Sun Journey Rock Art
The Sun Journey Rock Art
Deciphering rock art from Israel, israelrockart.com.
The sun’s journey through the sky, as depicted in Negev Desert rock art has its roots in ancient Egypt. The myth portrays the sun’s daily travel from east to west, followed by its descent into the underworld at night. The sun was considered to be a god, personified as Ra, who embarked on a daily journey from east to west and then proceeded through the underworld at night. The nighttime journey through the underworld was believed to be the most perilous part of the sun’s journey. The sun admiration in Egypt is articulated in the Book of the Dead, translated by Sir Peter le Page Renouf :
“I look at the sunrise and sunset, the daily return of the day and night, the struggle between light and darkness, with all the drama of the sun every detail, every day, every month, every year, in heaven and on earth the sun is the main theme of Egyptian mythology.”
The Egyptian Sun Journey Myth
According to the myth, the Egyptian Sun god Ra sails the skies during the day and returns through the underworld to begin his cyclical journey at dawn. His passage through the underworld represents a victory over darkness by defeating the hidden dangers he encounters, especially Apophis the serpent. The following passage, from the Book of the Dead, described the sun’s journey:
According to Egyptian mythology, the sun god Ra embarks on a daily journey through the sky during the day and navigates his way through the underworld at night. The cycle repeats itself with the rising of each dawn. The journey through the underworld symbolizes Ra’s triumph over the darkness and the hidden dangers he faces, including the serpent deity Apophis.
“As the sun swept from west to east after nightfall, it passed in the kingdom of death until it caught by the snake Apophis. The snake was the source of chaos and the enemy of the sun god. The sun passes over the serpent back in an attempt to defeat it, whether it is in the depths of the realm of death or the eastern horizon.”
The ancient Egyptians believed that Ra’s passage through the underworld was a crucial part of his journey as it represented his defeat over the forces of chaos and evil. This idea is encapsulated in the following passage from the Book of the Dead, which describes the sun’s journey through the underworld:
“With Ra as our guide, we traverse the treacherous path of the underworld. The serpent Apophis lurks in the shadows, but Ra’s power and bravery ensure our safe passage. At dawn, we emerge from the underworld, victorious over the darkness, ready to embark on a new journey through the sky.”
Ship Rock Art, Negev Desert
In rock art scenes, the ship engraved in pairs symbolizes, a night ship, and a day ship; as described in the Book of the Dead Chapter 151: “Your right eye is the night lightning of the sun boat; your left eye is the daily lightning of the sun boat”.
The rock art in Figure 3 showcases a depiction of two upside-down ships, symbolizing a journey through the underworld. The wiggling snake, which is seen interfering with the sun’s journey, is a significant aspect of the myth. The snake attacks the large ship that carries the sun while simultaneously towing the small ship in their passage through the underworld. Both the sun carriers and their enemy, the sun and the snake, cooperate despite their opposing roles, the sun symbolizes the upper world and resurrection, while the snake symbolizes the underworld and death. The opposing forces unite when their goal is to maintain nature’s law, demonstrating the unity of nature. Thus, supporting the theory that the world’s order is maintained by a balance of forces that preserve the world’s cyclical order.
The Ship and Heavenly Gates
An interesting rock art links the sun’s journey with the Sumerian concept of the Heavenly Gates myth, which postulates the existence of gates in the sky serving as entrances and exits for celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, and stars. These gates are shaped like feet. Figure 4 depicts the sun’s daily journey from sunrise to sunset, complementing its nighttime journey. During the day, the sun was believed to be transported through the sky in a boat, which was considered to be the upper ocean in ancient times.
Fig.4. Sun’s journey and the Heavenly Gates, Negev Rock Art. (photo R. Yahel)
The boat carrying the sun, on the left image, rises from the big gate (footprint) connected by a line to the sun, the upper circle. The sun then descends, connected by a line, into a smaller gate, or the sunset gate, on the right. In the right image, the twinship emerges from the upper gate full of sun rays as indicated by the thick line across the gate. It’s then descending to the left, on the side panel, toward the empty sunset gate at the bottom.
The sun’s journey through the sky has been a central theme in Egyptian mythology for thousands of years. The daily journey from east to west and its nighttime journey through the underworld was a dangerous and important part of the sun’s cycle. Rock art in the Negev Desert showcases this mythology, depicting two ships symbolizing the journey through the underworld. The sun’s journey was also tied to the Sumerian concept of the Heavenly Gates, with the sun being transported through the sky during the day and descending into the underworld at night.
The Negev nomads borrowed the sun journey idea from the “world” and invented their unique ship as illustrated in many rock art. The sun myth endurance proves its longevity that continues even today. The examples presented here demonstrate the universality of the sun journey idea.
LANKESTER, D. (2012) Predynastic & Pharaonic era Rock-Art in Egypt’s Central Eastern Desert.
KRISTIANSEN, K. (2010). The sun journey in Indo-European mythology and Bronze Age rock art.
Kaul, F. (1998) A study in Bronze Age religion and iconography.
Lahelma, A. (2017) The Circumpolar Context of the ‘Sun Ship’ Motif in South Scandinavian Rock Art
More deciphering, in a new book Rock Art in Israel, available online.
Copyright © All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of israelrockart.com