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Origin & History Of Turtles: Ancient Myth To Modern Science

From ancient myths to modern medicine to popular culture, turtles have permeated various significant aspects of both scientific and cultural realms. From the mythical black tortoise shaping Chinese culture to the beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gracing theaters worldwide, these fascinating creatures have left an indelible mark throughout history. My own fascination with turtle symbolism […]

Origin & History Of Turtles: Ancient Myth To Modern Science

From ancient myths to modern medicine to popular culture, turtles have permeated various significant aspects of both scientific and cultural realms. From the mythical black tortoise shaping Chinese culture to the beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gracing theaters worldwide, these fascinating creatures have left an indelible mark throughout history.

My own fascination with turtle symbolism began in school, where I learned about the profound significance of turtles in Chinese mythology. Later, during my college years, encountering the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reignited my interest in these creatures and their symbolic significance.

Recently, I delved deeper into the cultural symbols of turtles across different countries, exploring how they have been revered as symbols of auspiciousness, purity, stability, and longevity in various cultures. Despite factual differences, these symbolisms have played a crucial role in shaping spiritual beliefs and practices across the globe.

In this article, I aim to take you on a journey through a myriad of turtle myths from around the world. Whether you view myths as mere superstitions or profound reflections of human culture, this exploration is sure to challenge your perspective and broaden your understanding of the rich tapestry of turtle symbolism across cultures.

Fictional Turtles From Around The World

From ancient mythology to modern folklore, fictional turtles have long been used as symbols to impart various lessons and concepts. Let’s explore some of the most famous fictional turtles from around the world:

  1. Black tortoise:
    In Chinese culture, the black tortoise is revered as the black warrior among the four Chinese constellations. Associated with the direction north and the season of winter, the black tortoise symbolizes protection and stability. In Taoism, it is believed to safeguard the north and watch over the people, guiding souls safely to the afterlife after death.
  2. World Turtle:
    The concept of the “World Turtle” is a metaphorical representation of the pre-existing balance of the Earth. This idea suggests that the world rests upon the back of a turtle, which in turn is supported by another larger turtle, creating an infinite regression of turtles. This notion serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness and resilience of the universe.
  3. Shetyw Turtle:
    In Egyptian mythology, the Shetyw turtle symbolizes the freshwater turtles of the Nile River. Often depicted in pairs, these turtles represent the ebb and flow of the Nile’s waters, which played a crucial role in the prosperity of ancient Egypt.
  4. Akupara:
    In Hindu mythology, Akupara is the cosmic turtle that supports the earth and sea on its back. This powerful symbol represents the protective and nurturing forces that sustain all living beings in the world.
  5. Qian Gui (Golden Coin Turtles/Tortoises):
    In Chinese culture, miniature turtles or tortoises are often referred to as golden coin turtles or tortoises. While not strictly fictional, these creatures hold symbolic significance, representing prosperity, longevity, and good fortune in Chinese folklore and tradition.

From guiding souls to the afterlife to symbolizing cosmic balance and prosperity, fictional turtles in various cultures offer rich insights into the human experience and the natural world.

What’s The Specialty Of These Turtles?

These miniature turtles, typically not exceeding 5 cm in length, hold significant cultural symbolism, especially in traditional Chinese households, where they are revered as symbols of wealth and prosperity.

Local traditions often involve using these miniature turtles as offerings to invite good luck and abundance into the home. Referred to as Qian Gui in some research texts, their name likely originates from Dian-Qian-Gui in Southwest China.

The term Dian-Qian-Gui loosely translates to the “Golden Triangle,” an area abundant with gold deposits. Despite the lack of a definitive genetic model, researchers have traced the sedimentary origins of these turtles to the Triassic period.

The Triassic period marks the onset of the Mesozoic era, also known as the era of reptiles. It was during this period that a mass extinction event occurred, leading to the rise of dinosaurs in the subsequent geological period.

Remarkably, many turtle species managed to survive this extinction event due to their remarkable evolutionary adaptations. Not only did turtles survive the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of dinosaurs, but they also experienced an increase in diversity afterward.

This resilience and ability to thrive in changing environments have contributed to turtles being viewed as symbols of good luck and longevity in cultures around the world.

