Birds afterlife journey

birds rock art Negev Desert

Birds Afterlife Journey Rockart

Deciphering Rockart from the Negev Desert the afterlife journey
Copyright © 2018 by Yehuda Rotblum

Birds have symbolic significance across cultures, relating to both life and death. In many cultures, they are used to soften the harsh finality of death by instilling the idea of renewal, transformation, and rebirth. The bird is the most fitting symbol of transcendence since they can travel freely between all worlds, the underworld, earth, and heaven. This applies even more for water birds since they dwell in water or alternately in the underworld. They can traverse through the three realms and therefore played a very important role in afterlife-related myths since they are capable to complete the soul journey to the afterworld. The symbolic usage of birds in rockart and burial sites, found in many places in the world, suggests this belief longevity. It spans from Paleolithic time, 12,000 years ago as the grave in Hilazon Cave (Grosman 2008), in Israel suggests, through the Bronze Age about 1000BC. Its spread is wide spanning throughout the pre-historic world in Europe, the Near East, and Egypt.

Birds representation in Negev Desert Rockart
Numerous images of birds engraved on Negev desert rockart. The bird’s images might be partial (Fig.1), just a head or a mask or wings attached to the anthropomorphic figure, or a full figured bird. The full-figured birds are large species that includes stork, crane, swan, and even ostrich, suggesting their ability to carry heavy objects. In many rockart the bird symbol also represents a sun as a cross, which is derived from the image of a flying bird with stretched wings. Another class of rockart symbolically represents a bird as a three-fingered figure. The tri fingered symbolism may be related to the three realms of the sun travels, which only the birds are capable of crossing. In all cases, the bird figure or their symbol advocates a connection with a divine, which dwells in the sky and by this association it acquires the same transformative powers as gods that are residing in the upper realm.

partial birds representation rockart

Fig. 1 Negev Desert Rockart birds symbolism: 1- ibex with the sun as a cross, 2 – an anthropomorphic figure with bird beak, 3– hunter with wings and  Fig. 1 Negev Desert Rockart birds symbolism: 1- ibex with the sun as a cross, 2 – an anthropomorphic figure with bird beak, 3– hunter with wings and bird beak, 4- a large bird, 5 – three-fingered bird

The Sun divine helpers
The sun represents both fertility and death: it dies and reborn daily, it has the power of incarnation, immortality, and eternity,  and therefore it is prominently present in burials with other symbols such as bird wings (Mannermaa 2007) and even boats, which provides the deceased a way to reach the next world. It is also manifested in the grave direction, east to west orientation, which is the sun travel path expressing the idea of renewal. By mythical thought, the sun had to travel vast areas, the upper and lower waters, before entering the abode of the dead. This journey was assisted by a cultural symbols such as a mythical boat,  the water birds, sun charriot, and the tri-fingered birds. They were all its divine helpers in the long journey, (Fig.2) as attested by Egyptian myths and Bronze Age images.

Fig. 2   Sun travel assisted by water birds. 1 – swan boats Tanum Rockart (Ling). 2– three fingers sun divine helpers (Kristiansen). 3 – Apolo swan chariot (Bilic). 4 Negev Desert swan (without feet shown means it is in water) with tri fingered symbol

According to (Kristiansen 2018) the tri fingered symbol emerging from the sun (image 2 Fig.2) are the divine bird helpers. The swans in images 1, 3, 4 are water birds that help the sun as evidenced in images and texts from the later Bronze Age. The task of bringing the soul to the afterworld was especially crucial when one lost his life in battle, or in places without the possibility of a proper burial. This task was taken care of by the birds a fact known all over Europe and the Mediterranean from the beginning of the Iron Age as textual and iconographic evidence shows (Egeler 2009).

Negev Desert Rockart with tri fingered divine birds
This mythological sun travel with its helpers appears in numerous rockart in the Negev Desert. From the rockart patination color, they can be dated to Bronze time. Fig.3 is such an example: It shows a falling horse with a rider, which is a sign of death probably in a battle. The birds (tri fingered symbols) are taking the fallen hero soul into the afterlife journey with the sun.

Fig.3 A Negev Desert rockart with tri fingered symbols and its stick image. 1 – unknown meaning. 2 – ibex sign of fertility, 3 – a fallen horse with an anthropomorphic figure. 4 – sun with tri fingered symbol attached. 5 – three-fingered symbol. 6 – three-fingered symbol

Fig.4 is a rockart from the Negev Desert that explains the main post image. We can see here the entire process of the soul’s sun boat journey to the afterworld and back.

Fig.4 A Negev Desert rockart : afterworld journey (photo razi yahel) .

The travel begins at night, on the right side, as the moon (image 1) indicates. The large bird (image 4) with long legs and strong neck loads the sun boat with souls (the sticks figures in image 2). The boat travels in the afterworld and offloads the souls into what looks like an egg with an opening, which turns later into seeds (the dots in the egg left side). On the left side, we can see the sun boat (image 5) continues to travel back empty during the day as the sun (image 6) indicates. The souls in the egg turn to seeds and are waiting for rebirth. At the egg bottom, you can see a detached stick figure with head and arms ( looking closely), which marks the culmination of the whole process with a newborn emerging from the egg.

Storks bring children into the world
An ancient myth in European folklore tells that the stork brings newborn babies to new parents. This legend is very old but its origin is unknown. However, in Slavic myth, storks were thought to carry unborn souls from their paradise, called Vyraj, to Earth in spring and summer and is still retold in the simplified child story that “storks bring children into the world“. This may be the completion of the bird’s journey myth that is ending in a rebirth as hoped by the ancients.

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
Grosamn (2008)    A 12,000-year-old shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel)
Egeler, M. (2009)  Textual Perspectives on Prehistoric Contacts: Some Considerations on FemaleDeath Demons, Heroic Ideologies and the Notion of Elite Travel in European Prehistory. Journal of Indo-European Studies 37 (2009): 321-34
Kristiina Mannermaa (2007)   Birds and burials at Ajvide (Gotland, Sweden) and Zvejnieki (Latvia) about 8000–3900 BP
Kristiansen Kristian (2018)     The winged triad in Bronze Age symbolism: birds and their feet
Ling and Claes Uhnיr (2014)     Rock Art and Metal Trade


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