Ships and boats in Negev Desert Rockart, Israel
Copyright © 2017 by Yehuda Rotblum
You don’t expect to see sailing ships or boats in the desert. Surprisingly, many rockart in the Negev desert describe a scene with floating ships as if the arid desert is full of waterways. These are not earthly scenes they belong to the realm of belief. These imaginary ships are not navigating real water they are riding the celestial waters.
Egypt proximity to Israel contributed much to the area beliefs, it played a major role in Israel pre-history and is an integral part of its past. Such maybe is the idea of the Sun Journey, which is central in Egyptian belief. This solar myth explains the sun’s daily movement across the sky from east to west and its disappearance at night. Such stories often take the form of a journey, with the sun deity traveling across the heavens in a chariot or boat or carried by desert animals.
According to a belief in Central Asia, from the Neolithic, the sun created by a volcanic fireball eruption from earth. Accordingly, the underworld was the sun home. An example of the sun daily journey is described in a myth called Ibex Hunt, where the sun was taken from the underworld by an ibex. In many myths, monsters or evil spirits want to steal or devour the sun. Stories of the sun falling from the heavens or withdrawing its light for a time are known in many cultures. Some of these myths may explain eclipses and sun disappearance in the winter.
Cosmological theories inspired by a range of sources from Central Asia, Egypt, Greece, and Norse mythology. Sun motifs are especially prominent in European Bronze Age iconography. The ship is the dominant element in the visual culture in Scandinavian Bronze Age, appearing in several different media, including rock art, decorated metalwork, and graves. Much research was done in these places and I believe that the concept introduces there is universal and can be extended to Negev Desert ship rockart.
Fig.2. Scandinavian Rock art scenes showing the boat carrying the sun. The examples show both night ships (sailing from left and flipped vertically) and day ships sailing right (Kristiansen, K., 2010)
These mythical ships, Fig2, represents the Sun celestial journey from dawn to dusk. (Kristiansen, K., 2010). In many scenes two ship or two horses are engraved, which is related to the Divine Twins myth that acts as a benevolent helper for the sun transport.
The Egyptian Sun Journey Myth
Sir Peter le Page Renouf, which translated the Book of the Dead, encapsulated the sun veneration in Egypt. “I look at the sunrise and sunset, the daily return of the day and night, the struggle between light and darkness, with all the drama of the sun every detail, every day, every month, every year, in heaven and on earth the sun is the main theme of Egyptian mythology.”
Ra was the Egyptian Sun god and according to the myth he sails the sky during the day and returns the next morning through the underworld to begin his cyclical journey. In traveling across the sky, Ra brings light to the earth, sustaining all life on earth. His passage through the underworld represents a victory over the darkness.
Fig.1. Ra the Egyptian sun god leads the ship at day and night. The left ship with the big circle, the sun, and the right boat without a sun is riding toward the sky full of stars.
The Negev Desert Ship/Boat Rockart
Compared to ship design from Egypt or Scandinavia the Negev ships noted by their simplicity. Very few details decorate the scene, just enough to suggest the idea. The boat art is very simple with one mast and they are usually flipped vertically, riding the sky as can be seen in Fig6, which illustrate only part of the scene to show the ship features. Sometimes it’s even hard to recognize that it’s a ship. But its repetition in many rockart with its supporting details reveals the artist concept. It’s a ship!
Fig2. Illustrations of typical twin ships scenes from the Negev Desert.
The small and big ship together fits the ancient logic that appears many times in Negev rockart scenes. Their appearance together explains a cyclical task that is represented by a pair of animals or ship, big and small or old and young. In these scenes, the older is followed by a younger sibling and when the task is completed the younger takes over in a never-ending cycle.
In Fig3 two ships are shown with a snake between that binds them together. The ship hulls are decorated with an Egyptian motif. The snake attacks the ship that carries the sun and at the same time, the snake is holding the smaller ship pulling it together. They are one unit, the sun holders, and its enemies. The bad and the good characters are mixed and they are a solid part of this story. The scene is decorated with random dots, probably stars with the moon above in the center, indicating a night time journey.
Fig.2. The twinship Negev Desert Rockart. ( photo R. Yahel )
The Ship and Heavenly Gates
An interesting concept ties the ships to the Heavenly Gates myth. The gates are a Sumerian concept and are the entry/exit door for the heavenly objects, sun, moon and other stars, floating in the sky. In the left image, Fig.4, the boat is seen rising from the big gate, connected by a line to the sun, the upper circle. The sun then descends, connected by a line, to the smaller gate or the sunset gate, on the right. In the right image, the twinship emerges from the upper gate, which is full of sun rays indicated by the thick center line across the gate. It’s then descending to the left, on the side panel, toward the empty sunset gate at the bottom.
Fig.4. The ship and the Heavenly Gates, Negev Rockart
The ships in the Negev Desert are stingy with details and their design is unique. However, the idea is universal. The Negev nomads borrowed the sun journey idea from the “world” and invented their own unique ship. The endurance of the sun myth suggests its longevity that continues up to this date.The examples presented here are supported by many Rockart that explain the universality of the idea.
More deciphering, in a new book Rock Art in Israel, available online.
LANKESTER, ,D. (2012) Predynastic & Pharaonic era Rock-Art in Egypt’s Central Eastern Desert. Interpretation, Durham theses, Durham University.
KRISTIANSEN, K. 2010. Rock Art and Religion. The sun journey in Indo-European mythology and Bronze Age rock art.
Kaul, F. 1998. A study in Bronze Age religion and iconography. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark.