Turtles: Revered creatures throughout time & cultures
Story By Eddy Hoyle + Illustrations By Megan Goheen
Have you ever been stuck driving uphill behind a large RV and unable to pass it? It slows you down, and your blood pressure rises until you get the opportunity to pass it. You’re finally able to hit the gas and whip around it. You travel quite a distance, pull off to get gas, a bathroom break, and maybe a burger. You get back on the highway, and once again, you’re behind that same RV, and you wonder how it beat you.
Remember Aesop’s ancient tale of the tortoise and the hare? The RV driver is traveling inside his home just like the tortoise inside its carapace. The hare (you) quickly leaves the tortoise behind only to discover that your competitor, crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before you.
By virtue of slow movements, turtles are attributed with patience and wisdom, and the lesson of Aesop’s fable is to keep moving toward your goals, no matter how slow or difficult. Focus on the journey, and pace yourself.
Turtles were held in high esteem by many cultures throughout history. Their images are present in rock art and cave drawings across the globe. Ancient peoples recognized that the turtle carries its home on its back — an enviable feat. It was admired for its longevity, its methodical pace and the fact that females produce a great number of eggs. Some turtle species live on land, others in the water. These factors influenced human culture, and the turtle became one of the oldest symbols of fertility, motherhood, perseverance, health, long life and wisdom.
The turtle became a sacred symbol of Mother Earth in many creation myths. From China to Mesopotamia to the Americas, turtles were visualized as supporting
the world itself. The World Turtle (aka the Cosmic Turtle) is a part of Hindu, Indian, Chinese and Native American mythology.
India created religious images of the World Turtle showing the earth supported by four elephants standing on the shell of an enormous turtle. The turtle bears the weight of the world due to the strength of its carapace or shell.
In Chinese myths, the World Turtle helps the god, Pangu, prop up the world representing endurance and strength. It also signifies eternity and is a common symbol when people are laid to rest. In feng shui, energy is used to harmonize the environment, and a tortoise placed in the rear of the home is a symbol of hope, relationships and family life.
Native American legends attribute creation to the Earth Diver Turtle that swam to the depths of the ocean. When it surfaced, it was covered with mud which the creator used to make the earth. In another myth, the mud was spread over the backs of seven giant turtles whose movements explain earthquakes. The turtle is also honored for saving mankind from the great flood. She is the immortal mother who carries the tremendous burden of man. They believe the shell of the turtle has spiritual healing properties, and it’s used to dispense medicine. In Southwestern tribes, the turtle represents water, a necessity in desert regions.
In African cultures, the turtle’s powerful ju ju appears in fertility rites. A turtle that can live 150 years has wrinkly skin, and is a reminder to pay great respect to elders. In African lore, the turtle is featured as a trickster, a clever creature, slow but smart, and able to figure a way out of sticky situations. No animal is able to kill it because it is protected by its shell. Because they live in water and on land, they are revered as special friends of the God of Rain.
In ancient Greece the turtle is a symbol of fertility and an attribute of Aphrodite/Venus. A fable exists in which Zeus invited all animals to his wedding, but the tortoise did not attend. Zeus wanted to know why. The tortoise responded, ‘Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.’ Zeus was angry and ordered the tortoise to carry her house with her wherever she went.
In ancient Egypt turtles were believed to have magical power to ward off evil and to defend health and life. In multiple cultures, turtle shells were tools of divination. In Polynesia, intricate shell patterns were ciphers to chart the paths that spirits travel after death. In China, mystics attempted to connect the pattern of the shell and the constellations. The shell is said to depict a map of the stars, and most turtle shells have 13 sections that are associated with the 13 phases of the moon.
The turtle is many things to many people. Perhaps its most important attribute is the wisdom to take things one step at a time, reminding us that great undertakings are accomplished by completing one small action at a time.