Symbolic Turtle Legends Like the World Turtle and Turtle Island
According to myth and legends, turtles really are heroes in a half-shell (and not the ninja kind named after Italian Renaissance artists).
Symbolic turtle legends abound, and many of them revolve around creation…particularly the creation of the world and/or the cosmos.
Depending upon the culture you explore, turtle legends range from protection, motherhood, evolution and other very powerful meanings.
I suppose it’s no wonder the turtle is a heavy-duty symbol for some intense concepts. The election of the turtle in charge of many creation myths makes a lot of sense. Why? Most obviously, many turtles live impressively long lives.
Some turtles even live 100+ years. In fact, turtles have been used as family heirlooms…when the owner dies, the turtle is passed down to the next family descendant, so on, and etc. Theoretically, the turtle is a symbol of over a century of life within the family. But I digress.
Suffice to say, the turtle’s notoriety for living a long life makes it a symbol of longevity. In essence, it is a symbol of the passage of time and ancient wisdom.
Turtles are also remarkably well-designed for survival. One of the reasons they live so long is due to their physiology is wicked-equipped for some of the most brutal circumstances life can throw their way. This is symbolic of endurance and moving forward through the endless passage of time.
When we talk about time, the concept of patience is almost always involved. Maybe the sloth would disagree, but when it comes to avoiding hustle-bustle and rushing about, the turtle is a master.
Turtle legends never neglect to feature the slow steady pace of the turtle. Easy does it, and always taking its time in all functions, the turtle is an excellent reminder of how to move with purpose through the changes of time.
Turtle legends and myths are also quick to mention the concept of power and strength. These creatures are incredibly strong, which makes them perfect for bearing the world and all its burdens upon its shell.
While considering turtle meaning and turtle legends, here are a few key words about the turtle that might be helpful…
Key Symbolic Turtle Meanings and Traits:
“Trust in nature for the stable laws of beauty and utility. ”~ Robert Browning
The Legend of Turtle Island (or Turtle World)
The term sounds like a quaint, quiet, perfect little vacation spot. In reality, Turtle Island is a giant spot…like, a whole continent…North America! Various North American indigenous people refer to their continent as ‘Turtle Island’ or ‘Turtle World.’ The most popular legend of Turtle Island comes from the people of the Iroquois. As the myth goes, the Iroquois were initially sky people, living happily in the heavens.
Over time, things change as they often do, and there arose an anomaly. The Iroquois got their land legs from a magical birth.
To explain, there was a well respected woman within the community who became pregnant with twins…but not just any ordinary twins. 1) Her pregnancy was not made by mortal seed. You know…like the immaculate conception. 2) She was pregnant with twin trees. How cool is that!? Although, delivery might have been a bit uncomfortable. 😮
Being a woman of the sky she, had to get some terra firma to plant her sweet baby trees. Luckily, the waters of the cosmos were already created, so she called to the greatest, strongest creature in all the watery realms. A massive turtle heeded her call, and came to the water’s surface. The woman tippy toed on top of the turtles’ back, and when the time was right she gave birth to two healthy, happy trees. With permission from the turtle, she made two holes in the turtle’s shell where she planted her beloved trees.
After the birth of the twin trees, history was created…err…well, land was created. From their seeds came many more trees that spread across the great turtle, and this became land, which got the name “Turtle Island” because it became the first land mass to inhabit the waters.
FYI: If you find variations of this turtle legend, I wouldn’t be surprised. 1) Legends get side-tracked over time and 2) The Iroquois Confederation is comprised of five nations, the Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga and Seneca. All of these nations are Iroquois, but each of the nations held varying traditions and legends.
Turtle with the World on its Back
In ancient Indo-China myths depicts a gigantic turtle carrying four elephants and on the shoulders of these pachyderm sat the world. Apparently, the days of creation in Indo-Chinese legends were rife with chaos. This turtle with elephants holding the world on their backs is actually a quick fix to an earlier problem.
In the beginning, the heavens were supported by a towering mountain. But the god Gong Gong had a hissy fit and destroyed it. Scrambling to find a solution to a falling sky and a crumbling mountain, Nuwa, a creation goddess, cooks up the turtle-elephant idea. There are varying ideas as to why and how the elephants got involved with supporting the structure of the earth and sky. These elephants are likely to represent the structure of the four directions (north, south, east, west) to navigate through the cosmos.
However, what is clear, was the details surrounding the turtle. This world-bearing turtle named Ao was a perfect pick for the job. Strong, stable, and thought to be immortal – Ao the turtle was a shoe-in for the job of supporting the heavens, and he was also up to the job of transporting the world within the cosmic waters.
As far as the elephants go, they were honored and even worshipped. They were revered for the same reasons the turtle was…long life, strength and power. In the end, the land and sky were saved by the turtle with the world on its back, and the elephants.
Only one hitch to the story. Nuwa cut Ao’s feet off in this whole world-holding solution. Huge bummer for Ao, but Nuwa figured without feet, the turtle wouldn’t swim away with the world.
There are many more turtle legends than just these two. Like the Egyptian legend in which two turtles influenced the levels of the Nile river. This was a very big deal, as the Nile represented the life and livelihood for much of Egypt’s civilization. A Japanese turtle legend states that a grand, majestic tortoise was the home of the Eight Immortals. These immortals are experts at certain aspects of the human experience, and are symbolic of human behavior. Not to mention the turtle myths surrounding the powers of femininity in Greek-Roman mythology.
It should be clear the turtle (and tortoise) is a creature with many tales to tell. Don’t stop here on your journey to discover more about Turtle Island, World Turtle, Cosmic Turtle, Creation Myths, Turtle with World on its Back, turtle meaning, turtle legends and more. Take a trip to the library! A city library would be ideal. I’m convinced these institutions are far better resources for symbolic insights than the internet. I’ve never really used the internet as a resource in creating this website. This is especially true these days. Increasingly, the internet is getting further away from being an accurate source of information. So support your libraries! Life is better with books anyway! Ok. Speech over.
I hope you enjoyed this article on turtle meaning and turtle legends. Check out the links below for more about turtle symbolism.
As always, thank you for reading!
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