Ship Afterlife Journey

Rock Art research mythology news. ship afterlife rock art

Afterlife Journey, the Negev Desert Ship Rock Art

The afterlife idea flourished in ancient Egypt, it symbolized an ideal existence even better than life. This belief manifested itself in ancient Egyptian architecture, religion, and burial rituals, an idea that spread throughout the Western world, solidifying concepts of the eternal world, the underworld, and soul rebirth. 

The afterlife journey ship myth describes the dangerous soul’s journey in the underworld, on its way to the eternal world. In ancient thought, the earth was surrounded by water, on all sides, and the underworld that 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. a 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. 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 vertical lines drawn on the ship, described in the literature 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

Many Negev Desert rock art scenes depict floating ships as if the arid desert is full of waterways. According to archaeological evidence, these are not earthly scenes. They belong to a 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 that 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 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 through the sky, while the ship in red travels through the underworld and the celestial ocean. the sky. As the souls transfer from the bird onto the ship, the ship 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 aftermath of a soul’s voyage in two worlds, the upper and lower world. The journey essentially follows the sun’s complete path. It begins at sunrise showing a ship (symbol 1) crossing a threshold (the line across the rock) from the underworld to earth carrying souls (those are the protruding 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). At sunset, it fills again with souls, 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. This course passes the two dots (symbol 7), a symbol of the twin stars, considered the guardians of the underworld’s gate, the Milky Way, which leads the souls to the afterlife.


Man’s imagination knows no bounds, and when reality exhausts a situation beyond the boundaries of reality, his brain taps its resources for a solution. Such is the travel through the unchartered underworld that the souls navigate to reach the eternal world.

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, which 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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