Geb is one of the most prominent gods of ancient Egypt. He is also known as Seb or Keb, depending on the interpretation. His name may roughly translate to “the lame one,” but he was one of ancient Egypt’s almighty god-kings.
Ancient Egyptians knew Geb as the earth, the origin of earthquakes, and the father of the four deities Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys. He was, as far as anyone was concerned, the third god-king to inherit the throne of Egypt.
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Who is Geb?
The Egyptian god Geb is the son of Shu (Air) and Tefnut (Moisture). Geb is also the twin brother and husband of the sky goddess, Nut. From their union, mainstays of the Egyptian pantheon like Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys were born; several sources also cite Geb and Nut as the parents of Horus the Elder. By extension, Geb is the grandson of the sun god Ra.
READ MORE: Sun Gods
Besides fathering four famous deities, Geb is additionally referred to as the father of snakes. In the Coffin Texts, he is the apparent father of the primordial serpent Nehebkau. Generally, Nehebkau is a benevolent, protective entity. He served in the afterlife as one of the 42 Assessors of Ma’at; as an Assessor, Nehebkau binds the ka (an aspect of the soul) to the physical body.
The Coffin Texts are a collection of archaic funerary spells from the 21st-century BCE during the Intermediate Period of Egypt. Serpents, specifically the cobra, were an integral part of Egyptian religious beliefs, especially during funerary practices. Egyptian gods and goddesses associated with snakes were likewise linked to protection, divinity, and royalty.
What Does Geb Look Like?
In popular mythological interpretations, Geb is portrayed as a man donning a crown. The crown can be a combined white crown and an Atef crown. The Hedjet also called the white crown, was worn by rulers of Upper Egypt before unification. The Atef crown is the Hedjet decorated with ostrich feathers and was a symbol of Osiris, especially within the cult of Osiris.
The most famous image of Geb is one where he is seen as reclined, with his hand stretched towards Nut, the goddess of the sky. He appears as a man wearing nothing but a golden wesekh (a broad collar necklace) and a pharaoh’s postiche (a metallic false beard). We can’t forget he was a god-king!
When Geb is feeling more casual, he is also depicted as a man wearing a goose on his head.
Now, in Geb’s earliest portraits from around Egypt’s Third Dynasty (2670-2613 BCE), he is depicted as an anthropomorphic being. From then on, he has taken the form of a man, a goose, a bull, a ram, and a crocodile.
Geb is a Chthonic deity, so he bears the markings of a Chthonic god. Chthonic originates from the Greek khthon (χθών), which means “earth.” Thus, Geb and other deities associated with the underworld and the earth are all counted as Chthonic.
To further his ties to the earth, it was said that Geb had barley sprouting from his ribs. In his human form, his body was speckled with green patches of vegetation. Meanwhile, the desert, more specifically a burial tomb, was oftentimes referred to as “Geb’s jaws.” By the same token, the Earth was called the “House of Geb” and earthquakes were manifestations of his laughter.
Why is There a Goose on Geb’s Head?
The goose is Geb’s sacred animal. In Egyptian mythology, sacred animals are believed to be messengers and manifestations of the gods. Certain sacred animals would even be worshiped as though they were the gods themselves. Examples include the Apis bull cult in Memphis and the widespread veneration of felines associated with Bastet, Sekhmet, and Maahes.
Thus, Geb and the goose are nearly impossible to separate. The earthen god has even been depicted with the head of a goose. Even the hieroglyph for the name Geb is the goose. Geb, however, is not the primary goose god of the Egyptian pantheon.
More often than not, Geb is conflated with Gengen Wer, the celestial goose that laid the egg of creation. Other alterations of creation myths of ancient Egypt have claimed that Geb and Nut had born Horus the Elder from a great egg. Both Gengen Wer and Geb have epithets relating to the sound of geese. Moreover, in ancient Egypt, geese were viewed as messengers between the earth and the sky.
What is Geb the God Of?
Geb is the Egyptian god of the earth. Some of you may be raising an eyebrow at the mention of a male earth god. After all, the role is presumed to be a feminine one. Earth goddesses oftentimes took on the role of the respective pantheon’s Mother Goddess. Therefore, it begs the question: what is up with Egypt’s male earth god?
Egyptian mythology is known for blurring the lines between traditional gender roles. Sexual androgyny amongst the creator gods (namely Atum) acknowledges the necessity of both sexes in creation. It is further worth considering that the Nile River was the main source of water for ancient Egyptians; not necessarily rain. Their basin irrigation systems were connected by canals back to the Nile: thus, fertility came from a river, in the earth, rather than the sky in the form of rain.
