The turtle has a special place in many mythologies from the natives of the Caribbean to the Hopi Indians in Arizona, thousands of miles from the sea. They appear in Chinese and south East Asian mythology and stories about them are found all round the world.
There are so many amazing aspects to this wide spread group of chelonians OK – Turtles – but they all have a mythological quality that goes way beyond almost any other animal still alive today.
Amongst all the myths is one from the Huron Indians.
In the beginning there was only one water and the water animals that lived in it. A divine woman, full of power fell from the heavens. Fortunately two birds flying over the water saw her falling. They flew under her, close together, making a pillow for her to sit on.
The birds held her up and cried for help. They could be heard for a long way as they called for other animals to come. The snapping turtle called all the other animals to aid in saving the divine woman’s life. The animals decided the woman needed earth to live on.
Turtle said, “Dive down in the water and bring up some earth.”
So they did that, those animals. A beaver went down. A muskrat went down. Others stayed down too long, and they died. Each time, Turtle looked inside their mouths when they came up, but there was no earth to be found.
Finally a toad went under the water. He stayed too long, and he nearly died. But when Turtle looked inside Toad’s mouth, he found a little earth. The woman took it and put it all around on Turtle’s shell. That was the start of the earth.
Dry land grew until it formed a country, then another country, and all the earth. To this day, Turtle holds up the earth.
There are many other myths that refer to the way that the earth is carried on the back of a turtle, and beneath that turtle there are layer after layer of other turtles. Perhaps the truest part of the myth is slightly deeper. But the fact that the turtle carries us may well have a hidden truth.
Turtles remind us that the way to heaven is through the earth. In mother earth we have all that we need. She will care for us, protect us, and nurture us, as long as we do the same for her.
For that to happen we must slow down and heighten our sensibilities. We must see the connection to all things. Just as the turtle cannot separate itself from its shell, neither can we separate ourselves from what we do to the earth.
When we talk about the Turtle it is always the female we think of. She is often referred to as a gatekeeper because she crosses the boundary between the oceans and the land. Spending most of her life roaming the seven seas but then coming back to the very beach on which she was laid in order to lay her own eggs.
There are so many different elements of the turtle that mirror different parts of our own existence. The curved shell is often said to represent the heavens and sky whilst the flat undershell is the flatness of the earth on which all men and animals live.
Her shell is divided into thirteen segments, which coincides with the thirteen lunar months and also the thirteen months, which correspond to female reproductive cycles. As such she is a major symbol of fertility. Her fertility also reminds us of the fragility of life. Whilst she and her sisters lay thousands of eggs only a few make it through to adulthood.
But more than that, it is the way in which we spoil the earth and poison the seas that causes the greatest danger to all turtles. Instead of being free to roam the seven seas with few natural predators once she reaches adulthood, now she faces the ravages of man’s ever increasing greed.
Beaches are turned over to developers; nets trap turtles in the middle of the oceans; and her natural harvest under the sea is being ripped apart by man looking for the latest fashionable corals and subsea charms.
Amidst all this the turtle continues to hold a special place in our hearts. She is often called the gatekeeper and sometimes that means the gateway to the world of the spirit, as she has added powers and insights that the modern world forgets.
She not only can remind us of the past but also of the possibilities when we start to rediscover other worlds inside our imagination. She holds the key for us to discover the immense wealth that lies in the oceans of our minds and teaches us that harmony of earth and sea is essential for all to survive.
Whether you believe in the myth of the turtle one thing is clear. If we fail to honour her and all her fellow creatures on the land and in the sea we are dooming ourselves to an earlier extinction.
(Oh, and the picture at the top of this is one I took in the Caribbean, so let’s keep them alive and flourishing so that I can keep snapping them)