Turtles and Tortoises

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TURTLES AND TORTOISES . There is a widespread belief that the earth rests on the back of a turtle or tortoise. This archaic idea is found not only among North American Indians but also in South Asia and Inner Asia. The turtle now appears even as a symbol of the entire universe (e.g., in China). Moreover, according to creation myths involving an earth diver, the turtle, sometimes as an incarnation of the divine being, plays a prominent part in the cosmogony of various cultures.

According to the Maidu in California, a turtle dived to the bottom of the primeval ocean and procured a little soil under its nails. When it surfaced, God scraped its nails carefully and made a ball like a small pebble. The ball of soil then grew miraculously until it became as large as the universe itself. The Yokut narrate how at the time of beginning the eagle and the coyote sent a turtle into the waters. The motif of the turtle's successful dive is known also among the Algonquin. According to the Onondaga and the Mohawk (i.e., the Iroquois), it was a turtle that directed several different animals into the ocean; a beaver tried in vain, an otter also failed, but a muskrat returned successfully with soil in his claws and mouth. This soil was placed on the back of the turtle, and then the miraculous growth of earth began.

Inner Asia has preserved similar stories. According to the Buriats, in the beginning there was nothing but water and a turtle. God turned the turtle on its back and built the world on its stomach. In other versions, Mandishire (the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī) transforms himself into a great turtle and supports the earth he has made on the surface of the waters.

The great tortoise is often represented in India as the sustainer of the four elephants upon whose backs the world rests. In the Mahābhārata the tortoise, as an avatar of Visnu, supports the earth when the gods and demons churn the primeval ocean to obtain ambrosia.

In China, the turtle symbolizes the universe; its dome-shaped back represents the sky, while its belly, square in shape, stands for the earth. It also appears as the god of the waters, presiding over the north, one of the four cardinal points of the universe. Black in color, it is symbolically associated with winter and other aspects of the yin, or female principle; as in ancient Egypt and Greece, the tortoise in China is a symbol of erotic power and fecundity. Moreover, the great age to which the tortoise supposedly lives has made it a symbol of longevity and immortality; in the mythico-iconographical tradition the tortoise often forms a complex together with immortality, the moon, and paradise. There are "stone" turtles in South Korea and southern Japan (Kyushu), at its seashore facing the Korean Peninsula. Dating from prehistoric times, these monuments indicate that people believed in the turtle bestowing new life or immortality on the dead and escorting them to the otherworld far across the sea or to paradise under the waters.


On the turtle in cosmogonic myths, much useful information has been collected by Charles H. Long in his Alpha: The Myths of Creation (New York, 1963), pp. 192ff. On turtle symbolism in China, see Marcel Granet's brilliant discussion in his La pensée chinoise (1934; reprint, Paris, 1968), pp. 173ff. Johannes Maringer has studied "stone" turtles in East Asia in his article "Vorgeschichtliche Grabbauten Ostasiens in Schildkrötenform und ihr mythischer Prototyp," Antaios 5 (1963): 368374.

New Sources

Süss, Rudolph. Vom Mythos der Schildkröte: das Urtier als Glücksringer. Dortmund, 1991.

Manabu Waida (1987)

Revised Bibliography