Fish Journey Rock Art

rock art fish underworld journey rock art

Fish Underworld Journey in Rock Art

Deciphering rock art from Israel,

References to fish in rock art prove that it served as an underworld guide in the afterlife journey myth. According to ancient mythology, death was viewed as a pathway to immortality, with crossing the underworld being the most challenging part. In many of these tales, various creatures such as horses, dogs, birds, the sun, the ships, and fish served as psychopomps that assisted the soul on its journey to the afterlife.

The Negev Desert is a place of great cultural significance, having been occupied by numerous civilizations over the centuries, including the Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks, and Romans. Each of these cultures left its mark on the desert rocks through engravings that reflect their beliefs about the afterlife journey.

The Underworld  

In ancient times, beliefs about the afterlife often included the idea of water surrounding the earth, including an underworld located deep below the surface. The Sumerians referred to this underworld as the “lower water”, which was thought to exist at the edge of the world beyond the ocean.

Passing through the underworld was seen as an essential journey for achieving salvation, but it was also fraught with danger and treachery. The soul had to contend with a variety of obstacles and hindrances, including darkness, multiple road forks, gates, and dangerous animals that were hungry and aggressive. The physical barriers of vast land, water, air, and the void of the underworld made it necessary for the soul to have a guide to navigate through the many obstacles successfully.

For the innocent soul to cross the underworld, the role of the psychopomp was essential. In order to succeed on this dangerous journey, the guide needed to be faithful and knowledgeable.

Souls Ship Description

The depiction of the underworld ship in Fig. 1 is a fascinating example of ancient beliefs regarding the journey. Engraved upside down, the ship symbolizes its journey through the underworld, with the vertical sticks on the ship representing the souls being transported.

The rock art showcases three different scenes, each with its own symbolism of the ship. In scene 1, a circle representing the sun leads the upside-down boat on its nighttime journey through the underworld. In scene 2, the Aegean ship is depicted with a fish serving as a guide, but it is shown being attacked by a huge snake, a common belief in ancient times regarding the treacherous journey to the underworld. In scene 3, the boat is shown upside down, with a horizontal line on top, and ends in a fork while carrying the souls attached to the ship. A bird with outstretched wings, depicted in blue, is shown flying beneath the boat, bringing more souls for the final journey to the underworld.

mythological ship underworld journey rock art
Fig. 1 Underworld journey ship scenes (ships in scene1 and scene3 are upside down): scene1– Sun Boat loaded with souls traveling to the afterworld (Negev Desert rock art), scene2 – Aegean Cycladic culture ship with fish pulling attacked by a snake 2000BC  (Salimbeti A. 2014). scene3– A Large bird (blue) with stretched wings carrying souls into an upside-down ship shown on top (red) (Negev Desert rock art.

Underworld Journey Fish Rock Art

The fish played a significant role in ancient beliefs about the afterlife, particularly in guiding the souls of the deceased through treacherous underworld waters. This is demonstrated in two examples of rock art from the Negev Desert, depicted in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3.

Fig.2 features symbols with specific meanings related to the fish’s journey. The meaning of the symbol is explained in the following paragraphs. Symbol 3 represents the fish carrying the souls, symbolized by sticks on its back, which represent the soul’s shade. Symbol 2 depicts the deceased souls being carried by the fish, while symbol 4, a line showing the crack in the rock, represents the exit from the underworld. Symbol 1 features a bird with three fingers, which represents its descent into the underworld to bring more souls for the ongoing journey.

rock art afterlife underworld journey Rock Art in Israel.
Fig.2 Underworld fish scenes rock art from the Negev Desert, Israel (photo Razi Yahel) A crack in the rock symbolically represents the underworld. symbol2-The souls on fish top. symbol3-The fish. symbol1-A tri-fingered (Kristiansen K. 2018) bird flies into the crack representing the underworld.

Fig. 3 shows a rock art scene that depicts a fish carrying souls through the underworld. The scene is characterized by several symbols that represent different elements of the story. The fish, symbolized by symbol 4, is carrying the souls, represented by the stick figures on top of the fish, symbol 3. The fish is shown advancing toward the sun, symbolized by symbol 2. However, there is also a snake, symbolized by symbol 1, that is attacking the sun and attempting to impede its progress.

Rock Art afterlife fish journey
Fig. 3 Underworld fish scenes rock art from the Negev Desert, Israel (photo Razi Yahel): Scene1 1-A snake, in red, around the sun. 2-The sun. 3- The souls on fish top. 4-The fish.

This scene is copied from the Egyptian sun’s journey myth. The myth tells the story of the sun god Ra, who travels through the underworld each night to emerge in the east each morning. The snake in the rock art scene represents the forces of darkness, similar to the role of the snake that hinders Ra’s journey, while the fish serves as a guide to transport the souls safely through the treacherous underworld.

Rock art, which is a form of visual storytelling, can reveal much about the culture and beliefs of ancient civilizations. Although the art itself cannot speak, the images depicted within it tell a story about the essence of the recorded myth. The art serves as a visual representation of the spiritual journey and its challenges.

The use of symbols in rock art helps to convey complex ideas and stories in a concise and visually striking way. The image of the fish carrying the souls, combined with the attack by the snake, effectively conveys the concept of the spiritual journey and the challenges that must be overcome in order to reach salvation. The sun, in this context, symbolizes enlightenment, and the journey to reach it represents the path to spiritual victory. Through rock art, ancient civilizations were able to share their myths and beliefs in a way that could be understood by all members of the community.


The rock art found in the Negev Desert provides a glimpse into the ancient beliefs surrounding the journey of the soul after death. Although few references have been found to a fish serving as a guide, recent discoveries have uncovered rock art that depicts the fish’s journey in the underworld as a psychopomp. The fish’s role as a guide in the underworld journey is depicted in two rock art scenes and symbolizes the transport of wandering souls through the underworld. The rock art provides a visual representation of the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding the journey to the afterlife, serving as a testament to these beliefs.



Golan A. (1991)           Myth and Symbol
Kristiansen K. (2018) The winged triad in Bronze Age symbolism: birds and their feet
Salimbeti A. (2014)    The Greek Age of Bronze Ship

More deciphering, in a new book Rock Art in Israel, available online.

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