Many different cultures have ideas about the Cosmic Turtle—the great turtle that holds up the world. Let’s take a look at a few of the stories from different cultures and find out what inspired them.
The ancient Chinese myth about this celestial beast went like this: A god named Gong Gong went into a fit of rage and banged his head against the mountains, like the mature adult he apparently was. Unfortunately, those mountains were holding up the sky, and without them the sky would literally plummet into the ocean. So the creator goddess, Nuwa, came to the rescue of the world. She cut the legs off of the giant sea turtle named Ao, and used them to prop up the sky. A bit unfortunate for Ao, but he's still depicted with all four legs in most art, so hopefully they grew back.
The ancient Chinese believed all tortoises were female, and that the great tortoise would have to mate with a snake in order to procreate. As a result of this belief, we have the image of the great tortoise and the great snake intertwined, holding up the world together.
This image eventually became the Chinese symbol for the north.
So why the elephants that are so often depicted between the world and the turtle’s shell? One theory is that there was a mistranslation of the word for serpent into elephant, as they are similar due to the elephant’s snake-like trunk.
So why a turtle in the first place? Why not another animal? One reason is because the tortoise represents longevity and preservation in many cultures, thanks to it’s ability to live a very long life. The oldest known tortoise is currently 186 years old, and there are reports of others even older.
Another reason is because it’s anatomy mirrors the appearance of the earth and sky. At that time, people believed the earth to be flat. The tortoise’s bottom shell, called the plastron, is usually flat, while the carapace, or top shell, is curved like the domed sky.
Many believe that the Indian and Chinese beliefs regarding the cosmic turtle are so similar that they likely originated from the same place. In his book Researches Into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor writes that it likely started in Hindu mythology first. One of their mythologies involves a god named Vishnu, who has many forms. One of his forms is Kurma, a great turtle that holds up a large mountain.
Ancient Hindu culture also believed that turtles/tortoises were the first living beings in existence, and the pulling of the head into the shell is a show of looking inward/meditating, which is another reason Asian cultures valued the turtle. They saw it as a representation of an advanced spiritual state.
While the Chinese and Hindu ideas may have evolved together somewhat, the South American myths appear to have arisen separately.
So why turtles for the South Americans? Once again, this appears to be due to their shape resembling the flat earth and domed sky, and due to their long lives. Longevity and preservation were greatly attributes valued in the Native American culture, and they found the idea of being carried through space by a being that knows where they're headed to be a comforting one.
Lenape and Iroquois people in particular believe that soil was piled on the back of a turtle that continued to grow until the whole world was literally on its shoulders.
In 2012, an extinct species of turtle with an unusually rounded shell was found in Colombia’s La Puente pit in the Cerrejón Coal Mine. With a carapace diameter of 1.5 meters, this giant, rounded turtle might have been the one to inspire the belief in the Cosmic Turtle in this part of the world.
The Yoruba people of Africa developed a divination system called Ifa that used tortoise shells as oracles. Turtle and tortoise shells were also used by the ancient Chinese for the same purpose. Various cultures had different mixes of shells and bones and things for use in foretelling the future.
And due to the general longevity of turtles and tortoises, they are viewed by many cultures as good luck and symbols of a long life. Some believe that keeping a turtle bone in your pocket will bring you general good fortune. Some believe that if placed in certain parts of your house, a tortoise shell can bring you smooth business transactions, and if placed by your front door, will protect your house from danger. Some cultures even believe that if you take an empty tortoise shell, turn it upside down and fill it with water, the water can be used for scrying.
While I can get a little free with ideas about how certain mythical creatures may really have existed, I’m afraid the fact that we have pictures from space of a round earth completely lacking in turtle, snake or elephant support, I have to say that the cosmic turtle doesn’t have much chance of being real. But whatever inspired surely was!
Unless the astronauts are lying to us....
In Recent Media
There isn’t a whole lot in recent media on this topic. Mostly just speculation about Maturin easter eggs in Stephen King movies and a little about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
There is also mention of the Great A’Turin, the giant cosmic turtle in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy series. There's forty-one novels in this series! Dang!
I just added it to my infinite TBR! How about you?
Using tortoise shells for scrying? How cool is that? In books I’ve read where characters were able to scry, it was through water anywhere. Limiting your character by only allowing scrying to work if there is a tortoise shell could get really interesting. She could have to kill a fierce tortoise with a fight to the death, or tortoises could be intelligent like a sphinx and she could have to trick him out of his shell or agree to solve a riddle with high stakes. Or she could have a heart and not want to kill an innocent animal, but have no other way to get orders from her leader or to spy on her enemy in order to find out what to do next. This could be a really interesting way to add some struggle to your character’s story.
The fact that the shape of the turtle/tortoise shell resembles a flat world and domed sky is really interesting. Maybe your fantasy world is flat, and they could worship turtles because of how their shape represents the world.
What kind of interesting mix of animals could you create using a turtle/tortoise and particularly the shell? Maybe a tiger-like animal, but with scales like a reptile and with a shell that it can disappear into for safety. Or maybe a tortoise whose shell can open up with a pair of wings allowing it to fly away.
Set your imagination free!