$\newcommand{\bb}{\mathbb}\DeclareMathOperator{\gal}{Gal}$ Before stating my question I should remark that I know almost nothing about etale cohomology - all that I know, I've gleaned from hearing off hand remarks and reading encyclopedia type articles. So I'm looking for an answer that will have some meaning to an etale cohomology naif. I welcome corrections to any evident misconceptions below.

Let $E/\bb Q$ be an elliptic curve the rational numbers $\bb Q$: then to $E/\bb Q$, for each prime $\ell$, we can associate a representation $\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q) \to GL(2n, \bb Z_\ell)$ coming from the $\ell$-adic Tate module $T_\ell(E/\bb Q)$ of $E/\bb Q$ (that is, the inverse limit of the system of $\ell^k$ torsion points on $E$ as $k\to \infty$). People say that the etale cohomology group $H^1(E/\bb Q, \bb Z_\ell)$ is dual to $T_\ell(E/\bb Q)$ (presumably as a $\bb Z_\ell$ module) and the action of $\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)$ on $H^1(E/\bb Q, \bb Z_\ell)$ is is the same as the action induced by the action of $\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)$ induced on $T_\ell(E/\bb Q)$.

Concerning this coincidence, I could imagine two possible situations:

(a) When one takes the definition of etale cohomology and carefully unpackages it, one sees that the coincidence described is tautological, present by definition.

(b) The definition of etale cohomology (in the case of an elliptic curve variety) and the action of $\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)$ that it carries is conceptually different from that of the dual of the $\ell$-adic Tate module and the action of $\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)$ that it carries. The coincidence is a theorem of some substance.

Is the situation closer to (a) or to (b)?

Aside from the action $\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)$ on $T_\ell(E/\bb Q)$, are there other instances where one has a similarly "concrete" description of representation of etale cohomology groups of varieties over number fields and the actions of the absolute Galois group on them?

Though I haven't seen this stated explicitly, I imagine that one has the analogy [$\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)$ acts on $T_\ell(E/\bb Q)$: $\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)$ acts on $H^1(E/\bb Q; \bb Z_\ell)$]::[$\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)$ acts on $T_\ell(A/K)$: $\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)$ acts on $H^1(A/K; \bb Z_\ell)$] where $A$ is an abelian variety of dimension $n$ and $K$ is a number field: in asking the last question I am looking for something more substantively different and/or more general than this.

I've also inferred that if one has a projective *curve* $C/\bb Q$, then $H^1(C/\bb Q; \bb Z_\ell)$ is the same as $H^1(J/\bb Q; \bb Z_\ell)$ where $J/\bb Q$ is the Jacobian variety of $C$ and which, by my above inference I assume to be dual to $T_\ell(J/\bb Q)$, with the Galois actions passing through functorially. If this is the case, I'm looking for something more general or substantially different from this as well.

The underlying question that I have is: where (in concrete terms, not using a reference to etale cohomology as a black box) do Galois representations come from aside from torsion points on abelian varieties?

[Edit (12/09/12): A sharper, closely related question is as follows. Let $V/\bb Q$ be a (smooth) projective algebraic variety defined over $\bb Q$, and though it may not be necessary let's take $V/\bb Q$ to have good reduction at $p = 5$. Then $V/\bb Q$ is supposed to have an attached 5-adic Galois representation to it (via etale cohomology) and therefore has an attached (mod 5) Galois representation. If $V$ is an elliptic curve, this Galois representation has a number field $K/\bb Q$ attached to it given by adjoining to $\bb Q$ the coordinates of the 5-torsion points of $V$ under the group law, and one can in fact write down a polynomial over $\bb Q$ with splitting field $K$. The field $K/\bb Q$ is Galois and the representation $\gal(\bar{\bb Q}/\bb Q)\to GL(2, \bb F_5)$ comes from a representation $\gal(K/\bb Q) \to GL(2, \bb F_5)$. (I'm aware of the possibility that knowing $K$ does not suffice to recover the representation.)

Now, remove the restriction that $V/\bb Q$ is an elliptic curve, so that $V/\bb Q$ is again an arbitrary smooth projective algebraic variety defined over $\bb Q$. Does the (mod 5) Galois representation attached to $V/\bb Q$ have an associated number field $K/\bb Q$ analogous to the (mod 5) Galois representation attached to an elliptic curve does? If so, where does this number field come from? If $V/\bb Q$ is specified by explicit polynomial equations is it possible to write down a polynomial with splitting field $K/\bb Q$ explicitly? If so, is a detailed computation of this type worked out anywhere?

I'm posting a bounty for a good answer to the questions succeeding the "Edit" heading.