact that Geb was associated with the earth (and thus with all things buried within it), it is not surprising that he played a prominent role in the Egyptian understanding of the afterlife. The moral dead were understood to be released from his earthen grasp, while the immoral were destined to be forever entombed beneath the soil.[18] For this reason, he is frequently mentioned in the Pyramid Texts—funerary inscriptions whose primary purpose was to present liturgical utterances to the gods on behalf of deceased pharaohs. Throughout this vast corpus of texts, the god of the soil is mentioned by name more frequently than most other Egyptian deities.[19]

For example, the following utterance makes use of a number of elements from the mythic characterization of Geb, including his affiliation with kingship, his role as father of Osiris, his aptitude as a healer,[20] and the universality of his chthonic embrace (as all living beings must eventually pass into earth). In the quotation that follows, it should be noted that any mention of "Osiris N." refers to the soul of the deceased, as all beings came to be identified with the God of the Dead (Osiris) upon their passing from the mortal realm.

To say: Geb, son of Shu, this is Osiris N.;
the heart of thy mother trembles for thee, in thy name of "Geb."
Thou art the eldest son of Shu, his primogeniture.
O Geb, Osiris N. is this one here;
heal him, that [what is the matter with him] may cease;
thou art the Great God, the only one.
Atum has given thee his heritage; he has given thee the whole Ennead;
even Atum himself together with them. The son of his eldest son (Shu) is united with thee (Geb),
(when) he sees thee, that thou art glorified, that thy heart is great (proud).
Thou art p‘n, in thy name of "wise mouth," "Hereditary prince of the gods."
Thou art standing on the earth; thou judgest at the head of the Ennead;
thy fathers and thy mothers are at their head; thou art More powerful than any god;
thou art come to Osiris N., that thou mayest protect him against his enemy.
O Geb, wise-mouth, hereditary prince of the gods, it is thy son, Osiris N.
Thou causest thy son to live with him; make thy son prosperous with him;
Thou art lord of the entire earth;
thou art powerful over the Ennead and even (over) every god.
Thou art mighty; thou turnest away every evil from Osiris N.;
thou shalt not cause it to return to him, in thy name of "Horus who repeats not his work."
Thou art the ka of all the gods;
thou hast brought them; thou nourishest them; thou causest them to live.
Make Osiris N. live.[21]

Numerous similar depictions of the god exist throughout the Pyramid Texts.

Another aspect of Geb's character, namely his association with the fertility of the earth, was also referenced in Egyptian funerary customs—specifically through the notion that the deity continued to exercise jurisdiction over the fruits of the earth. As a result, when certain types of funeral liturgies called for the presentation of earthly bounty (i.e. beer, bread, or animal products) to the gods, they were offered in Geb's name, for the benefit of the deceased.[22]

Finally, the location of Geb within the potent divine lineage of Atum, Osiris, and Horus also guaranteed his presence in these burial practices. During the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, which was utilized to sanctify both mummies and religious icons alike, the recipient is anointed with water and incense in the name of various deities, including the earth god:

The Chapter of the opening of the mouth of the statue of Osiris, the royal scribe, Hunefer, which is to be performed [when] its face [looketh] towards the south, [and when it is set] upon the sand behind him. And the Kher-heb shall say four times unto the Sem priest as he goeth round about him bearing four vases of water: 'Thou art pure with the purification of Horus, and Horus is pure with thy purification. Thou art pure with the purification of Thoth, and Thoth is pure with thy purification. Thou art pure with the purification of Sep, and Sep is pure with thy purification. Thou art pure with the purification of Seb [Geb], and Seb [Geb] is pure with thy purification. Pure. Pure.' [Say] four times. 'Incense hath been offered unto thee of the incense of Horus, and incense hath been offered unto Horus of thy incense. Incense hath been offered unto thee of the incense of Thoth, and incense hath been offered unto Thoth of thy incense. Incense hath been offered unto thee of the incense of Sep, and incense hath been offered unto Sep of thy incense. Incense hath been offered unto thee of the incense of Seb [Geb], and incense hath been offered unto Seb [Geb] of thy incense.'[23]

