Rock Art Ships
Ships and boats in Negev Desert Rock Art, Israel
Copyright © 2017 by Yehuda Rotblum
You don’t expect to see sailing ships or boats in the desert. Surprisingly, many rock art in the Negev desert describes 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. Some describe a sun journey and others sail to the afterlife zone, the land of the dead.
Egypt proximity to Israel contributed much to the area beliefs, it played a major role in Israel pre-history. For example, the Sun Journey myth, which is central to Egyptian belief, appears also in Israel. This solar myth explains the sun’s daily travel 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 crossing the heavens in a chariot or boat.
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 are known in many cultures. Some of these myths may explain eclipses and sun disappearance in the winter. An example of the sun daily journey is described in a myth called Ibex Hunt, where the sun was stolen from the underworld by an ibex.
Sun motifs are especially prominent in Egypt and 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 conducted about this subject and I believe that the concept is universal and can be extended to Negev Desert ship rock art.
The Egyptian Sun Journey Myth
Sir Peter le Page Renouf 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.”
According to the myth Ra, the Egyptian Sun god 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.
Compared to ship design from Egypt or Scandinavia the Negev ships noted by their simplicity. They are engraved with one mast usually flipped vertically, signifying a journey in the underworld as can be seen in Fig2. Sometimes it’s even hard to recognize that it’s a ship, but its repetition in many rock art reveals the artist concept. It’s a ship!
The small and big ship bound together appears many times in Negev rock art scenes. Such configuration explains a cyclical task represented by a pair of people, animals or ship, big and small or old and young. In these scenes, the younger follows the older and when the task is completed the younger take over the task in a never-ending cycle.
Ship Rock Art
Fig3 shows two flipped ships bounded together by a snake, colored red. The snake attacks the ship that carries the sun and at the same time, the snake holds the smaller ship pulling it. They are one unit, the sun holders, and its enemies. The bad and the good characters are mixed in this representation and they are an integral part of this story, they all participate as one solid group in this journey. The scene is decorated with random dots, probably stars with the moon above in the center, indicating a night time journey.
The Ship and Heavenly Gates
An interesting rock art ties the ships to the Heavenly Gates myth, a Sumerian concept, the entry/exit gate for the heavenly objects, sun, moon, and other stars. In the left image, Fig.4, the boat on the left, rising from the big gate connected by a line to the sun, the upper circle. The sun then descends, connected by a line, to a smaller gate or the sunset gate, on the right. In the right image, the twinship emerges from the upper gate 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.
The Negev nomads borrowed the sun journey idea from the “world” and invented their own unique ship as illustrated in many rock art. The sun myth endurance proves its longevity that continues even today. The examples presented here supported by many Rock Art that extend the idea universality.
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.
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