Ship Afterlife Rock Art

ship afterlife rock art

Afterlife Journey, the Negev Desert Ship Rock Art

Deciphering rock art from Israel,

Rock art demonstrates a strong belief in the afterlife that flourished in ancient Egypt that also sifted into the Negev desert. During those times, the idea of an afterlife symbolized a better existence than life itself. There is ample evidence that supports this popular belief, such as Egyptian text, architecture, religion, and burial monuments, all attest to the significance of the afterlife idea.

This belief was adopted by other civilizations in the Western world and gave rise to the idea of the underworld journey, where the soul of the deceased was believed to embark on a journey through the underworld before reaching its final destination. The idea of reincarnation, where the soul of an individual was believed to be reborn into a new life, also originated from the belief in the afterlife.

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.

Ship Journey

Studies have shown that various cultures, including the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and Norse, depicted the arduous journey through the underworld in their iconography, religious texts, and burial customs. 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.


The meaning of a ship boat in 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)

Extensive archaeological research, particularly from the civilizations of ancient Egypt and the Norse, provides numerous examples of the afterlife ship. As depicted in Figure 1, the afterlife ship, shown, in rock art 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 of the deceased, 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) confirmed that the souls are depicted as being carried on a renewal ship: “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.

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 archeological evidence, these scenes are not earthly but 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.

Compared to ship designs from Egypt or Scandinavia the Negev Desert ships are very simple. Very few details decorate the scene with just enough 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 ship! The Negev Desert rock art may not be as ornate as others but the repetitive motives of ships provide an insight into the artist’s concept. The depiction of the ships sailing the celestial waters, along with the repetition of the scenes, suggest that the belief in this journey was an important part of the culture and religion of the ancient peoples who created this rock art.

boat scenes from the Negev Desert rock art
Fig2. Typical ship scenes from the Negev Desert. The boat, head, and tail have a feature of a tri-fingered bird

The ships sail in pairs, one being a night ship and the other a day ship, and they are engraved 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 Figure 3 illustrates the voyage of the soul through 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 of the deceased, represented as vertical stick figures attached to the ship, are conveyed to the bird which will direct them past the sun and facilitate their journey to the afterlife and rebirth.

 Rock Art in Israel. The Bird and ship afterlife journey rock art
Fig.3 Ship and bird underworld afterlife journey, Negev Desert Rock Art (photo Razi Yahel)

Man’s imagination knows no limits – even when reality exhausts a situation far beyond what the brain can imagine, the brain is still able to provide a solution. Such is the imaginary journey the souls perform to reach their ultimate destination in the afterlife.

Complete Ship Journey,  Negev Desert Rock Art

Fig. 4 captures the progression of a soul’s journey through two realms, the upper world, and the underworld. It essentially follows the path of the sun. In this rock art, the same ship is portrayed several times as it advances through various stages of the journey. The stages depicted include sunrise, the upper world, sunset, and finally the underworld. The journey is described as follows:


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

As the sun rises, a ship (symbol 1) crosses a threshold (the line across the rock) from the underworld to earth, transporting souls (the sticks attached to the ship).  A thick outline of the ship depicts its strength as it begins its journey along the sun’s path. The ship continues (symbol 2 turned upside down) its journey in the upper world toward the sun (symbol 3 the cross), the place of resurrection and soul rest. The ship then 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 through the underworld, under the gray line, a natural rock crack extending across that symbolically separates the living and the dead worlds. The ship passes the two dots (symbol 7), a symbol of the twin stars, considered the guardians of the underworld’s gate, close to the Milky Way, which leads the souls to the afterlife.


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, birds, and other creatures that aided the soul of the deceased in their journey. The Negev Desert rock art in Israel provides evidence of this belief, depicting ships and birds that transport the soul of the deceased to the afterlife.

The mystery of what occurs after death has been a prevalent concern both in the past and present. To date, no one has come back from the dead to shed light on this enigma. This leaves room for imaginative speculation that cannot be disproven and thus flourishes. No living being had ever visited the underworld depicted in ancient myths and images from various cultures. Yet, imagination has stretched the limits of the earth 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


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

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Yehuda Rotblum 2019

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