Notes

  1. This particular "cut-off" date has been chosen because it corresponds to the Persian conquest of the kingdom, which marks the end of its existence as a discrete and (relatively) circumscribed cultural sphere. Indeed, as this period also saw an influx of immigrants from Greece, it was also at this point that the Hellenization of Egyptian religion began. While some scholars suggest that even when "these beliefs became remodeled by contact with Greece, in essentials they remained what they had always been" (Erman, 203), it still seems reasonable to address these traditions, as far as is possible, within their own cultural milieu.
  2. The numerous inscriptions, stelae and papyri that resulted from this sudden stress on historical posterity provide much of the evidence used by modern archeologists and Egyptologists to approach the ancient Egyptian tradition (Pinch, 31-32).
  3. These local groupings often contained a particular number of deities and were often constructed around the incontestably primary character of a creator god (Meeks and Meeks-Favard, 34-37).
  4. Frankfort, 25-26.
  5. Zivie-Coche, 40-41; Frankfort, 23, 28-29.
  6. Frankfort, 20-21.
  7. Assmann, 73-80; Zivie-Coche, 65-67; Breasted argues that one source of this cyclical timeline was the dependable yearly fluctuations of the Nile (8, 22-24).
  8. Frankfort, 117-124; Zivie-Coche, 154-166.
  9. Wilkinson, 105.
  10. It should be noted that in different regions the honor of primogeniture (and of creation) was possessed by different deities: Atum in Lower Egypt, Amun in Thebes, Ptah in Memphis, and Ra in the later, syncretistic, pan-Egyptian cult. See Frankfort, 20-22, 131; Pinch, 61-66.
  11. Pinch, 66; Budge (1969), Vol. II, 94; Wilkinson, 106.
  12. Pinch, 76.
  13. Ibid., 77. For an account of Geb's involvement in the binding of Apep (in the underworld), see "The Gate of Am-Netu-F: The Eleventh Division of the Tuat" Retrieved November 5, 2007. in The Book of Gates, translated by Budge (1905). Retrieved July 16, 2007.
  14. Budge (1969), Vol. II, 100; Pinch, 76; Wilkinson, 106.
  15. Wilkinson, 105.
  16. Pinch, 64-66, 135; Wilkinson, 106.
  17. Budge (1969), Vol. II, 95-96.
  18. Ibid., 95.
  19. As Wilkinson notes, "he is one of the most frequently mentioned deities found in the Pyramid Texts, where he is often juxtaposed with Re or other gods who were of great importance in Egyptian afterlife beliefs" (105).
  20. Specifically, he was understood (in popular religion) to provide a mystical antidote for individuals stung by scorpions. One myth of Isis, translated in Budge's Egyptian Magic Retrieved November 5, 2007.makes reference to this belief: "Isis then uttered certain words of the charm which had been given to her by the god Seb [Geb] in order to keep poison away from her, and said, "Turn away, get away, retreat, O poison," adding the words "Mer-Râ" in the morning and "The Egg of the Goose appeareth from out of the sycamore" in the evening, as she turned to the scorpions. Both these sentences were talismans" (132). See also Wilkinson, 106.
  21. The Pyramid Texts (1615a-1623c), 249-250. Accessed online at: sacred-texts.com. Retrieved July 15, 2007.
  22. See E. A. Wallis Budge, The Liturgy of Funerary Offerings (1909), 24-25. Accessed online at: sacred-texts.com. Retrieved July 15, 2007.
  23. E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, (1901). 202-203. Accessed online at: sacred-texts.com. Retrieved July 15, 2007.

References

  • Assmann, Jan. In search for God in ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2001. ISBN 0801487293.
  • Breasted, James Henry. Development of religion and thought in ancient Egypt. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. ISBN 0812210454.
  • Budge, E. A. Wallis (translator). The Egyptian Book of the Dead. 1895. At sacred-texts.com. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  • Budge, E. A. Wallis. (translator) The Egyptian Heaven and Hell. 1905. At sacred-texts.com. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  • Budge, E. A. Wallis. The gods of the Egyptians; or, Studies in Egyptian mythology. A Study in Two Volumes. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.
  • Budge, E. A. Wallis. (translator). Legends of the Gods: The Egyptian texts. 1912. At sacred-texts.com. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  • Budge, E. A. Wallis. (translator). The Rosetta Stone. 1893, 1905. At sacred-texts.com. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  • Dennis, James Teackle (translator). The Burden of Isis. 1910. At sacred-texts.com. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  • Dunand, Françoise and Christiane Zivie-Coche. Gods and men in Egypt: 3000 B.C.E. to 395 C.E. (Translated from the French by David Lorton.) Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. ISBN 080144165X.
  • Erman, Adolf. A handbook of Egyptian religion. (Translated by A. S. Griffith.) London: Archibald Constable, 1907.
  • Frankfort, Henri. Ancient Egyptian Religion. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961. ISBN 0061300772.
  • Griffith, F. Ll. and Thompson, Herbert (translators). The Leyden Papyrus. 1904. At sacred-texts.com. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  • Larson, Martin A. The Story of Christian Origins. 1977. ISBN 0883310902.
  • Meeks, Dimitri and Christine Meeks-Favard. Daily life of the Egyptian gods. (Translated from the French by G. M. Goshgarian.) Ithaca, NY : Cornell University Press, 1996. ISBN 0801431158.
  • Mercer, Samuel A. B. (translator). The Pyramid Texts. 1952. At sacred-texts.com. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  • Pinch, Geraldine. Handbook of Egyptian mythology Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002. ISBN 1576072428.
  • Shafer, Byron E. (ed.). Temples of ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. ISBN 0801433991.
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003. ISBN 0500051208.

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