Turtle Culture

In Asian religious mythology, the Earth was born by three elephants
which stood on the back of a giant turtle, symbol of the primitive
oceans. The I-Ching or Book of Changes, an ancient Chinese code, was
said to have been inspired by the King Tsang Hieh, when walking along
the banks of the river Loh, and a turtle rose from the water and on its
back were beautiful markings which suggested to the king all the
different combinations of things and so he invented the I-Ching. The
I-Ching is actually identical in structure to the genetic code - a 64
permutation binary system.

Looking at the back of a beautiful Asiatic spiny turtle, we see the
pattern of scutes on the shell, which resembles a brazen sun, with
streaks of light, we count 12 scutes on each margin (the 12 months of
the year) and then four lateral scutes on either flank (the four
seasons) and then five cental scutes (the five elements). Perhaps this
is the origin of the I-Ching creation story.

The way turtles can navigate accross the fathomless oceans and return to
the beach of their birth after decades of gradual development points to
a very primitve capacity to detect geomagnetism, shared by many bird and
some insect species.Turtles have poor eyesight. They feel their way
through the waves and currents, using the strength of the earth's
magnetic field to determine their position.

Like many reptiles, turtles have no contact with their young. After
laying eggs they leave the clutch to fend for themselves.This means that
despite their size and inability to escape, turtles are the most
peaceful of creatures. That is, with other species. During courtship
turtles of both sexes inflict bites on each other in a competitive


Mythology and History
The Marine Turtle has featured throughout much of recorded human
history. Greek mythology credits Apollo with creating the first lyre by
stretching strings across the shell of a sea turtle who had given his
all for music. The ancient Mexicans ranked the turtle next to the
goddess of flowers, while the Toltecs believed their ancestors rode on
the backs of turtles in crossing the sea to arrive on this continent
(near the site of present-day Veracruz.) And throughout Asia the turtle
is a principal in mythology.

Sea turtles have been around and recognizable for a long, long time,
their fossils first appearing in rocks of the late Jurassic period, some
200 million years ago. During the course of the next 100 million years
or so, one now-extinct (thank goodness!) Late Cretaceous species
attained a length of almost fifteen feet. He (or she) must have been
truly formidable!


Key Ideas

    * The turtle figures prominently in the Lakota story of the remaking
of the world.
    * Because of her role in the Lakota creation story, the sacred
turtle is associated with women and their gift of creating human life.
    * The beaded yoke of this Lakota woman's dress features the
traditional turtle-by-the-shore-of-the-lake design. The ABSTRACT U-shape
represents the sacred turtle.


There was another world before this one. But the people of that world
did not behave themselves. Displeased, the Creating Power set out to
make a new world. He sang several songs to bring rain, which poured
stronger with each song. As he sang the fourth song, the earth split
apart and water gushed up through the many cracks, causing a flood. By
the time the rain stopped, all of the people and nearly all of the
animals had drowned. Only Kangi the crow survived.

Kangi pleaded with the Creating Power to make him a new place to rest.
So the Creating Power decided the time had come to make his new world.
From his huge pipe bag, which contained all types of animals and birds,
the Creating Power selected four animals known for their ability to
remain under water for a long time. He sent each in turn to retrieve a
lump of mud from beneath the floodwaters. First the loon dove deep into
the dark waters, but it was unable to reach the bottom. The otter, even
with its strong webbed feet, also failed. Next, the beaver used its
large flat tail to propel itself deep under the water, but it too
brought nothing back. Finally, the Creating Power took the turtle from
his pipe bag and urged it to bring back some mud.

Turtle stayed under the water for so long that everyone was sure it had
drowned. Then, with a splash, the turtle broke the water's surface! Mud
filled its feet and claws and the cracks between its upper and lower
shells. Singing, the Creating Power shaped the mud in his hands and
spread it on the water, where it was just big enough for himself and the
crow. He then shook two long eagle wing feathers over the mud until
earth spread wide and varied, overcoming the waters. Feeling sadness for
the dry land, the Creating Power cried tears that became oceans,
streams, and lakes. He named the new land Turtle Continent in honor of
the turtle who provided the mud from which it was formed.

The Creating Power then took many animals and birds from his great pipe
bag and spread them across the earth. From red, white, black, and yellow
earth, he made men and women. The Creating Power gave the people his
sacred pipe and told them to live by it. He warned them about the fate
of the people who came before them. He promised all would be well if all
living things learned to live in harmony. But the world would be
destroyed again if they made it bad and ugly.


The Lakota were once part of a much larger group of people, the Dakota,
who lived in the northern woodlands, including the southern two-thirds
of Minnesota. Within the Dakota were three closely related language
groups - the Dakota-speakers, the Nakota-speakers, and the
Lakota-speakers. All shared a sedentary life-style, living in bark
lodges in the forests, harvesting wild rice, and making maple sugar.
Invasions by the French in the 1640s and ensuing battles with their own
Indian enemies forced many Nakota and Lakota to move westward. They
developed distinctive Plains cultures. The Lakota acquired horses,
introduced to North America by the Spanish in the 17th century, and by
the 18th century were nomadic buffalo hunters.

By the mid-19th century, Euro-American settlers had overrun the sacred
lands of the Lakota, and white hunters had decimated the buffalo herds
on which the Plains Indians depended. Eventually the United States
government confined the Plains Indians to designated lands called
reservations. Although reservations deprived them of their traditional
way of life, the Lakota struggled to preserve many of their cultural


 The Weight of the World
        by Carroll Muffett

        In the mythology of ancient China, a turtle's shell formed the
vault of the
heavens. In Hindu mythology, the god Vishnu took the form of a turtle to
carry the
world on his back. For many Native American peoples, the world rides on
the back
of a giant turtle swimming in the sea. Sadly, under pressure from a
variety of
manmade threats, the world's surviving sea turtles are slowly succumbing
to such a
great weight. 

