Birds afterlife journey

aftrelife journey rockart

Birds Afterlife Journey myth in Negev Desert Rock Art

Birds’ symbolic significance across cultures relates to both life and death. In many cultures myths, they appear in afterlife scenes affixed to the array of mental tricks that soften the harsh death finality by instilling the idea of renewal, transformation, and rebirth. The bird is the most fitting transcendence symbol awarded them by the unique 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 what considered the underworld. They can traverse through the three realms and therefore played a very important role in afterlife-related myths since they are capable of flying high reaching heaven and therefore are the only creatures able to complete the soul journey to the afterworld.

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 reasoning. The symbolic usage of birds in rock art and burial sites, found in many places in the world, suggests this belief widespread. It spans from Paleolithic time, 12,000 years ago as the grave in Hilazon Cave (Grosman 2008), in Israel suggests, through the end of the Bronze Age. This widespread notion spans throughout the pre-historic world in Europe, the Near East, and Egypt.

 Birds representation in Negev Desert Rockart

The bird’s images in rock art might be partial  (Fig.1), 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 include stork, crane, swan, and even ostrich, suggesting their ability to carry heavy objects. In many rock art, 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 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 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 to sail trough the celestial water to the next world. Ancient grave direction, east to west orientation, manifest the sun travel path expressing the idea of renewal. 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 was assisted by cultural symbols such as a mythical boat,  the water birds, sun chariot, 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 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 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 and birds completed this task. That’s a fact known all over Europe and the Mediterranean from the beginning of the Iron Age as textual and iconographic evidence shows (Egeler 2009).

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 as an integral part of the ship is known and many examples exist (see the Swan boats in Tanum Rock Art Fig.2) that hint on their functions.

trii-fingered ship

Fig.3 Ship masts, head, and tail, fashioned with the tri-fingered symbol, Negev Desert rock art.

Negev Desert Rock Art with tri fingered divine birds

The mythological sun travel with its helpers appears in numerous rock art in the Negev Desert. From the rock art patination color, they can be dated to Bronze time. In  Fig.4, a portion taken from the post image illustrates the idea. It shows a falling horse with a rider without legs, which is a sign of death probably in a battle. The birds (tri fingered symbols) flying around the fallen rider are taking the hero soul into the afterlife realm.  The ibex at the bottom symbolizes the fertility god that brings to the scene a hope of renewal. In many rock art, it appears in grim scenes to balance out the illustrated disaster.

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

Fig.5 a rock art from the Negev Desert that illustrates the entire soul’s soul journey 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 with an opening (symbol 3), which turns later into seeds (the dots in the egg left side) suggesting the idea of rebirth. On the left side, we can see the sun boat (symbol 5 yellowish) continues to travel down to earth empty during the day as the sun (symbol 6 red) indicates to complete the mission.


As odd as it looks to us the use of these symbolic souls guide allowed the ancient mind to complete the afterlife journey. It preserved the last glimpse of hope among the living to provide the soul the means to reach its final rest, a dilemma that even today we struggle with. The relatively high number of burials with birds symbol especially the wings, (Mannermaa (2007),  show that the ability to fly was a central thought in burials. 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 in many cultures (Chernetsov,1963). Similar idea echoes in rock art engraving illustrating 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)  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) 
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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