Birds afterlife journey

afterlife journey rock art

Birds Afterlife Journey myth in Negev Desert Rock Art

Birds’ symbolic significance across cultures relates to both life and death. In myths, they appear in afterlife scenes that soften the death finality by instilling the idea of renewal, transformation, and rebirth. The bird is the most fitting transcendence symbol due to their ability to travel freely between all worlds, the underworld, earth, and heaven. This applies even more for water birds, dwelling in water or alternately in the underworld. They can traverse through the three realms and therefore played a very important role in afterlife myths.

Birds’ ability to fly provided the bridge between the divine and earthly. They transmit future events through omens, expediting communication to gods, and helping the souls in their journey to reach the afterlife. Numerous images of birds engraved on Negev desert rock art testify to this belief. The birds’ symbols in rock art and burial sites suggest this 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.

Birds representation in Negev Desert Rockart

The bird’s images, in rock art, 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. 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 represented as a cross, which is derived from the image of a flying bird with stretched wings. Another class of rock art symbolically represents a bird as a tri-fingered symbol. The tri fingered symbolism 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.

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 bird beak, 4- a large bird, 5 – three-fingered bird

The Sun divine helpers

The sun represents both renewal and death it dies and reborn daily. The sun 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 had to travel vast areas, through the upper and lower waters, before entering the abode of the dead. This journey assisted by a mythical boat,  the water birds, sun chariot, and the tri-fingered birds. They were all the divine helpers in the long afterlife journey, (Fig.2) as attested by Egyptian myths and Bronze Age images.

Fig. 2   Sun 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 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 same goes for the swans, in images 1, 3, 4, these divine water birds assist the sun’s soul 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).

Negev Desert Rock Art with tri fingered divine birds

Fig.3  illustrates examples of the tri-fingered symbol integrated with a celestial ship. The ship is upside down indicating 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”.  Birds symbol incorporation, in a ship, is known and many examples exist (Fig.2 scen1) that hint their intent.

trii-fingered ship

Fig.3 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.4 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)  picking the fallen rider soul and fly him into the afterlife realm.  The ibex under the horse, or the fertility god, fills the scene with hope of renewal.

Fig.4 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 symbol. 6 – a tri-fingered symbol

Negev Desert Rock Art illustrates a Complete Soul Journey

Rock art from the Negev Desert, Fig.5, illustrates the entire soul’s soul journey. They are assisted by the sun boat and birds that travel to the afterworld and back. The interpretation of this rock art with its symbols is as follows:

full bird afterlife jouerny rock art

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

The soul travel begins at night, 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). The boat travels to the afterworld, 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.


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. The relatively high number of burials with birds symbol and the wings, (Mannermaa (2007), prove the flying ability importance. It awarded the soul the ability to ascend and reach in peace its final destination.  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

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One Comment to Birds afterlife journey

  1. So beautiful to enjoy and read about

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