Ship Afterlife Journey

ship afterlife rock art

Afterlife Journey, the Negev Desert Ship Rock Art

Deciphering rock art from Israel,

A strong belief in the afterlife flourished in ancient Egypt. During those times, the idea of an afterlife symbolized a better existence than life itself. There is ample evidence that supports this popular belief, such as Egyptian text, architecture, religion, and burial monuments, all attest to the significance of the afterlife idea. This belief spread later throughout the Western world, giving rise to concepts such as the underworld journey and soul reincarnation.

An afterlife journey ship myth describes the dangerous soul’s journey through the underworld, the most treacherous part of the journey toward the eternal world. Ancient thought held that the earth was surrounded by water on all sides and that the underworld was located deep below the earth. Crossing such a realm of water and air requires help from the faithful psychopomps including waterbirds, boats, and fish, all frequent recurring symbols in the afterlife journey scenes.

Ship Journey

Research shows that Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, and Norse cultures described in their iconography, ritual texts, and burial customs the arduous journey through the underworld. For them, failure to cross the underworld waters meant that their souls will sail into oblivion an idea that no living person can accept. In Egyptian culture, the boat had to cross the Nile to the “Beautiful West” accompanied by a ferryman named  Who Sees Behind Him”. In Greek culture, the boat crossed the river Styx aided by the ferryman Charon.

The meaning of a ship boat in rock art.
Fig.1 scene1– Sun Ship loaded with souls (Negev Desert rock art), scene2- Scandinavian Rock art showing a ship with bird head carrying souls (Kristiansen, K., 2010). scene3 – Egyptian ship with  ‘arms raised’ figure considered to be a sun-bearing posture a symbol of resurrection and rebirth (Lankester F. 2012).  scene4– Bronze Age ship-shape grave, Southern Sweden (after Capelle 1986)

Abundant archaeological research, especially from Egypt and the Norse cultures, provides many examples of the afterlife ship. Some examples illustrated in Fig.1, show the afterlife ship rock art from the Negev Desert, Egypt, and Scandinavia. These ships sail the upper world and the underworld following the sun’s path. The flipped ship signifies an underworld journey. The ships carry the dead souls, represented by the vertical lines drawn on the ship, described in the literature as shade of a deceased” (Golan A. 1991). Zavaroni A. (2006) confirmed the souls’ abstraction in a renewal ship: ” In the middle of a boat loaded with souls which are, as usual, symbolized by a series of little lines”. The boat head in scene2 has the shape of a bird symbolizing the ability to move in water and in the air. A boat-shaped grave in scene 4 enables the soul to begin its afterlife journey immediately upon burial. 

The Negev Desert Ship/Boat Rock Art

Many Negev Desert rock art scenes depict floating ships as if the arid desert is full of waterways. According to archeological evidence, these scenes are not earthly but belong to the realm of belief. These imaginary ships are not navigating real water they are sailing the celestial waters. Some describe a sun journey and others sail to the afterlife zone, the land of the dead transporting the souls to the afterlife. 

Compared to ship designs from Egypt or Scandinavia the Negev Desert ships are very simple. Very few details decorate the scene with just enough that suggest the ship’s outline with hints of bird features. The vertically flipped boats signifying sailing through the underworld are hardly recognizable, but repetitive scenes in many rock art reveal the artist’s concept. It’s a ship!

boat scenes from the Negev Desert rock art
Fig2. Typical ship scenes from the Negev Desert. The boat, head, and tail has a feature of a tri-fingered bird

The ship sails in pairs one being a night ship, the other a day ship, they are engraved either in a convoy or parallel. The Egyptian text clarifies the ship pairing, Book of the Dead ch 151,  “Thy right eye is the Solar Night Barque, thy left eye is the Solar Day Barque ” (Hartwig 2002).

Afterlife Journey,  Negev Desert Rock Art

Fig.3, rock art from the Negev Desert depicts a voyage of the soul by ship and bird. Together, they make their way through the upper and lower worlds. The large bird with extended wings (symbol 1) travels through the upper world, whereas the ship (symbol 2) travels through the underworld. The souls, represented by the vertical stick figures affixed to the ship, are transferred to the bird that will steer them beyond the sun for the completion of the journey and resurrection.

 Bird and ship afterlife journey rock art
Fig.3 Ship and bird underworld afterlife journey, Negev Desert Rock Art (photo Razi Yahel)

Man’s imagination knows no limits – even when reality exhausts a situation far beyond what the brain can imagine, the brain is still able to provide a solution. Such is the imaginary journey the souls perform to reach their ultimate destination in the afterlife.

Complete Ship Journey,  Negev Desert Rock Art

Fig.4 illustrates the aftermath of a soul’s journey through two worlds, the upper and lower worlds. It is essentially a journey of the sun’s path. In this rock art, the same ship is portrayed a few times at various stages throughout the journey. The stations are sunrise, upper world, sunset, and finally the underworld. The following is a description of the journey: 

Complete soul journey Negev Desert Rock Art
Fig.4 Complete soul journey, Negev Desert Rock Art (photo Razi Yahel)

As the sun rises, a ship (symbol 1) crosses a threshold (the line across the rock) from the underworld to earth, transporting souls (the sticks attached to the ship).  A thick outline of the ship depicts its strength as it begins its journey along the sun path. The ship continues (symbol 2 turned upside down) its journey in the upper world toward the sun (symbol 3 the cross), the place of resurrection and soul rest. The ship then disembarks its soul cargo and returns empty to the lower world, with the sun at its head (symbol 4). At sunset, it fills again with souls, as it crosses to the underworld, for a renewed journey (symbol 5). The journey continues through the underworld, under the gray line, a natural rock crack extending across that symbolically separates the living and the dead worlds. The ship passes the two dots (symbol 7), a symbol of the twin stars, considered as the guardians of the underworld’s gate, close to the Milky Way, which leads the souls to the afterlife.


In ancient times and today, the question of what happens after death was a major dilemma. So far, no one has returned from the dead to tell us about this mystery. Such a riddle creates a fertile ground for imaginative scenarios, which no one can disprove, and therefore they flourish. No living mind has ever visited the mysterious, unexplored underworld that ancient myths and pictures of every culture describe. Imagination however expanded the earthly boundaries and provided many solutions for this last journey.


Ballard, C. 2003       The ship as a symbol in the prehistory
Golan A. 1991.               Myth and Symbol
Hartwig A.  2002         Funerary Boats and Boat Pits of the Old Kingdom
KRISTIANSEN, K.  2010. The sun journey in Indo-European mythology and Bronze Age rock art.
Kaul, F. 1998.            Ships on bronzes: a study in Bronze Age religion and iconography.
Lankester, F.  2012.    Predynastic & Pharaonic era Rock-Art in Egypt’s Central Eastern Desert
Radwan, A.               Boats in the Underworld of ancient Egypt and other cultures
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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Yehuda Rotblum 2019


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