Turtles In Historical Warfare

Indeed, these examples underscore the profound influence of turtles and turtle-inspired designs across different cultures and historical contexts:

  1. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin and Turtle Ships: The use of “turtle ships” by Admiral Yi Sun-Shin demonstrates the ingenious adaptation of natural elements for military purposes. By mimicking the protective shell of a tortoise, these vessels provided a strategic advantage in naval warfare, exemplifying the creative utilization of nature’s design for defense.
  2. History of Submarines: The development of submarines, inspired by the American Turtle, highlights humanity’s quest to emulate the efficiency and maneuverability of marine creatures. While the initial attempt may have been unsuccessful, it laid the groundwork for subsequent innovations in underwater navigation, illustrating the enduring fascination with turtle-like characteristics in technological advancements.
  3. Warrior Turtle in Sumerian Myth: The myth of Ninurta and the attack turtle serves as a symbolic representation of cosmic balance and divine intervention. Through the allegory of the turtle’s role in restoring order, ancient societies conveyed moral lessons and philosophical concepts, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all existence.
  4. Turtle Shells as Shields: The use of turtle shells as shields by Kshatriya soldiers in Rajasthan reflects the integration of natural elements into military traditions and symbolism. Beyond their practical function, these shields embodied cultural identity and spiritual beliefs, reinforcing the warriors’ resolve and unity on the battlefield.
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Overall, these examples illustrate how turtles have transcended their biological significance to become enduring symbols of resilience, protection, and cultural heritage, leaving an indelible mark on human history and imagination.

Turtles In Hindu Mythology

Thank you for sharing these fascinating insights into the presence of turtles in Hindu mythology and their significance in Vastu Shastra. It’s remarkable to see how turtles are revered and incorporated into various aspects of Hindu culture, symbolizing traits like stability, longevity, fertility, and prosperity.

The parallels between the Hindu Vastu Tortoise figurines and the Chinese Feng Shui practice further highlight the universality of beliefs surrounding turtles as symbols of good fortune and positive energy in different cultures.

The inclusion of turtles in the Trimurti base and the avatar of Lord Vishnu as Kurma showcase the deep spiritual significance attributed to these creatures in Hindu mythology, reflecting their enduring importance in religious and philosophical contexts.

Overall, your exploration sheds light on the rich symbolism and cultural significance of turtles in Hindu tradition, underscoring their role as powerful symbols of protection and auspiciousness.

Do Only Black Turtles Bring Good Luck?

The color of turtles indeed holds significance in various cultural beliefs and symbolisms, influencing their perceived attributes and benefits:

  1. Black Tortoise: Black turtles symbolize power, prosperity, longevity, stability, and wisdom. They are often associated with guardianship and protection, guiding individuals safely through the passage to the afterlife. The darkening of their shells over time reflects years of experience and survivability, contributing to their symbolism of wisdom and power.
  2. Green Tortoise: Green tortoises represent freshness, regeneration, and vitality. Their soft green shells symbolize purity and enchantment, promoting mental focus and creativity, particularly beneficial when placed in children’s rooms.
  3. Red Tortoise: Red tortoises symbolize fame and reputation, often kept by wealthy families to enhance their status. The rarity of red-colored shells further emphasizes their symbolism of prestige and social standing.
  4. Blue Tortoise: Blue turtles symbolize peace, tranquility, and transparency. Placing blue turtles in the home helps strengthen familial bonds, calming nerves and promoting rational decision-making amidst conflicts or animosity.
  5. Yellow Tortoise: Yellow tortoises represent friendliness, happiness, and joyfulness. Their bright, sun-like color promotes harmonious relationships within families, warding off negative energy and stabilizing mental health for overall happiness and prosperity.

By understanding the symbolism associated with different colored tortoises, individuals can harness their respective benefits to create a harmonious and prosperous environment within their homes.

