God of the Earth, son of Shu and Tefnut, consort of Nut, father of Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, and Seth, Geb is depicted anthropomorphically, wearing the Lower Egyptian crown, with green skin or decorated with plants, often prone beneath the arching body of Nut, Goddess of the sky, his erect phallus reaching up toward her, Shu standing upright holding them apart. Among animals Geb is particularly associated with the goose. In addition to representing the earth with all its bounty, Geb is regarded as having transmitted the sovereignty over the cosmos from Atum and Shu to Osiris, and plays a pivotal role in awarding that sovereignty to Horus in the conflict between the latter and Seth.
Geb is thus the earth, neither in that sense in which it is merely part of the architecture of the cosmos, nor in that sense in which it is the receptacle of the decay of the living (albeit occasionally, e.g. PT utterance 258: “The King is Osiris in a dust-devil, earth is his detestation, and the King will not enter into Geb,” —an aspect more often attributed to Aker, but see below), but rather as the supportive matrix of life. Geb embodies that continuity of life which, from a cosmic perspective, constantly turns the clock back on death and decay, as in PT utterance 368, in which it is said that Geb “has caused Thoth to reassemble you [Osiris/the deceased king] so that what was on you comes to an end,” namely the process of decay. Hence the earth is addressed in utterance 483: “O earth, hear this which Geb said when he spiritualized Osiris as a God.” The special relationship between Geb and Osiris is emphasized in the tendency to hypostatize it as ‘the sonship’: “O Geb … Osiris the King is your son; may you nourish your son with it, may your son be made hale by means of it,” (utterances 592, 640). This relationship is reciprocal: “If he [Osiris] lives, you [Geb] will live; if he is hale, you will be hale; you will have effectiveness, O Geb; you will have strength, O Geb; you will have a soul, O Geb; you will have power, O Geb,” (640). Whereas Geb provides for Osiris continuity of existence through the continuity of life’s natural matrix, Osiris provides for Geb a field for manifestation insofar as Osiris is the personal being of mortal organisms. In spell 575 of the Coffin Texts, for instance, the operator, no longer literally royal, affirms that “I have collected the thrones of Geb for him, and his souls which were in the Abyss [Nun] are united.” The mortal being thus fulfills an aim inherent in Geb from the beginning. Sometimes it seems that what Geb provides for the mortal being is something like elemental concreteness, earth being a symbol of solidity: in utterance 570, the king asks Geb to “equip me with my shape.” Geb’s role in the reassembly of Osiris is spelled out in utterance 536, where Geb fishes him out of the water, puts his bones in order, makes firm his soles and cleans his fingernails and toenails. In this description, the parts of the body which are firm and resistant like the earth are emphasized, as are the soles of the feet, whose contact with the earth entails standing upright. Similarly, Geb is associated with the back in utterance 539, a spell for the divinization of the members of the body. In some texts it seems as if Geb is responsible in a comprehensive fashion for the resurrection, at least for its more concrete corporeal aspects (see, e.g., CT spell 20).
Geb’s identification with the continuity of life underlies his function of ratifying the transition of sovereignty: the king occupies the throne(s) of Geb as his rightful heir; indeed, insofar as he is a king, he is “the seed of Geb” (utterance 303), Geb being “the hereditary prince of the Gods” (BD spell 142 var.). This attribute can be so salient as to occasionally outweigh Geb’s identification with the earth in the Pyramid Texts, which are at once of purely royal application and oriented toward an afterlife in the sky; hence in utterance 373 the king is taken by Horus “to the sky, to your father Geb.” Geb is the source of sovereignty for those who reign upon the earth (“the thrones of Geb”) and this function is dominant among his attributes from the earliest times. The sovereign must identify with Geb as the source of this sovereignty, and hence it is wished for the king “that you may sit … at the head of the Ennead as Geb, chiefest of the Gods, as Osiris at the head of the Powers, and as Horus, Lord of men and Gods” (utterance 468), each of these instances of sovereignty being at once universal and also delimitable from the others; similarly, the king appears to the Gods “as Horus at the head of the living, as Geb at the head of the Ennead [i.e., at the head of the nine Gods of Heliopolis], and as Osiris at the head of the spirits,” (utterance 690). The earth being the place in which all divine activity is felt, Geb can say, in transmitting sovereignty to the king, “I bring to you the Gods who are in the sky, I assemble for you the Gods who are on earth, that you may be with them and walk arm-in-arm with them,” (utterance 474); “Geb has given you [the king] all the Gods of Upper and Lower Egypt that they may raise you up; be mighty through them,” (utterance 645A).
