Rock Art displays the Afterlife Journey with a Bird and Ship

Afterlife Journey with a Bird and Ship

The rock art engravings provide compelling evidence of the belief in the afterlife, which thrived in ancient Egypt and also permeated into the Negev desert. During that era, the belief offered a better existence than earthly life, supported by ample evidence such as Egyptian texts, architecture, religion, and burial monuments.

Other civilizations in the Western world embraced this belief with the emphasis on the underworld journey that the soul had to pass. The belief in the afterlife gave rise to the idea of reincarnation, where the soul was thought to be reborn into a new life.

Ship Journey

The afterlife journey ship myth depicts the perilous voyage of the soul as it travels through the underworld, which was envisioned as the most dangerous part of the journey. Ancient thought held that the earth was surrounded by water on all sides, with the underworld located deep beneath it. The treacherous journey through this realm of water and air required assistance from faithful psychopomps, such as waterbirds, boats, and fish, all of which are recurring symbols of the afterlife journey.

The belief was that failure to cross the underworld waters would result in their souls sailing into oblivion, an outcome that was deemed unacceptable. In Egyptian culture, the soul had to cross the Nile river to reach the "Beautiful West" with the help of a ferryman known as 'Who Sees Behind Him'. Similarly, in Greek culture, the soul would cross the river Styx with the assistance of the ferryman Charon.

Sun Ship loaded with souls (Negev Desert 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)

As depicted in Fig.1, the afterlife ship from the Negev Desert and Scandinavia, sails through both the upper world and underworld along the sun's path. The upside-down ship represents the journey through the underworld. The ships carry the souls, symbolized by the vertical lines drawn on the ship, which are referred to in the literature as the 'shade of the deceased' (Golan A. 1991). Zavaroni A. (2006) also confirmed this symbolism : In the middle of a boat loaded with souls which are, as usual, symbolized by a series of little lines'. The boat head in scene 2 is shaped like a bird, symbolizing the ability to move through both water and air. A boat-shaped grave in scene 4 allows the soul to begin its journey to the afterlife immediately upon burial.

Boat Journey

Some Negev Desert rock art scenes depict floating boats as if the arid desert is full of waterways. These imaginary boats are not navigating real water they are sailing the celestial waters. Some describe a sun journey and others carry the souls to the afterlife zone.

Compared to ship designs from Egypt or Scandinavia the Negev Desert ships are very simple. 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 signifying sailing through the underworld are hardly recognizable, but repetitive scenes in many rock art reveal the artist's concept. It’s a boat! The depiction of the many ships sailing the celestial waters, suggest that the belief in the afterlife was strong, at least among the ancient peoples who created this rock art.

Rock Art boat scenes from the Negev Desert
Fig.2    Typical boat scenes from the Negev Desert. The boat, head, and tail have a feature of a tri-fingered bird

The boats sail in pairs, one being a night boat and the other a day boat, and they sail either in a convoy or parallel. The Egyptian text clarifies the pairing of the ships, in Book of the Dead Chapter 151 it states, 'Thy right eye is the Solar Night Barque, thy left eye is the Solar Day Barque' (Hartwig 2002).

Afterlife Journey,  Negev Desert Rock Art

The Negev Desert rock art in Fig.3 illustrates the voyage of the soul with both a ship and a bird. These symbols collaborate to traverse both the upper and lower realms. The bird with its outstretched wings, in blue, travels through the upper world, while the ship, in red, navigates the underworld. The souls attached to the ship, are conveyed to the bird which will carry them toward the sun and facilitate their journey into the afterlife and rebirth.

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


The belief in the afterlife and the idea of a journey through the underworld was prevalent in ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greeks, Romans, and Norse. The voyage was symbolized through the depiction of ships, boats, birds, and other creatures that aided the souls in their journey. The Negev Desert Negev Rock Art provides evidence of this belief, depicting ships and birds that transport the souls to the afterlife.

What occurs after death is still a mystery. No living being had ever visited the underworld as detailed in ancient myths and images2. Yet, imagination has stretched the limits of the earthbound people and presented various answers to this final 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

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Yehuda Rotblum