Turtles In Greek Culture

Turtles hold significant roles in various Greek myths and cultural aspects, as evidenced by the following examples:

  1. Sciron, The Robber: Sciron was an Isthmian outlaw who dwelled near the Sceironian Rocks. He deceived travelers by offering to help them wash their feet near a cliff. However, instead of assisting them, he would kick them off the cliff, where a massive sea turtle awaited to devour them. Sciron would then steal their belongings. Theseus eventually vanquished Sciron in a similar manner to his victims.
  2. The Lyre of Chelis: Hermes, the Greek god associated with music and creativity, crafted a lyre known as Chelis. According to myth, Hermes fashioned the lyre using a turtle shell. He removed the shell, added horns to the body, and constructed musical strings from the intestines of a sheep. The resulting instrument, named after the Greek word for tortoise, produced a bittersweet sound, symbolizing the blend of beauty and pain.
  3. The Coinage of Aegina: In the 6th century BC, the Greeks introduced a new form of currency known as Aegina. These coins, initially made of gold and silver, featured designs depicting sea turtles on their surfaces. Named after the island of Aegina in Southeast Greece, these coins became integral to trade and commerce in the region.

These myths and cultural representations demonstrate the significance of turtles in Greek folklore, showcasing their roles as symbols of deception, creativity, and economic prosperity.

Turtle Symbolism In Singaporean Culture

Turtle symbolism in Singaporean culture encompasses various aspects, including grave markers and auspicious charms:

  1. Turtles as Grave Markers: In Singaporean culture, turtles are utilized as grave markers to determine the north-south direction, which holds significance in Feng Shui practices based on Taoist philosophy. Black tortoise symbols are employed to indicate the north direction, while tortoise-snake symbols represent the alignment of burial sites along the north-south axis. It is believed that these symbols, particularly the black tortoises, serve to protect the deceased and ensure their peace in the afterlife.
  2. Dragon God Tortoise Charm: Like many Chinese households, Singaporean homes regard turtles as symbols of auspiciousness. The Dragon God Tortoise charm features the head of a dragon combined with the body of a tortoise. Placed near the main entrance of the house, this charm is believed to attract positive energy (Qi) and repel negative energies, safeguarding the inhabitants from misfortune. Additionally, the charm is associated with enhancing monetary wealth and virtues, making it a cherished item in the homes of local businessmen.

These instances highlight the multifaceted significance of turtle symbolism in Singaporean culture, encompassing beliefs related to spirituality, protection, and prosperity.

Turtles In Buddhist Philosophy

In Buddhism, turtles hold symbolic significance representing wisdom, humility, and the interconnectedness of humanity and nature. Here are some aspects of turtle symbolism in Buddhist culture:

  1. Stele Commemoration: Steles, or tablet turtle monuments, are used in Buddhist temples to commemorate the lives of monks and celebrate their accomplishments and teachings. As turtles are seen as symbols of wisdom, they serve as fitting vessels to carry on the legacies of these revered individuals. Visitors to temples can reflect on these monuments and find inspiration for inner peace and spiritual growth.
  2. Parable of the One-Eyed Turtle: This parable illustrates the rarity of being born as a human being and the preciousness of this opportunity. The story features a blind turtle living under the ocean, symbolizing the difficulty of achieving human rebirth. It teaches gratitude for the chance to follow the Buddha’s teachings and pursue enlightenment.
  3. Fortune-Telling Turtles: In ancient times, turtles were sometimes used for fortune-telling, though this practice was not considered reliable. One legend involves the tortoise shell of Yu, a figure in Chinese mythology who averted a flood crisis by using divinely inspired knowledge. The cracked shell of a turtle was said to resemble a map, guiding Yu to dig ditches to redirect floodwaters. This story reflects the belief in divine intervention and the interconnectedness between humanity and nature.
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Overall, turtles in Buddhist culture symbolize the profound wisdom and teachings passed down by spiritual leaders, as well as the importance of recognizing the rare opportunity for spiritual growth and enlightenment. They also represent the harmonious relationship between humanity and the natural world, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all living beings.

Turtles Through Ancient History: Positive Connotations

Turtles are depicted positively across cultures, symbolizing attributes such as longevity, patience, rarity, reincarnation, and creativity. Here’s a breakdown of these attributes and their cultural significance:

