Birds afterlife journey

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Birds Afterlife Journey myth in Negev Desert Rock Art

Various types of birds are engraved on Negev Desert rock art in the form of flying birds, tri-finger symbols, water birds, or anthropomorphic figures with wings and beaks (see Fig. 1).  Such a symbol in rock art implies a being of a godly character.

Birds’ symbolic significance across cultures relates to both life and death. In many cultures, bird symbols appear in afterlife scenes attached to a variety of mental tricks to soften death’s impending finality by associating it with renewal, transformation, and rebirth.  The bird is the most fitting transcendence symbol awarded to them by their unique ability to travel freely between all worlds that includes the underworld, earth, and heaven. This applies even more to water birds dwelling in water or alternately in the underworld. They can traverse through the three realms and therefore play a very important role in afterlife-related myths since they are capable of flying high and therefore can complete the soul journey to the afterworld.

Birds representation in Negev Desert Rock art

We think of birds as creatures residing in heaven, the natural place befitting only the residence of gods. And, we think that their flying ability provides the bridge between the divine and earthly. They expedited communication to gods and also helped the souls in their journey to reach the afterlife. Numerous images of birds engraved on Negev desert rock art testify to this belief.

Bird masks, in rock art, worn by human figures symbolized their connection with the divine. The bird’s images might be partial  (Fig.1), showing only a head or a mask or wings attached to the anthropomorphic figure, and sometimes even a full-figured bird. This was enough to award the symbol of the godly character. The full-figured birds are large species that include stork, crane, swan, and even ostrich, suggesting their ability to carry heavy objects. In many rock art, the sun is represented as a cross, which is derived from the image of a flying bird with stretched wings.

birds afterlife journey in rock art
Fig. 1 Negev Desert Rock Art birds symbolism: 1-  A sun – a cross above the ibex symbolizing by a bird with stretched wings, 2 – an anthropomorphic figure with bird beak, 3– a hunter with wings and bird beak, 4- a large bird, 5 – an anthropomorphic figure with a bird head

The Tri-Fingered symbol

Another class of rock art represents a bird by a tri-fingered symbol. It symbolizes the bird’s feet and also may be related to the three realms, which only the birds are capable of crossing. In all cases, the bird figure or their symbol advocates a connection with a divine dwelling in the sky and by this association, it acquires the same transformative powers as gods. The tri-fingers birds carry the souls to the afterlife and also help the sun to enter into its cyclic circle. Although these are supposedly different tasks they share the same journey path and hurdles on their sky crossing toward heaven.

tri-fingered rock art symbols
Fig.2 Tri-fingered rock art examples from the Negev Desert. 1 – simple tri-fingered. 2 – tri-fingered and the sun. 3 – tri-fingered and the sun 4 – tri-fingered and the moon. 5– tri-fingered carrying a soul, the horizontal line

The Sun divine helpers

The sun represents renewal since it dies and is reborn daily, it has the power of incarnation, immortality, and eternity. That’s the reason for its presence in burials with other symbols such as bird wings. By mythical thought, the sun and the soul had to travel vast areas, through the upper and lower waters, before entering the abode of the dead. The journey was assisted by a mythical boat,  the water birds, the sun chariot, and the tri-fingered birds. They were all the divine helpers in the long afterlife journey, (Fig.3) as attested by Egyptian and Indo-European myths and images from the Bronze age. In these cultures, birds, and especially water birds were associated with the renewal of life as can be seen in Fig.3.

swan examples rock art
Fig. 3   Soul travel assisted by waterbirds in different cultures. 1 – Swan boats in Tanum Rock Art (Ling 2014). 2– tri-fingered sun divine helpers (Kristiansen 2018). 3 – Apolo, sun god, swan chariot (Bilic 2016). 4 Negev Desert swan (without feet shown, swimming in the water) with the tri-fingered symbol. 5 –  day and night ship with swan heads, Negev Desert rock art.

