Birds afterlife journey
Birds Afterlife Journey myth in Negev Desert Rock Art
Many birds are engraved on Negev Desert rock art in the forms of a flying bird, a tri-finger symbol, a water bird, or a figure with a beak and wings. Such a symbol in rock art implies a being of a godly character. 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. Therefore by ancient conception, the birds were able to transmit future events through omens, 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.
The birds’ symbol appears in afterlife scenes 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 its ability to travel freely between all worlds, the underworld, earth, and heaven, on their journey to the afterlife. This applies even more to 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 representation in Negev Desert Rock art
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.
The Tri-Fingered symbol
Another class of rock art symbolically represents a bird as 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.
The Sun divine helpers
The sun represents both renewal and death it dies and is 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 and the soul had to travel vast areas, through the upper and lower waters, before entering the abode of the dead. This 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. Birds, and especially water birds were associated with the renewal of life as can be seen in Fig.3.
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 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.3 scene1) that prove their intent.
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) picking the fallen rider’s soul and fly him into the afterlife realm. The ibex under the horse, or the fertility god, fills the scene with hope of renewal.
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 lower water or the underworld, and through the upper waters, the air, toward the sun. 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:
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.
Fig.6 is a fine example of the sun night journey and the bird’s role in the afterlife. The whole scene is divided across the two rock faces. The lower rock face symbolically represents the underworld. The bird’s flat feet signifies a water bird dwelling in the underworld. On the left, close to the snakehead we see the moon (blue color) implying nighttime. The sun night journey is obstructed by the snake (red color) that winds through the underworld and earth, the line across marks the border. 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 a pure and new version of the soul that is always welcomed into heaven ready to be reborn again.
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. The relatively high number of burials with birds symbol and wings, (Mannermaa (2007), proves the flying ability importance in afterlife journey myths. It 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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