Geb is also the ultimate source of all offerings to the Gods, and thus it can be said that he is “the essence [ka] of all the Gods,” (utterance 592). Offerings to the Gods being known collectively as the ‘Eye of Horus’, it is said that “Horus rejoiced at meeting his Eye when his Eye was given to him in the presence of his father Geb,” (utterance 478). This appropriation of the earth’s bounty to the continuation of civilization is parallel to the transmission of sovereignty: “I will stand up when I have taken possession of my blessedness … just as Horus took possession of his father’s house from his father’s brother Seth in the presence of Geb,” (utterance 519). The sovereignty is nothing other than the possession of the ordered cosmos, which can itself be referred to simply as the ‘Eye of Horus’ (e.g. utterance 587). The Upper and Lower Egyptian crowns are similarly characterized as “the eye [of Horus] <which> has issued from your [Geb’s] head,” (utterance 592). Geb is thus responsible for the transcendence of the earthly condition in the strict sense, for the spiritualization of the earth’s goods: “Geb causes me to fly up to the sky that I may take the Eye of Horus to him,” that is, so that the deceased may bring to the Gods that which has come from the earth and been made into a divine offering (utterance 524). Thus “Geb has raised on high the potent Eye of Horus which is on the hands of his great souls and upon his ordinary souls,” (utterance 689) these ‘souls’ being presumably the earthly living beings themselves. Appropriately in light of what has been said, Geb is a judge of the use to which the gifts of the earth have been put; hence mention is frequently made of Geb’s tribunal, the members of which are listed in CT spell 627. The positive judgment of Geb is manifest, it would seem, in the generation of offerings, and applies not only to humans but also to the Gods. The paradigmatic case is that of Osiris, “for whom offerings ascend at Geb’s command,” (BD spell 185A); in the Pyramid Texts, however, the king promises any God who assists him in ascending to the sky that “his ka [double or spirit, representing here the power of sustenance] shall be vindicated before Geb,” (utterance 539).
A peculiar stress is laid at times upon Geb’s use of his voice, which is perhaps a symbol for resurrection as the earth rendering up that which is within it: “O King, the mouth of the earth is split open for you, Geb speaks to you,” (utterance 697), and by the same token when a cataclysm is threatened, one of its conditions is that Geb will not speak (utterance 254; cf. CT spell 619, “the earth will not open, Geb will not speak”). The speech of Geb is at once the resurrection, the production of food, and the judgment which accords offerings. References are made occasionally to the ‘plumes’ of Geb, as in PT utterance 669, “you shall fly up and alight on account of the plumes of your father Geb,” or CT spell 682, ” If he [Osiris N] be weary (or inert), he will come to rest on the plumes of Geb.” These ‘plumes’ may be the winds, or plant life, or related to Geb’s manifestation in the goose, whose voice may also represent the voice of Geb mentioned above.
Geb does not usually manifest the menacing symbolic aspects of the earth borne more typically by figures such as the Akeru, and which pertain especially to the threat the earth poses to the resurrection, if it should jealously, so to speak, attempt to retain the deceased for itself, or, on the cosmic plane, to arrest the sun’s return from out of the earthly horizon into which it sets each day. Certain myths of Geb, however, show the presence of these more threatening attributes.
The Delta Mythological Manual, for instance, tells of a boar who mutilates the Eye of Re and swallows its efflux (light). The Eye rises to the surface of the boar’s flesh, however, and is retrieved by Thoth. The text goes on to speak of Geb’s transformation into a boar, in a manner clearly inviting comparison, if not complete identification, with the previous boar: “As for the Great House, it is called the lair of the boar. One uses the fire-drill at its entrance. It is the house of the trap [or ‘net’, ibṯ.t] of Geb when the Gods made him swallow urine, after he had taken the form of a boar. This is done to him as well on account of the harm he caused to his father Shu,” (Meeks, Mythes et Légendes du Delta, §14 (VI, 7-11).). Here, Geb is ‘trapped’ in the form or ‘net’ of mere earth, which receives urine and other waste, rather than the Eye of Re, whose light is rekindled by the ritual use of the fire-drill.
The reference to harm done to Shu by Geb evokes another myth, which can only be reconstructed with some uncertainty from numerous fragmentary attestations. The most extensive treatment of it is found on an inscription from Ismaïlia (el-ꜥArish) published by Griffith (1890, pp. 71-73) and Goyon (1936). This text treats Re, Shu, and Geb as successive sovereigns. At the end of Shu’s reign, some sort of disorder or rebellion leads to his retiring to the heavens (in much the manner Re does in the wake of rebellion in the Book of the Celestial Cow). In the midst of this disorder, Geb is seized with desire for his mother Tefnut, who has apparently not yet joined Shu in the heavens, but reigns in her own right. Someone “seizes her by force” (iṯi m ꜥwꜣi), but it is not altogether clear from the text that Geb does so. This act apparently leads to nine days in which “no one ventured out from the palace” and “there was a tempest such that neither man nor God could see the face of the one next to him.” Geb takes power and is recognized as sovereign by the people. When he attempts to place the royal uraeus on his forehead, however, it burns him badly. (The uraeus serpent is here called ‘son of the land’ (sꜣ-tꜣ), a common term for ‘serpent’ in Egyptian, but distinctly ironic in this context.) Geb is subsequently cured by putting on a headdress (iꜣr.t) of Re’s. (Later, the text explains, this headdress being washed in a sacred pool transformed into a form of Sobek.)
