Turtles are a popular symbol in mythology because of their
longevity and appearance. Because of their protective shells
and overall charming appearance you can often find them as
symbols of the more tranquil and protective aspects in the
particular mythology. Many cultures depict the turtle or
tortoise as carrying the world on its back or supporting the
In some Native American traditions the World Turtle also
carries the earth upon its back. The great spirit of the
Cheyenne, Maheo, kneads mud from a coot's beak until the old
grandmother turtle can support the earth on her back. The
Mohawk believe that the trembling of the earth is caused by
the old grandmother turtle stretching beneath the great
weight of the earth she carries upon her back.
In ancient history the Mesopotamian people believed that the
turtle was associated with one of their Gods called Ea. And
in Africa in the mythology of the Yoruba tribe, Ijapa the
tortoise is a trickster in a series of tales they tell of
In Hindu mythology the world is supported by four elephants
that stand upon the shell of a turtle. Akupara is a tortoise
in Hindu legends who carries the world on his back upholding
the earth and sea. One avatar of Vishnu is said to be the
giant turtle Kurma. The Kurma-avatar has a temple, Sri
Kurman Temple in Andhra Pradesh, India dedicated to it.
In China, one of the four fabulous animals is a tortoise
depicting the water element, symbolizing the north of the
four points of the compass. The tortoise stands for
strength, longevity and endurance. It is also the only
symbol of the Chinese compass that depicts a real animal,
although it looks like a mythological beast in the
Also in Chinese history turtles have often been used as a
symbol during burials because of their association with
longevity, or a burial mound called a "grave turtle" may be
made in the shape of a turtle. In the Sui dynasty (581-618
CE) and Ming period (1368-1644 CE), a carving of a turtle
upon a plinth was used for the memorials of high ranking
officials. Enormous statues of turtles supported memorial
tablets of the Emperors.
In another spot in Chinese mythology, after Gong Gong
destroys the mountains, the goddess Nu Gua cuts off the legs
of a sea turtle to take the place of the mountains in
propping up the sky. And the turtle's shell with the flat
underside and rounded top represents the idea of the flat
earth and domed sky.
The Edo Period of the Japanese has a depiction of a turtle,
Minogame, symbolizing longevity and felicity. It plays an
important role in the well-known legend of Urashima Taro.
The tortoise is an aspect of Kompira, the seafarer's deity.
Netsuke-carvers and other artisans favor the tortoise in
their art. There is a well known artistic pattern based on
the hexagonal shape of the tortoises shell. It is comprised
of symmetrical hexagons, sometimes with smaller hexagons
within the larger. Turtles also make their way into wedding
In Feng Shui the Black Tortoise is the rear of the home,
signifying home, family life and personal relationships. A
tortoise at the back door of the home on in a backyard pond
brings many blessings and good fortune.
In Daoist art the triad of earth-humankind-heaven is
depicted by a tortoise. And in many artistic
representations, three tortoises stacked up on top of each
other symbolize a mother and her babies, or life and
In Taiwanese villages turtle shapes are made with paste
cakes for festivals held in honor of the lineage's patron
deity. To assure prosperity, harmony, and security for the
next year, people buy these cakes at their lineage temple
and take them home for the family to eat.
The Admiralty Island peoples tell tales in which people were
hatched from eggs laid by the world turtle and many
Polynesian tribes believed a similar creation story.
Overall, the turtle or tortoise is a depiction of longevity
and good fortune to most peoples of the world. These are
well loved creatures all over the world, and you can find
them in just about every aspect of life if you look.