Some sources point to Geb instead being intersex since he is occasionally attributed with laying an egg that Horus would hatch from. When this is depicted, Horus is shown as a snake. Perhaps it works to make Geb’s title as the “Father of Snakes” more literal. Additionally, this may come to tie in with his sacred animal, the goose. An aspect of Geb, another earth god Tatenen, was notably androgynous as well.
As the god of the earth in Egyptian mythology, Geb was also associated with harvest seasons. A few interpretations of Geb as a harvest god have him married to the cobra goddess, Renenutet. A minor goddess of harvest and nourishment, Renenutet was believed to be a divine nurturer of the pharaoh; over time, she became associated with another cobra goddess, Wadjet.
Geb was also the god of mines and natural caves, providing mankind with precious stones and metals. Precious stones were highly valued amongst wealthy Egyptians and were a popular trade commodity throughout the Greco-Roman Empire. So you see, as an earth god, Geb had a lot of important jobs to fulfill.
Geb in Egyptian Mythology
Geb is one of the Egyptian pantheon’s oldest, most important gods. However, he isn’t in many famous myths. As the earth, Geb plays a vital role in ancient Egypt’s cosmology.
It is perhaps best stated that Geb has garnered fame for his divine offspring, be they gods or serpents. His oldest son and heir, Osiris, was the god of the dead and the “Resurrected King,” ill-fated to be murdered by his brother, Set, the god of chaos. However, that story follows only once Geb leaves the picture.
A more celebrated role of Geb in mythology is that of the third divine pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Geb’s prominent position as one of the god-kings of ancient Egypt led to most pharaohs claiming descendants from him. The throne had even been called the “throne of Geb.”
The Creation of the World
The single most well-known myth of Geb’s is his partnership with his sister, Nut. Depending on mythical interpretations, Geb and Nut were born clutching fiercely to one another. Their attachment forced their father, Shu, to separate them. Their separation acts to explain why the sky was above the earth, with air seemingly keeping them apart.
An alternative creation myth is common within the Great Ennead. In this variation, Geb and Nut produced a “great egg” from their union. From the egg emerged the sun god in the form of a phoenix (or, Bennu).
Bennu was a bird-like god that was the ba (spiritual aspect) of Ra. Bennu also was said to have given Atum their creativity. The phoenix symbolizes immortality and rebirth, both of which are crucial to the ancient Egyptian interpretation of life after death.
The myth also echoes the theory that Geb is somehow related to the divine creator goose, Gengen Wer. This goose laid a great, celestial egg that the sun (or the world) emerged from. It would explain why Geb has the epithet “Great Cackler,” since it was the sound the egg made upon being laid. For reference, Gengen Wer was known as the “Great Honker” and, to be fair, “Great Cackler” isn’t too far off.
On the other hand, this alteration to the creation myth could have been mistaken for one where Thoth had laid a world egg in the form of an ibis. The motif of a world egg is found throughout many religions today, those both dominant and obscure. For example, the cosmologies within Zoroastrian, Vedic, and Orphic mythology all believe in a world egg.
The Birth of Geb and Nut’s Children
The relationship between the god of the earth and the goddess of the sky far surpasses sibling affection. Together Geb and Nut had four children: the gods Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys. Five, if we include Horus the Elder. However, bringing the deities into existence took a lot of work.
Word on the street was that Ra wasn’t a fan of whatever Nut had going on with her brother. He forbade her from giving birth any day of the year. Luckily, Nut was close with Thoth (they may have even been lovers). On Nut’s behalf, Thoth was able to gamble the moon, Khonsu, out of enough moonlight to make five extra days.
The spare days made it so that the five children could be born without betraying Ra’s word. While Nut was hard at work planning out her children’s births, we have to wonder what Geb was up to during this time. Well, gods are just as petty as people are. Since he was separated from his wife, Geb took to seducing his mother, Tefnut, as a jab at his father, Shu.
Since Geb was the grandson of Ra, he was destined to one day take the throne of his grandfather. In fact, he was the third one to inherit the role of the divine pharaoh in Egypt’s mythological history. His father, the god of air Shu, ruled before him.
The Book of the Heavenly Cow (1550-1292 BCE) ascribes Geb as Ra’s appointed heir, bypassing Shu. Ra further installs Osiris as the new pharaoh; Thoth rules the night as the moon; Ra separates into numerous celestial bodies; the Ogdoad gods assist Shu in supporting the sky.
