Maze and Rock Art

maze labyrinth in rock art

Maze in Negev Desert Rock Art

The ancients imagined that the passage from life to death is a complex transformation and their re-incarnation into the afterlife included the dangerous journey through the underworld. The soul task was to overcome these last journey obstacles although this salvation path encompassed all the perils that living man’s imagination could envision. Each living man desires to leave a trace after the soul departs to the afterworld therefore his journey must be completed. It was the soul’s last chance to avoid permanent oblivion. As the saying goes “You aren’t dead as long as you are remembered”.

We have numerous examples of how the ancients expressed the hazardous underworld journey. Summarizing their inferences shows that the passage through the underworld was tricky and treacherous. There was no clear way forward, and no clear way back. And, in every turn, hungry beasts are hiding to devour the soul. Only the brave and righteous souls succeed the voyage through the daunting underworld.

The Meaning of  a Maze

The maze depicts a complex and confusing series of geometrical pathways between the center and the outside. A labyrinth, a maze singular form, has only a single non-branching path, which leads to the center and back. Both represent an extremely dangerous path, a way out from a complex situation, without guidance. References to maze functions appear in early textual descriptions.

In  Herodotus account of the Great Labyrinth of Egypt, he described the upper rooms only, and according to him he never entered the dangerous lower chambers inhabited by dead kings and the sacred crocodiles. Strabo said that this temple is “a work equal to the Pyramids” and that “no stranger can find his way either into any court or out of it without a guide”Pliny the Elder describes this temple as a “bewildering maze of paths with a fearful noise of thunder”. Herodotus description hints of the intent of this massive mortuary temple. It is related to the strong Egyptians belief in the afterlife that manifested itself in their religion, mummification, and the grand burial monuments like the pyramids. The Great Labyrinth maze with its pyramid is just another facet of this belief. By my interpretation, it represented an underworld path full of obstacles designed to prevent the souls’ journey into the afterlife.

The Maze and tri-finger Rock Art

The scene in Fig.1 contains four symbols: the maze -symbol1, the tri-fingered birds -symbol2 and symbol4, and the sun -symbol3. This non-structured maze stretches from the rock bottom into a flat indentation near the rock face. This signifies a transition from the underworld into the sky.

he maze and the tri finger birds in the underworld journey, Negev Desert rock art

Fig.1 The maze and the tri finger birds in the underworld journey, Negev Desert rock art. (photo Razy Yahel)

The maze symbolic scene describes a soul journey path from the underworld toward the sun or a place of re-incarnation. The maze enclosed design, without an apparent exit, represents the difficulties the soul has to overcome. When it does, the soul journey continues to its final rest with the divine tri-fingered bird’s guidance.

The Maze and the Sun Journey

The scene in Fig.2 contains three symbols: the wagon with four wheels -symbol1, the sun a circle -symbol2, ane the maze -symbol3. The maze engraving begins at rock bottom, which implies the underworld,  and rises to the rock surface. Its made of many cells without an apparent path, which equates it with the hardship encountered in the underworld journey. After completing the underworld journey, the sun rides through the sky in a golden wagon.

Fig.2 The maze and the sun in the underworld journey, Negev Desert rock art. (photo Razy Yahel)

The scene describes the sun’s journey through the maze-like underworld. According to Egyptian belief, the sun passed through the underworld while fighting the forces of darkness, especially the big coiled snake Apophis, that tries to prevent its nightly course.


In essence, the maze describes a mental process, spelling out the suffering associated with departure from the living world. Interestingly, the modern maze interpretation shifted from death into a life journey. It came to symbolize the choices selecting the right path to achieve a goal such as finding god or reach salvation.

Maze and Labyrinths start appearing on rock art from Bronze Age in sites throughout Europe, Asia, and America. The rock art, presented here with other related symbols, reveals the meaning of a maze. In a single glance, the ancient spectator could understand the scene coded message. It transmitted the intricacy and the complexity of passage from life to death by forming a visual maze with multiple branches, symbolic of numerous difficulties it will encounter.



Ajit Kumar               (2015)  Labyrinths in Rock Art: Morphology and Meaning
Lankester, ,D.          (2012)   Predynastic & Pharaonic era Rock-Art in Egypt’s Central Eastern Desert.
Kristiansen, K.       (2010)  Rock Art and Religion. The Sun journey in Indo-European mythology and Bronze Age rock art.
Matthews, W. H.    (2015)   Mazes and Labyrinths


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

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