According to (Kristiansen 2018) the tri-fingered symbols emerging from the sun (image 2 Fig.2) are the divine bird helpers. The same goes for the swans, in images 1, 3, 4, 5, these divine water birds assist the sun’s or the soul’s journey in the lower waters. The task of bringing the soul to the afterworld was especially crucial when one lost his life in battle without the possibility of a proper burial. A known fact from myths in Europe and the Mediterranean from the beginning of the Iron Age as textual and iconographic evidence shows (Egeler 2009).

tri fingered divine birds and a boat

Fig.4  illustrates examples of the tri-fingered symbol integrated with a celestial ship. The ship engraved upside down indicates a journey at night in the underworld. The birds are helping the ship to navigate leading the way to the afterlife a “land of no return”.  The bird’s symbol incorporation, in a ship, is known and many examples exist (Fig.3 scene1) that prove their intent.

tri-fingered ship rock art
Fig.4 Ship masts, head, and tail, fashioned with the tri-fingered symbol, Negev Desert rock art.

The mythological sun travel with its helpers appears in numerous rock art in the Negev Desert. Fig.5 shows a falling horse with a rider without legs, which is a sign of death probably in a battle. The birds (tri-fingered symbols  4  5  6) pick the fallen rider’s soul and fly him into the afterlife realm.  The ibex under the horse represents the fertility god, it fills the scene with hope of renewal.

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Fig.5 A Negev Desert rock art with tri-fingered symbols and its stick image. 1 – unknown meaning. 2 – ibex sign of fertility, 3 – a fallen horse with an anthropomorphic riding figure. 4 – The sun with a tri-fingered symbol attached. 5 – tri-fingered carrying a soul. 6 – a tri-fingered flying toward the sun.

Negev Desert Rock Art illustrates a Complete Soul Journey

Rock art from the Negev Desert, Fig.5, illustrates the entire soul’s soul journey, from the underworld through the upper waters. In this task, they are assisted by the bird and the sun boat that carry them to the afterworld and back. The interpretation of this rock art with its symbols is as follows:

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Fig.5 A Negev Desert rock art: afterworld journey (photo razy yahel).

The soul travel begins at night, seen on the right side, as the moon below  (symbol 1 blue) indicates. The large bird (symbol 4) with long legs and strong neck loads the sun boat with souls (the sticks figures in symbol 2). Then, the boat travels to the afterworld, located much above the sun and the moon,  and offloads the souls into what looks like an egg (symbol 3).  Now, the journey continues with the sun boat (symbol 5) that travels empty during the day, as the sun (symbol 6 red) indicates, for a renewed journey.

Fig.6 is a fine example of the sun night journey and the bird’s role in the afterlife. The whole scene spans across the two rock faces. The lower rock face symbolically represents the underworld. The bird’s flat feet signify a water bird that dwells in the underworld. On the left, close to the snakehead we see the moon (blue color) implying nighttime. The snake (red color) winds through the underworld and earth, marked by the line across, obstructs the sun journey. A similar idea appears in the Egyptian Sun Journey myth. The bird holding a baby, transferring it to the sun (orange circle), a similar scene shown in Maze and Rock Art  Fig.3. The baby represents the soul’s pure and new version always welcomed into heaven ready to be reborn again.

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Fig.6 A Negev Desert rock art: Bird with baby and a snake. (photo razy yahel)


The birds’ symbols in rock art and burial sites suggest widespread belief. It spans from Paleolithic time, 12,000 years ago as the grave in Hilazon Cave (Grosman 2008) suggests, through the end of the Bronze Age. These symbolic soul guides allowed the ancient mind to complete the afterlife journey. It provided hope, among the living,  that the soul will reach its final rest. Birds awarded the soul the ability to ascend and reach the high places of heaven.  The emphasis on waterbirds indicates that underworld travel was part of this journey (Chernetsov,1963). Such ideas echo in many rock art engravings that illustrate the afterlife journey with large water birds.

More deciphering, in a new book Rock Art in Israel, available online.


Bilic T. (2016)         The swan chariot of a solar deity Greek narratives and prehistoric iconography
Grosman (2008)    A 12,000-year-old shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel)
Egeler, M. (2009)   Some Considerations on FemaleDeath Demons, Heroic Ideologies and the Notion of Elite Travel in European Prehistory.
Kristiina Mannermaa (2007)   Birds and burials at Ajvide (Gotland, Sweden) and Zvejnieki (Latvia) 
Kristiansen Kristian (2018)     The winged triad in Bronze Age symbolism: birds and their feet
Ling and Claes Uhnיr (2014)     Rock Art and Metal Trade
Moreman, C                 (2014)   On the Relationship between Birds and Spirits of the Dead

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