Fish Underworld Journey

rock art fish underworld journey rock art

Fish Underworld Journey in Rock Art

Deciphering rock art from Israel,

Ancient texts and rock art iconography reveal that ancient people believed in the afterlife. According to mythology, death symbolized immortality, and the underworld served as the final path to salvation.  Much is written about a horse, dog, bird, sun, and ship acting as soul guides in the afterlife journey. Now, we have a record in rock art, from the Negev Desert, that illustrates these psychopomps participating in an underworld journey (see Birds Afterlife Journey). Very few of them describe a journey guided by a fish. The small Negev Desert, located between Egypt and Canaan, was occupied by many major cultures over the centuries: Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek, and Roman. They all left their mark by engraving the desert rocks with their beliefs wishing the departing souls a successful afterlife journey.

The Underworld 

The ancient belief held that water surrounded the earth, including the bottom. The underworld,  located deep down below the earth called by the Sumerians the “lower water”, and some imagine it at the edge of the world beyond the Ocean.

A successful passage through the underworld guaranteed salvation, but there were a number of hindrances that awaited the departing souls in the lower waters. Darkness, many road forks, gates, hungry and dangerous animals awaited 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. For this uncharted journey, the soul needs to perform magic to cross the dangerous void. It needs a guide!  There are a number of faithful psychopomps depicted in Negev Desert rock art, including a horse, a bird, a sun, a ship, and surprisingly, even a fish.

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 rock art)  pulled by a fish. The ships transport the souls, represented by the ship’s flipped vertical lines, 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, in scene2 in Fig.1,  added here to illustrate the idea of a fish as a psychopomp. As can be seen, a huge snake attacks the ship, a typical scenario in ancient thought for an underworld journey; the souls are situated under the snake. In scene3 the boat, upside down (red),  comprised of the horizontal line on top, 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.

mythological ship 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  shown on top (red) (Negev Desert rock art, (photo Razi Yahel)

Underworld Journey Fish Rock Art

In its natural habitat the underworld water, the fish 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. The symbols meaning in Fig.2 rock art: symbol3 the fish carrying the souls engraved as the sticks on its back representing the soul’s shade, symbol2 represents the dead souls carried by the fish, symbol4 the crack in the rock symbolizes the exit from the underworld,  symbol1 a bird (tri-fingered ) enters the underworld to bring more souls for the journey continuation.

fish underworld journey rock art Israel
Fig.2 Underworld fish scenes rock art from the Negev Desert, Israel (photo Razi Yahel) A crack in the rock symbolically represents the underworld. symbol2-The souls on fish top. symbol3-The fish. symbol1-A tri-fingered (Kristiansen K. 2018) bird flies into the crack representing the underworld.

Although rock art cannot talk, the images explain the essence of the recorded myth. It manifested spiritual victory by describing the ways to overcome the challenging underworld journey. In Fig.3, the fish, symbol4,  carries the souls (the stick figures on the fish top symbol3) advances toward the sun (symbol2). The snake (symbol1) attacks the sun to hinder its progress. This scene reminds the sun’s underworld journey described in the  Egyptian myth.  (see Sun Journey).

fish underworld journey 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.



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

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

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