Further evidence of this myth comes from a spell in the Demotic Magical Papyri (PDM xiv. 366-375) for “separating a man from a woman and a woman from her husband,” which states that “Geb made his form into (that of) a bull, he had intercourse [with] his mother, Tefnut … as the heart of his father cursed his face.” Note, in this regard, a passage from BD spell 17, where the one “who carries off souls, who gulps down decayed matter, who lives on carrion, who is attached to darkness and dwells in gloom, of whom the feeble are afraid,” is glossed first as “He is Seth”, but then in a variant, “He is the Great Wild Bull; he is the soul of Geb.” In the Delta Manual (§29, XII 7-9) we read that “Geb afflicted his father when he had intercourse [bnbn] with his (own) mother,” for which he is punished: “the lance”—earlier in this section it has been explained that Onuris, often identified with Shu, “is called ‘Master of the Lance’ in this place”—“was planted in his [Geb’s] thighs,” presumably by his father. Consequently, the text adds, “Women avoid intercourse with their husbands when Geb is united with his mother.”
In the Tebtunis Mythological Manual (ed. and trans. Osing and Rosati 1998, English trans. in Jørgensen 2014) we read of “the one who punished the son who perpetrated a crime against his father in the slaughtering place in Hermopolis,” who “lay with his mother Tefnut and thus they sinned against his father Shu,” (TM 4, 13-4). In this text, the sinning son of Shu, clearly Geb, is punished by “Wenut who grasps her spear, she made a massacre on the son of vile character who was judged as befits him and thrown on his side because of copulating with Nehmetaway in Hermopolis and Nehbetanet in Buto,” substituting local Hermopolitan Goddesses for Tefnut (TM 4, 17-18). Nehbetanet is glossed in this text as “Horit the Great, Sekhmet of Memphis, and Tefnut in the House of Pain.” Later (TM 5, 7-8), a festival on I Akhet 19 is explained as “the vindication of Shu, the eldest son, against Geb, which happens there in the slaughtering place by means of a Bedja-goose,” the goose obviously standing in for Geb. A further passage (TM 6, 1-9) states that Geb is punished for imprisoning his mother Tefnut after he “brought her to bed”, which as Jørgensen points out (2014, p. 81), is ambiguous, and could refer to the sexual act, or to the funerary bier, or to the bed of childbirth. For Geb, as the earth, to ‘imprison’ someone suggests imposing upon them the limitations of earthly being.
This myth may also be treated in a ritual text from Papyrus Salt 825 titled “The End of the Work” which is designed to charge a protective statuette of Osiris. A passage from this text recounts that Shu, “when his son revolted against him, placed the talisman ‘End of the Work’ around his neck to save himself from him, and it caused a misfortune for him. But Shu wept when this misfortune happened to him, and he resurrected him in an instant, by means of the breath from his mouth, intended for [r ḏbꜣ] his son Osiris.” Osiris is called Shu’s ‘son’ here with the typical looseness of filiation terms in Egyptian mythical texts. Indeed, the captions for the figures accompanying “The End of the Work” characterize both Shu and Geb as Osiris’ ‘father’, and both Tefnut and Nut as his ‘mother’. The events described clearly resemble instead the accounts discussed above in which Geb is punished for an act committed against Shu. The phrase Derchain translates as “intended for”, r ḏbꜣ, can also be read with the sense “instead of”, as pointed out by J. Gwyn Griffiths (JEA 53 (1967), p. 187). This reading would raise the question of whether Geb’s resurrection here by Shu—a mytheme also without precedent—comes somehow at Osiris’ expense. A caption on Shu from this text, however, reads “Your father Shu making the sweet breath of life for your nose each day” (Pl. 24, p. 145 Derchain), and it would go against the grain of Osirian theology to treat Osiris’ resurrection as lacking in any way. It may, rather, be that the resurrection of Geb by the breath of life intended for Osiris refers to the vivific charge imparted to the earthy materials of the statuette—made of clay and sand mixed with resins (p. 143), just as the floor of the ritual chamber, identified with Geb, is said to be of sand (139). This charge allows the statuette to embody, in itself, the Osirian resurrection: “Discourse of Shu after having placed the talisman ‘End of the Work’ around his neck: ‘O ꜥAnkhy [‘living one’, said earlier of Osiris (p. 139)], stable each day, who hides in life, while the flame surrounds him, as his amulet, like the one who is in the talisman ‘End of the Work’,” (143). On the other hand, it may be, as argued by Von Lieven 2015 (pp. 197-201), that Geb here is understood to take the place of Osiris in fathering Horus, for which she finds support in the remark from CT spell 700 that Geb’s phallus “is between the buttocks of his son and heir. If there will not be a son for a man, he acts behind the back of the daughter of the phoenix,” which she reads as Geb’s phallus substituting for Osiris’. Geb in this way would at once represent the threat posed by the earth for mortal beings, and the continuity it provides for mortal being as such.
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——. 2015. Myths, Menarche and the Return of the Goddess. Pp. 133-164 in R. Nyord & K. Ryholt, eds. Lotus and Laurel: Studies on Egyptian Language and Religion in Honour of Paul John Frandsen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum.
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Von Lieven, A. 2015. Antisocial Gods? On the Transgression of Norms in Ancient Egyptian Mythology. Pp. 181-207 in Lotus and Laurel, op. cit.