  1. Longevity: Turtles’ ability to live for hundreds of years symbolizes longevity in many cultures. They are associated with blessings for long life, and their images are used to wish for the health and well-being of loved ones, as seen in Taoist Feng Shui practices.
  2. Patience: The story of the hare and the tortoise exemplifies the virtue of patience. Turtles, known for their slow and steady pace, teach the lesson that persistence and perseverance lead to success, regardless of one’s natural abilities or talents.
  3. Rarity: Turtles are considered rare and auspicious creatures due to their longevity and unique characteristics. Spotting an old turtle is seen as a sign of good luck, and caring for a turtle is believed to bring fortune and wisdom.
  4. Reincarnation: In Hindu mythology, turtles symbolize reincarnation, particularly through the avatar of Lord Vishnu known as Kacchapa. Lord Vishnu, in the form of a turtle, carries the weight of the universe, representing strength, wisdom, and protection.
  5. Creativity: Turtles are associated with creativity, particularly in Tibetan culture. Keeping turtles around the house is believed to enhance creative thinking, inspired by characters like Master Oogway from “Kung Fu Panda,” who embodies wisdom and creativity.

These diverse attributes highlight the deep cultural significance and positive symbolism of turtles across various mythologies and traditions, reflecting their revered status in human societies worldwide.

Turtles In Christianity: Derogatory Symbolism

In some cultures, derogatory attributes are associated with turtles, contrary to the positive symbolism found in many other traditions. Here’s an overview of these derogatory associations:

  1. Laziness: Turtles’ slow nature is often used metaphorically to symbolize laziness or slowness. Expressions like “turtlehead” or “turtlemouth” may be used to describe someone who is perceived as slow or lacking in intelligence. The story of the hare and the tortoise is sometimes invoked to emphasize the consequences of being slow or inactive.
  2. Lust: In certain Christian myths, turtles have been depicted as symbols of lust. Stories suggesting interspecies mating between female turtles and snakes are viewed as abominable and impure. Despite turtles being associated with fertility in many cultures, in some contexts, they are believed to incite undesirable desires, particularly in husbands towards their wives.

These derogatory associations highlight the complexity of cultural interpretations of animals and symbols, where diverse beliefs and values can lead to contrasting perceptions of the same creature.

Creation Of Iroquois: The World On The Turtle’s Back

The story of the Iroquois tribe’s creation myth is indeed captivating and reflects the universal human curiosity about the origins of the world and humanity. Here’s a summary of the myth and its significance:

According to the Iroquois people, the world initially consisted of ocean and air, inhabited only by aquatic animals and birds. Above this expanse, there was a floating island where the Sky People resided. Central to this island was a forbidden tree, representing the center of the universe.

When a Sky Woman became pregnant and experienced strong cravings for bark from the forbidden tree, her husband, the Great Spirit, disobeyed the prohibition and inadvertently created a hole through the island, revealing the ocean below. Fearing divine retribution, the husband threw his wife down the hole to avoid punishment.

However, the animals of the world intervened to save the Sky Woman from drowning. A giant sea turtle offered its back as a refuge, allowing her to survive. With the assistance of the animals, the Sky Woman planted the roots of the divine tree on the turtle’s back, transforming it into the world as we know it.

This myth illustrates themes of creation, resilience, and cooperation. The turtle’s role in supporting the Sky Woman symbolizes protection, stability, and the interconnectedness of all living beings. The story underscores the importance of harmony between humanity and nature, as well as the resilience and adaptability necessary for survival.

Indeed, myths such as these contribute to the symbolism of turtles as embodiments of longevity, power, and prosperity in various cultures. They serve as reminders of the profound impact of storytelling on shaping our understanding of the world and our place within it. And while the idea of living on the back of a giant turtle may be fantastical, it reflects the enduring allure of mythology and the mysteries of existence.

Significance Of Marine Turtles In Caribbean Culture: Story Of The Wayuu People

The cultural significance of turtles extends beyond Asian cultures and finds resonance in indigenous tribes such as the Wayuu people of northern South America. Here’s an exploration of their connection to marine turtles and the symbolic meanings attributed to them:

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1. Apaalanchis: The Wayuu Fishers

The Wayuu people, particularly the fishers known as Apaalanchis, have a deep cultural relationship with marine turtles. For them, turtles symbolize life, regeneration, equilibrium, and harmony with nature. Similar beliefs about marine turtles are also found among aboriginal tribes in West Africa.

2. Dream Interpretation: Marine Turtle’s Blessing

In Wayuu culture, dreaming of marine turtles is interpreted as a message from God about the future. They primarily worship Maleiwa for protection from the challenges of the ocean. Dreams of marine turtles are seen as warnings to be vigilant and protect oneself.

