Ship Afterlife Journey

afterlife bird and boat rock art

Afterlife Journey, the Negev Desert Ship Rock Art

You don’t expect to see sailing ships or boats in the dry desert. Surprisingly, many Negev Desert rock art scenes show floating ships as if the arid desert is full of waterways. These are not earthly scenes they belong to the realm of belief. These imaginary ships are not navigating real water they are sailing the celestial waters. Some describe a sun journey and others sail to the afterlife zone, the land of the dead transporting the souls to Eden.

Man imagination has no boundary and when reality exhaust a situation beyond the real world the brain taps its resources and provides a perfect solution for the unknown. Such is the travel through the unchartered underworld that the souls navigate to reach their final destination. In ancient thought, the earth was surrounded, in all sides, by water including the underworld located deep down below the earth. Crossing such a realm of water and air requires help from the waterbird, boats, and fish. symbols that recur frequently in the afterlife journey scenes. 

Ship Journey

Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, and Norse cultures describe in their iconography, ritual texts, and burial customs the arduous journey through the underworld. Much archeological evidence left by these cultures shows that passage through the underworld vast water was a challenge. Man imagination invented a solution for this task: a boat, a solar barque in Egypt, which could magically cross the underworld precarious waters. Failure to cross the underworld waters meant that the souls will sail into oblivion an idea no person can accept. In Egyptian culture, the boat had to cross the Nile to the “Beautiful West” accompanied by a ferryman named  Who Sees Behind Himas cited in the Pyramid Texts. In Greek culture, the boat crossed the river Styx aided by the ferryman Charon.

ship type negev desert rock art

Fig.1 scene1- Sun Boat loaded with souls (Negev Desert rock art), scene2 Scandinavian Rock art showing a boat with bird head carrying souls (Kristiansen, K., 2010). scene3 – Egyptian ship with  ‘arms raised’ figure considered to be a sun-bearing posture a symbol of resurrection and rebirth (Lankester F. 2012).  scene4– Bronze Age ship-shape grave, Southern Sweden (after Capelle 1986)

Fig.1 shows the underworld ship rock art from the Negev Desert, Egypt,  and Scandinavia. The flipped ship signifies an underworld journey. They carry the dead souls, represented by the lines described as shade of a deceased” (Golan A. 1991). The souls traveling the sun path wishing to be resurrected the same way the sun does. The boat head in scene2 is of a bird signifying the ability to move in water and air. In scene4 a boat shape grave provides the soul a means to commence the afterlife journey immediately at burial time.

The Negev Desert Ship/Boat Rock Art

Compared to ship design from Egypt or Scandinavia the Negev Desert ships are very simple. Very few details decorate the scene with just enough details suggesting the ship outline. The vertically flipped boats signify sailing the underworld. Sometimes it’s even hard to recognize the ship but repetitive scenes in many rock art reveal the artist concept. It’s a ship!

various ship types negev desert rockart

Fig2. Typical ship scenes from the Negev Desert. The boat, head, and tail has a feature of a tri-fingered bird

The ship sails in pairs one being a night ship, the other a day ship, they are engraved either in a convoy or in parallel. From the Book of the Dead ch 151, the meaning clears “Thy right eye is the Solar Night Barque, thy left eye is the Solar Day Barque ” (Hartwig 2002).

Afterlife Journey,  Negev Desert Rock Art

Fig.3, rock art from Negev Desert illustrates quite figuratively the soul travel by ship and a bird, both needed for the afterlife journey. The large bird with stretched wings, in blue, travels the air and the ship, in red, travels the underworld and celestial water. The souls, in black, riding the boat transfer to a bird that will steer them beyond the sun for the journey completion and resurrection.

Bird and ship afterlife journey

Fig.3 Ship and bird underworld afterlife journey, Negev Desert Rock Art (photo Razi Yahel)


Complete Ship Journey,  Negev Desert Rock Art

Human destiny after death had a profound significance in ancient society, and  “life” continuation in the afterlife birthed the noble idea of ​​paradise. But still, the main question remained throughout generations, how to get there? The Ship Souls Journey to the Next World attempts to address the problem by suggesting a solution to cross the vast medium that is separating the worlds. It was not merely imaginary, but an inherent part of rationalizing the life cycle belief in ancient cultures. Fig.4  illustrates the soul’s voyage aftermath in a ship sailing in the upper and lower world. The scene describes a journey with the ship sailing stations through in the upper and lower worlds.

Fig.4 Complete soul journey, Negev Desert Rock Art (photo Razi Yahel)

The journey essentially follows the sun path. It begins at sunrise where a ship (symbol 1)  carrying souls (these are the sticks attached to the ship). The ship’s thick outlines indicate its vigorous strength as the journey begins rising to the upper world. It continues (symbol 2 turned upsidedown) in the upper world along the sun path (symbol 3 the cross)  the place of resurrection and soul rest.

The ship disembarks its soul cargo and returns empty to the lower world,  with the sun at its head (symbol 4). It is filled again by souls waiting for a new journey (symbol 5). The ship returns back to the underworld, crossing the gray line,  a natural rock crack extending across. The two dots (symbol 7), the twin stars, considered the underworld gate guardians to the heavenly river, the Milky Way, that leads the souls to the afterlife.


What happens after death was a major dilemma now and of course in ancient times. No one came back, yet,  from death to tell us about this mystery. The unknown creates a fertile ground for imaginative scenarios such that no one can disprove and therefore it flourishes. The mind has no boundaries and when it reaches the borders of far and unexplored scenarios, it creates a narrative with an accurate map for the afterlife journey as if entrenched in its memories cells. No living mind visited the mysterious unexplored underworld, as described by ancient myths and pictures in every culture.



Ballard, C. 2003       The ship as a symbol in the prehistory
Golan A. 1991.               Myth and Symbol
Hartwig A.  2002         Funerary Boats and Boat Pits of the Old Kingdom
KRISTIANSEN, K.  2010. The sun journey in Indo-European mythology and Bronze Age rock art.
Kaul, F. 1998.            Ships on bronzes: a study in Bronze Age religion and iconography.
Lankester, F.  2012.    Predynastic & Pharaonic era Rock-Art in Egypt’s Central Eastern Desert
Radwan, A.               Boats in the Underworld of ancient Egypt and other cultures


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

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Yehuda Rotblum 2019


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