Maze and Rock Art

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Maze in Negev Desert Rock Art

The convoluted maze shape in rock art highlights a visual hardship the viewer encounters while watching it. The mind follows the maze entangled paths in vain, desperately trying to find the beginning and end without success.  Every path in the maze leads the eye to a dead-end without an apparent solution, thus leaving the viewer with a feeling of confusion. The intent of using such a complex symbol, in rock art engraving, was to implant the viewer’s mind with such an unsettling 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 metaphoric tortuous pathway such as the corridor to the underworld. In an  analysis of labyrinth symbolic meaning in rock art, Zavaroni A. (2006)  states that “… labyrinths alluded to the mysterious routes available to souls and psychopomp gods for traveling from the terrestrial world to the Otherworld and back.”

The ancients imagined that the passage from life to death must be a complex journey. Thus, their reincarnation into the afterlife included the dangerous journey through the underworld, which encompassed all the perils of living man’s imagination. In accordance with this belief, the underworld journey must be completed since all living beings desire to leave a trace after death. It was the soul’s last chance to avoid permanent oblivion by completing the journey.

Maze in History

Schematically, the maze depicts a complex and confusing series of geometrical pathways between its center and the outside. A labyrinth represents a maze singular form, it 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. I claim that The Great Labyrinth structure with its adjoined pyramid represented a facet of this belief. It symbolically created an 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 tri-finger Rock Art

The soul’s afterlife journey passes through the three worlds, underworld, earth, and heaven and therefore a related rock art scene must include the three realms 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 engraved below the rock surface, symbolizing the underworld and the transition to 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, in this rock art, 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 deep into the maze to carry the soul to the upper world after completing the underworld journey.   The symbols are literal figures of the bird and the soul. The soul is portrayed as a baby, symbol1, reflecting reincarnation as the pure version of the deceased who is 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)

In this scene, a soul is portrayed making its way towards the sun, or reaching a place of re-incarnation, through the maze.   Because the maze has no obvious exit, it represents the challenges the soul will have to overcome on its journey to the afterlife.  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.

In ancient belief, both the sun and the soul passed through the same obstacles on their journey through the underworld.   The rock art in Fig4 shows the moment the sun completed the underworld journey and emerged on the horizon 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.  After completing the underworld journey, the sun rides through the sky in a golden wagon, an idea known from Roman time.

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


In Zavaroni A. (2006) words “The prehistoric labyrinths simply denote a conception of the world related to the rebirth of souls. To depict or to carve them is not only an act of veneration but also has a didactic function for those observing the images”. 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 reaching 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 symbol. In a single glance, the ancient spectator could understand the scene-coded message. The maze transmitted the complexity of the afterlife passage by forming a visual endless artwork, symbolic of the many 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
Zavaroni A.           (2006)   Souls across the Labyrinth: Representations of Rebirth in the Bronze/Iron Age in Europe


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

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