Ship Afterlife Journey

Rock Art research mythology news. ship afterlife rock art

Afterlife Journey, the Negev Desert Ship Rock Art

In ancient Egypt, the afterlife idea flourished and symbolized ideal existence even more than life. This belief manifested in Egyptian architecture, religion, and burial rituals that spread throughout the Western world firming the ideas of the eternal world, the underworld, and soul rebirth. 

The afterlife journey ship myth describes the intricate soul’s journey to the eternal world. In ancient thought, the earth was surrounded by water, on all sides,  in the skies, and the underworld located deep below the earth. Crossing such a realm of water and air requires help from the waterbird, boats, and fish. symbols that recur frequently 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. Failure to cross the underworld waters meant that the 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 Boat loaded with souls (Negev Desert rock art), scene2- Scandinavian Rock art showing a boat 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 underworld ship rock art from the Negev Desert, Egypt, and Scandinavia. These ships sail the upper world crossing the celestial waters following the sun path. The flipped ship signifies an underworld journey. The ships carry the dead souls, represented by the lines drawn on the ship described as shade of a deceased” (Golan A. 1991). Zavaroni A. (2006) confirmed the souls’ schematic 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 souls travel the sun path longing to be resurrected the same way the sun does. The boat head in scene2 is of a bird shape signifying the ability to move in water and air. In scene4 a boat shaped grave provides the soul a means to commence the afterlife journey immediately at burial time.

The Negev Desert Ship/Boat Rock Art

Strangely, many Negev Desert rock art scenes show floating ships as if the arid desert is full of waterways. Archaeological research tells us that these are not earthly scenes they 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 to be reborn again and live forever

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

rock art research, Typical 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 in 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 Negev Desert illustrates quite figuratively the soul travel by ship and a bird, both needed to complete the afterlife journey. The large bird with stretched wings, in blue, travels the air, and the ship in red, travels the underworld and celestial water, the sky. The souls transfer from the bird to the ship that steers them beyond the sun for the journey completion and resurrection.

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

Complete Ship Journey,  Negev Desert Rock Art

Fig.4  illustrates the soul’s voyage aftermath of a ship sailing in the upper and lower world. The journey essentially follows the sun’s complete path through the lower and upper world. The journey begins at sunrise showing a ship (symbol 1) crossing the underworld and earth threshold carrying the souls (these are the sticks attached to the ship). The ship’s thick outlines indicate its vigorous strength as the journey commences showing its rising path to the upper world. It continues (symbol 2 turned upsidedown) in the upper world along the sun path (symbol 3 the cross)  the place of resurrection and soul rest.

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

The ship disembarks its soul cargo and returns empty to the lower world,  with the sun at its head (symbol 4). Then it filled again with souls waiting, at sunset at the bottom as it crosses to the underworld, for a renewed journey (symbol 5). The journey continues its course through the underworld, under the gray line,  a natural rock crack extending across that symbolically separates the living and the dead worlds. Its course passes the two dots (symbol 7), a known symbol for the twin stars, considered the underworld gate guardians standing at the entrance to the heavenly river, the Milky Way, that leads the souls to the afterlife.


Man’s imagination has no boundary and when reality exhaust a situation beyond the real world borders the brain taps its resources and provides a perfect solution for the unknown. Such is the travel through the unchartered underworld that the souls navigate to reach their final destination.

What happens after death was a major dilemma now and of course in ancient times. To my knowledge, no one came back, yet,  from death to tell us about this mystery. Such mystery creates a fertile ground for imaginative scenarios such that no one can disprove and therefore they flourish. The mind has no boundaries and when it reaches the borders of far and unexplored scenarios, it creates a narrative with an accurate map for the afterlife journey as if entrenched in its memories cells. No living mind visited the mysterious unexplored underworld, as described by ancient myths and pictures in every culture. But, imagination 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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