Fish Underworld Journey

fish underworld journey rockart

Fish Underworld Journey in Rock Art

Deciphering Rock Art from the Negev Desert.

The analysis of an ancient text, rock art iconography, reveals a deep belief in the afterlife from the Bronze age. Much is written about a horse, a dog, a bird, a sun, a ship, acting as an afterlife journey soul guides. We have a record in rock art, from the Negev Desert and the world, that illustrate these psychopomps participating in an underworld journey (see Birds Afterlife Journey). But very few describe a journey that is guided by a fish. Over millennia’s the small Negev Desert, located between Egypt and Israel, visited by many major cultures (see Rock Art in Israel): Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek, Roman. They all left their mark by engraving the desert rocks with their beliefs wishing the departing souls a successful afterlife journey.

The Underworld 

In ancient thought, the earth was surrounded by water on all sides, including the bottom. The underworld was deep down below the earth, called by the Sumerian the “lower water”, and some imagine it at the edge of the world beyond the Ocean.

Many hinders awaited the souls on their way to the afterworld. Darkness, many road forks, gates, hungry and dangerous animals awaiting to devour the innocent souls entering the dark and unknown netherworld.  The physical barriers of vast land, water, air, and the underworld void require faithful soul guides. Failure to cross the underworld meant an eternity in oblivion an idea that no living man can accept. For this uncharted journey, the soul needs to perform magic to cross the dangerous void. It needs a guide! Confirmation of these faithful psychopomps such as a horse, a bird, a sun, a ship, and surprisingly even a fish, appears in Negev Desert rock art.

Souls Ship Description

Fig.1 shows the underworld ship rock art (engraved upside down meaning sailing in the underworld) from the Negev Desert and the Aegean ship (not a rock art)  pulled by a fish. The ships transport the souls represented by the flipped vertical lines, a sign of death in rock art iconography, to the underworld (Golan A. 1991).

The circle in scene1 represents a sun leading the upside-down boat on a night journey. The Aegean ship scene2, added here in order to illustrate that the idea of a fish as a psychopomp existed in other cultures, is attacked by a huge snake a typical scenario for underworld journey; the souls are situated under the snake. In scene3 the boat, upside down (red),  comprised from the horizontal line, on top, that ends as a fork carrying the souls attached to the ship. Under the boat, a bird is flying (blue) with stretched wings bringing more souls for the final journey.

fish underworld journey rock art

Fig. 1 Underworld journey ship scenes (ships in scene1 and scene3 are upside down): scene1– Sun Boat loaded with souls traveling to the afterworld (Negev Desert rock art), scene2 – Aegean Cycladic culture ship with fish pulling attacked by a snake 2000BC  (Salimbeti A. 2014). scene3– A Large bird (blue) with stretched wings carrying souls into an upsidedown ship. The ship is shown on top (red) (Negev Desert rock art, (photo Razi Yahel)

Underworld Journey Fish Rock Art

The fish, in its natural habitat the underworld water, acted as a guide and carried the wandering souls through the underworld maze. Fig2 and Fig.3 illustrate two rock art from the Negev Desert demonstrating the fish underworld journey. In Fig.2 the fish carrying the souls emerges from the underworld, the crack in the rock, below a bird (tri-fingered) entering the underworld bringing more souls for the journey.

fish negev desert rock art

Fig.2 Underworld fish scenes rock art from the Negev Desert, Israel (photo Razi Yahel) A crack in the rock symbolically represents the underworld. 2-The souls on fish top. 3-The fish. 1-A tri-fingered (Kristiansen K. 2018) bird flies into the crack representing the underworld.

In Fig.3 the fish carrying the souls (the stick figures on the fish top) advances toward the sun that is attacked by a snake (the red symbol). This reminds the Egyptian myth of the sun’s underworld journey at night (see Sun Journey).

fish negev desert rock art

Fig. 3 Underworld fish scenes rock art from the Negev Desert, Israel (photo Razi Yahel): Scene1 1-A snake, in red, around the sun. 2-The sun. 3- The souls on fish top. 4-The fish.

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



Golan A. (1991)           Myth and Symbol
Kristiansen K. (2018) The winged triad in Bronze Age symbolism: birds and their feet
Salimbeti A. (2014)    The Greek Age of Bronze Ship

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