Evidence of Geb’s position as god-king is further solidified in his historical titles. Geb has been referred to as the “Rpt,” which was the hereditary, tribal chief of the gods. The Rpt was also considered to be the supreme deity at times and was one that inherited the divine throne.
Geb would have ruled for several years until he stepped down from power in favor of becoming a Judge of Ma’at in the afterlife. After he appointed Osiris as heir, things went downhill for a while. Osiris died (and was resurrected), Set became Egypt’s king for a hot second, Isis got pregnant with Horus, and Nephthys solidified her role as the most reliable of the siblings.
How Was Geb Worshiped in Ancient Egypt?
The ancient Egyptians venerated Geb as the father of snakes and the earth himself. Cults dedicated to Geb began pre-unification in Iunu, better known today as Heliopolis. However, this may have arisen after the widespread worship of the other earth god Aker (also the god of the horizon).
There are no known temples dedicated to the god Geb, despite the deity’s significance in early Egyptian religion. He was primarily worshiped within Heliopolis, the hot spot for the Great Ennead he belonged to. Additionally, as a god of the earth, Geb would have been worshiped during periods of harvest or periods of mourning.
Little evidence of worship of Geb is found in Edfu (Apollinopolis Magna), which had several temple estates referred to as the “Aat of Geb.” Moreover, Dendera, which lies on the western bank of the Nile River, was known as “the home of the children of Geb.” While Dendera may – or may not – have been crawling with serpents, it is famous for its reliefs of a snake, presumably Horus, getting ready to hatch or be born by Nut.
Ennead at Heliopolis
The Ennead at Heliopolis, alternatively called the Great Ennead, was a collection of nine gods. These deities, according to the priests at Heliopolis, were the most important of the entire pantheon. Such beliefs weren’t shared amongst the whole of ancient Egypt, with each region having its divine hierarchy.
The Great Ennead encompasses:
Geb holds a prominent position as the grandson of Atum-Ra. Also, he’s the god of the earth: that alone makes Geb a pretty big deal. On that note, Geb wasn’t included in all seven enneads that emerged from Egyptian unification. The Great Ennead specifically venerates the creation god, Atum, and his immediate eight descendants.
Gaining traction during the Middle Kingdom (2030-1640 BCE), the Coffin Texts were funerary texts inscribed on coffins to help guide the dead. The Coffin Texts superseded the Pyramid Texts and preceded the famous Book of the Dead. The “Spell 148” of the Coffin Texts describes Isis exclaiming that “the son of the foremost of the Ennead who will rule this land…will become heir to Geb…will speak for his father…” thus acknowledging the tension that came with Osiris ascending the throne after Geb stepped down.
When Geb relinquished the position as king, he joined the Divine Tribunal of the gods. He would act as supreme judge in place of Ra and Atum. His son, Osiris, also held power as the Tribunal’s supreme judge at some point. Eventually, Osiris became the primary one to be depicted as the supreme judge.
Book of the Dead
The Book of the Dead is a collection of Egyptian papyrus manuscripts that acted as a “how-to” guide to navigating the afterlife. In some cases, the dead would be buried with copies of the manuscripts. This practice became increasingly popular during the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE). The contents of the manuscripts are referred to as spells and are intended to be spoken aloud.
Within the Book of the Dead belonging to Princess Henuttawy, Geb is depicted as a man with the head of a serpent. He is reclined beneath a woman – his sister-wife Nut – who is arching over him. In this image, the pair symbolizes the sky and the earth.
As far as his role goes, Geb is one of the 42 Judges of Ma’at who observes the weighing of the heart. The heart would be weighed by the god Anubis within the Judgment Hall of Osiris and the deity Thoth would record the results. The weighing of the heart determined whether or not the deceased could progress onto A’aru, the blissful Field of Reeds. A’aru is thought to be a part of the Field of Peace, known as Sekhmet-Hetep (alternatively, the Field of Hetep).
Is Geb the Greek God Kronos (Cronus)?
Geb is frequently equated with the Greek god and Titan Cronus. Actually, the comparisons between Geb and Cronus began back in the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 BCE). This apparent relation is largely based on their respective roles in their pantheons. Both are fathers of more central deities, who eventually fall from their respected position as tribal chiefs.
The likeness between Geb and the Titan god Cronus goes as far as to literally unite them within Greco-Roman Egypt. They were worshiped together in the cult of Sobek at his cult center, Fayyum. Sobek was a crocodilian fertility god and his union with Geb and Cronus solidified his power. Furthermore, Sobek, Geb, and Kronos were all viewed to be creators in some interpretations of their culture’s unique cosmology.