3. Journey to the Afterlife with Marine Turtles

According to Wayuu beliefs, marine turtles accompany individuals to the afterlife realm called Jepirá. They are believed to assist the deceased in their transition and bless them for reincarnation, symbolizing a return to nature.

4. Reaching Adulthood with Marine Turtles

The Wayuu have traditions for reaching adulthood influenced by marine turtles. Young males must harvest a turtle to prove their worth as fishers, while females perform rituals involving moon water collected from the carapace of a turtle, believed to grant fertility and vigor.

5. Medicinal Benefits of Marine Turtles

The Wayuu attribute medicinal properties to various parts of marine turtles, using them to treat ailments such as asthma, diabetes, and heart diseases. They believe that turtles have spiritual healing effects, similar to the Feng Shui practice in China.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, marine turtles hold significant cultural and medicinal value for the Wayuu people, serving as symbols of protection, health, and spiritual connection with nature.

Turtles In Medicine: Now & Then

Turtles have held significant value in ancient and modern medicinal practices across various cultures. Here are some instances of their use in medicine:

1. Enchanted Amulets in China:
In ancient China, priests used a purification ritual called Pyromancy, involving fire, to cleanse turtle bones and shells. These purified materials were then crafted into enchanted amulets believed to possess divine properties, protecting the wearer from evil and offering insights into their future. Additionally, turtle-shaped amulets containing newborn umbilical cords were worn by female tribe members among Canadian indigenous tribes to protect their sons and brothers and promote healing.

2. Turtles in Egyptian Medicine:
References to turtle-based medicines can be found in the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text. Turtles were utilized for treating various ailments such as hair fall, skin diseases, itchiness, and providing ultraviolet protection. Some even believed that turtle brains had nutritional benefits and could treat squinting issues in the elderly.

3. Turtles in Western Medicine:
While modern medicine does not advocate the use of turtles as herbal medicines, there is acknowledgment of their role in spiritual healing. Dr. Jollie-Trottier, a Native American clinical psychologist, introduced the concept of Turtle Medicine, which integrates the health benefits of spiritual and cultural beliefs. This approach aims to aid patients in recovering from post-traumatic stress and anxiety by tapping into traditional healing practices.

Overall, turtles have been revered for their perceived medicinal properties and spiritual significance, contributing to various healing practices throughout history and across cultures.

Can The Past Of Turtles Protect Their Future?

The rich mythology and cultural significance surrounding turtles indeed highlight their importance in human history, but the realities of the present pose significant challenges to their survival. Can the lessons from their mythological past protect their future? Here’s an analysis:

1. Invasion of Species:
The invasion of non-native turtle species poses a serious threat to native populations and ecosystems. The introduction of foreign turtles can disrupt local habitats and food sources, leading to declines in native species’ populations. Conservation efforts must focus on controlling the spread of invasive species and protecting the natural habitats of native turtles. Public awareness campaigns can also educate people about the importance of preserving native biodiversity.

2. Natural Hindrances:
Climate change presents a significant challenge to turtle populations, affecting their nesting habits and sex ratios. Rising temperatures can skew the gender balance of turtle populations, leading to imbalances in reproduction. To mitigate the effects of climate change, conservation efforts must focus on preserving critical nesting habitats, implementing temperature monitoring programs, and supporting breeding programs to maintain genetic diversity.

While turtles have demonstrated resilience over millions of years, their survival in the face of contemporary challenges requires concerted conservation efforts. By integrating scientific research with cultural reverence for turtles, societies can work towards ensuring the preservation of these ancient and iconic creatures for future generations.


Your article provides a fascinating exploration of the rich tapestry of turtle mythology across different cultures, highlighting both the diversity and the common threads that run through these ancient tales. It’s clear that turtles hold a special place in human imagination and cultural heritage, transcending geographical and historical boundaries.

As for my own cultural background, while I don’t have personal anecdotes to share, I’ve encountered similar themes of longevity, wisdom, and protection associated with turtles in various myths and folklore. It’s remarkable how these beliefs persist across different civilizations, showcasing the enduring significance of turtles in human consciousness.

Thank you for this insightful journey through turtle mythology, and for emphasizing the importance of caring for these remarkable creatures in the modern world.

Soumik SarkarS

Soumik Sarkar

I am an animal lover from India. It's a trusted website for animal lover.

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