         The first turtles swam the seas more than 150 million years ago
- some 50
million years before the birth of Tyrannosaurus rex. Seven species of
sea turtle
survive today: loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, green, olive ridley,
ridley and flatback. Smallest are the Kemp's ridley and olive ridley,
which can
reach about two feet in length and weigh about 100 pounds, and largest
is the
leatherback, which can reach nine feet and more than a ton. 

        All sea turtles are almost entirely aquatic. Once they leave
their sandy
seaside nests, they spend most of their lives at sea and can travel
thousands of
miles. Mature females return to shore only to lay eggs, and males rarely
return at

        In fact, when females reach sexual maturity after anywhere from
three to 50
years, depending on species, they return to lay eggs on the very beach
where they
themselves were hatched. How the wide-ranging sea turtles manage this
feat of
navigation was for a long time one of the great mysteries of marine

        Unlike migratory birds, which fly high above the landscape, sea
cannot rely on visual clues to find their way home. A sea turtle's head
is never
more than a few inches above the water, and the ocean expanses it must
cross often
lack distinctive landmarks. How, then, does the turtle find its way?

        The answer may lie in the earth's magnetic fields. Experiments
have shown
that some turtle species can detect tiny differences in the angle and
intensity of the
earth's gravitational pull. Scientists theorize that sea turtles may
follow each
region's unique magnetic signatures to find their way to their natal
beaches. In
effect, every sea turtle has its own built-in global positioning system.

        Unfortunately, in addition to their remarkable navigational
skills, all sea
turtles have something else in common. They are all threatened with
because of human activity.

        Of the six sea turtle species that occur in U.S. waters, five
are listed as
endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and the sixth, the
loggerhead, is


listed as threatened. The last species - the flatback sea turtle of
Australia, is
considered "vulnerable" to extinction "in the medium-term future" by the
Conservation Union.

        Sea turtles face a variety of manmade threats. Turtle nests are
robbed of
their eggs and adult turtles are killed for their meat - a traditional
delicacy in
many countries. Turtles are also killed for their shells, which are used
to make
jewelry and trinkets. This trade has been particularly lethal for the
beautiful brown
and gold Kemp's ridley, the world's most endangered turtle. 

        In addition to these direct threats, many turtles are killed
indirectly by
unselective fishing practices such as shrimp trawling, driftnetting and
fishing. Finally, sea turtles are affected by the same pollution and
habitat loss that
threatens nearly all of the world's terrestrial and marine species.

        Governments, scientists and environmentalists are working
together to
address these threats. But without greater protection, the
150-million-year history
of these remarkable creatures may be drawing to a close. It is time we
lifted the
weight of our world from their backs.

        Carroll Muffett is director of international programs at
Defenders of

        DEFENDERS Magazine, Summer 2001


Tortoise (Turtle)
In Hindu myth, the tortoise Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma,
which in its turn supports the world.
The name tortoise (Lat. testuoo) is given to the ancient Roman
protective shelter formed by soldiers with shields overlapping above
their heads when attacking a fort.
As the feminine power of the waters the tortoise was an emblem of
Aphrodite/Venus; also of Hermes/Mercury in Graeco-Roman myth. Pausanias
says that it was also sacred to Pan among the Arcadians and that it was
prohibited to kill it.
In Chinese myth the tortoise also supports the world, its four feet
being the four corners of the earth. It is one of the Four Spiritually
Endowed, or Auspicious Creatures, and represents the northern regions,
the yin principle and the element of water. It is the Black Warrior,
depicting strength and endurance; it was credited with a great life-span
and was therefore a symbol of longevity. In its warrior aspect the
tortoise joined the dragon on the banners of the imperial army, both
represented indestructibility as neither can destroy the other, the
tortoise cannot be crushed and the dragon cannot be reached. The
tortoise also appears with the crane as longevity. The Queen of Heaven,
Hsi Wang-mu, was called the Golden Mother of the Tortoise. It also
represents the Great Triad, with the dome of its back as the sky, the
body as the earth and the lower shell as the waters.
In Japan the Cosmic Mountain and the abode of the Sennin (the Genii or
Immortals of Taoism) are supported by a tortoise.
The tortoise and turtle both appear in AmerIndian traditions. For the
Sioux the world is a huge tortoise floating on the waters, a myth which
also occurs among the Tatars. Another fable is that the earth is
supported by four turtles, but a single tortoise supports the world in
Huron tradition; for others the tortoise saved the people from the flood
and then carried the new earth on its back. There are various turtle
clans and the Pueblos have Turtle Dances in spring and autumn. The
animal is associated with both the earth and the waters and is thus a
feminine power. The tortoise and turtle can be tricksters, being able to
appear and disappear, as a trickster he leads the animals on the war
path. Turtles appear on Mayan stelae. For the Aztecs they were a symbol
of cowardice and boastfuiness, hard outwardly but soft inwardly.
Again representing the feminine to the serpent's masculine power, the
tortoise is one of the oldest animals of West African mythology. It
originated ju-ju and appears in fertility rites. Tortoise also takes on
the trickster role but is always outwitted.
The second incarnation of Vishnu (Kurma), was a tortoise who helped the
gods recover the Amrita from the deluge.