Fish underworld Journey
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.
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 Belief
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 help of the psychopomp was essential.
Souls Ship Description
The underworld ship in Fig.1 is a fascinating example of ancient beliefs and the artistic representation of the journey. Early rock art depicts various means of transportation to symbolize the psychopomps. In this illustration, the upside-down ship represents the journey through the underworld, and the vertical sticks symbolizes the souls being transported.
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 through the 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 tri-fingered symbol, representing a bird , which descends into the underworld to bring more souls for the next journey.
Fig.2 Fish scenes in rock art, from the Negev Desert Israel, guiding souls in an underworld journey. symbol1-A tri-fingered bird flies into the underworld. symbol2-The souls (the vertical sticks), symbol3-The fish carries the souls. symbol4-A crack in the rock symbolically represents the underworld. (photo Razi Yahel)
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. The snake, symbolized by symbol 1, attacks the sun and attempting to impede its progress.
Fig.3 Underworld fish scenes in rock art from the Negev Desert, Israel. symbol1-A snake, in red, around the sun. symbol2-The sun. symbol3- The souls on fish top. symbol4-The fish (photo Razi Yahel).
This scene reflects 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.
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 people.
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
Copyright © All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of negevrockart.co.il