Maze and Rock Art

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Maze in Negev Desert Rock Art

The maze shape in rock art highlights a visual hardship the viewer encounters while watching it. The mind follows the maze entangled paths trying to find the beginning and end but every path leads to a dead-end without an apparent solution thus leaving the viewer with a feeling of confusion. The intent of using such a symbol, in rock art engravings, was to implant the viewer’s mind with such impression at first glance. Grasping rock art medium is difficult and the unique maze symbol with its many complex paths instantly clarifies the scene’s meaning. It transmits the coded message of a difficult passage or task such as the journey through the underworld.

Maze History

Schematically, the maze depicts a complex and confusing series of geometrical pathways between its center and the outside. It has a beginning and end but how to pass through it is unclear. A labyrinth, a maze singular form, has only a single non-branching path, which leads to the center and back. Both represent a confusing path, an analogy of a way out from complex or difficult situations, without guidance. Fig.1 shows the ingrained differences in maze and labyrinth abstraction.

maze and labyrinth rock art examples
Fig.1 Maze and labyrinth examples:  1 – classical labyrinth. 2 – A dead soul, painted in red,  lies on maze entrance waiting to begin the maze journey, Negev Desert rock art. The maze left side resembles a full scary face, perhaps it meant to display the underworld god image.  3 – Valcamonica rock art, man, and a labyrinth.

References to maze functions appear in early textual descriptions. According to Herodotus’ account of the Great Labyrinth of Egypt, the burial place of pharaoh Amenemhat III,  he never entered the dangerous lower chambers inhabited by dead kings and the sacred crocodilesStrabo 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”.  The Egyptians believed in the afterlife, which manifested in their religion, mummification, and their grand burial monuments like the pyramids. The Great Labyrinth maze with its adjoined pyramid represents just another facet of this belief. It represented the underworld path full of obstacles, with the crocodiles serving as the underworld guards, designed to hinder the souls’ journey into the afterlife.

The  Maze and the Underworld

The ancients imagined that the passage from life to death is a complex journey. Their reincarnation into the afterlife included the dangerous journey through the underworld. The departing soul task was to overcome the last journey hurdles although this salvation path encompassed all the perils that living man’s imagination could envision. Each living man desires to leave a trace after his soul departs to the afterworld, therefore the underworld journey must be completed. It was the soul’s last chance to avoid permanent oblivion.

We have numerous historical 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, it was a maze! And, in every turn, hungry beasts are hiding to devour the lonely soul on its way to salvation. It was the last test before oblivion, and only the brave and righteous souls defeated the dangers awaiting them in their voyage through the daunting underworld.

The Maze and the tri-finger Rock Art

The soul’s afterlife journey passes through the three worlds, underworld, earth, and heaven and therefore the related rock art scene must include the three realms symbols for a faithful representation. The binding of these symbols into one scene eventually explains the meaning. For example, the scene in Fig.2 contains four symbols: the maze-symbol1 partly in the underworld and earth, the tri-fingered bird a divine soul guide to heaven -symbol2, and the sun -symbol3 a place of reincarnation, all are related to the afterlife journey.

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Fig.2 The maze and the tri finger bird rock art

The wiggly maze stretches from the rock bottom into a flat indentation near the rock face that signifies a transition from the underworld into the earth. Its convoluted shape, without apparent exit, symbolically signifies the underworld journey dangers. After the underworld journey completion,  the tri-fingered bird guides the soul toward the sun, a place of renewal and rebirth.

The Maze and the bird Rock Art

The scene in Fig.3 is a variation of the theme shown in Fig2 describing the afterlife journey. The large bird with stretched wings, symbol2, reaches into the maze to carry the soul to the upper world after the underworld journey completion. The symbols are literal figures of the bird and the soul. The soul is portrayed as a baby, symbol1, symbolizing the deceased pure version always welcomed into heaven. The maze, at the top, looks like a face with two holes that may signify the underworld god’s watchful eyes.

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Fig.3 The maze and the bird carrying the soul in an underworld journey, Negev Desert rock art. (photo Razy Yahel)

The scene describes a soul’s journey to the afterlife, through the maze toward the sun, or a place of re-incarnation. Without an apparent exit, the maze design represents the difficulties the soul has to overcome on its journey through the underworld. When it does, the soul continues the journey with the divine bird’s guidance to its final rest.

The Maze and the Sun Journey

The scene in Fig.4 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 attacked the sun to prevent its nightly course.

According to the ancient belief, the sun and the soul passed through the same obstacles in their underworld journey. The rock art in Fig4 shows the moment the sun succeeded to overcome the underworld journey to continue its course in the sky. The scene contains three symbols: the wagon with four wheels -symbol1, the sun a circle -symbol2, and the maze -symbol3. The maze engraving begins at rock bottom, which implies the underworld. It rises to the flat rock surface marking a transition to earth. The maze-enclosed cells without an obvious path equate it with the hardship encountered in the underworld journey. After completing the underworld journey, the sun rides through the sky in a golden wagon.

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Fig.4 The maze and the  suns’ wagon  in the underworld journey, Negev Desert rock art. (photo Razy Yahel)


In essence, the maze describes a mental process associated with the painful departure from the living world.  Modern maze interpretation shifted from death into a life journey symbolizing the choices in 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 the numerous obstacles the soul will encounter on its final journey.



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)  The Sun journey in Indo-European mythology and Bronze Age rock art.
Matthews, W. H.     (2015)   Mazes and Labyrinths
Penelope R.D,           (2012)   The Idea of a  Labyrinth


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

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