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The World Turtle is also well known as a Cosmic Turtle, or World-bearing Turtle, or the Divine Turtle. What is it? It is a mytheme of a giant tortoise that is supporting or containing the world. This mytheme is quite similar to the ones about the World Elephant and World Serpent, which occurs in Hindu mythology, Chinese mythology and the mythologies of the indigenous people of America. World bearing ones are presented by Native American, Indian and Chinese creation myths, as well as other animals such as snakes and elephants.
The Chinese version is not quite a match for the meme since it is the dismembered legs of a turtle that is holding up heaven.
It is probably not possible to pin down which culture originated our “the world on the turtle’s back” meme. The Native American version was attested to in 1678. Presumably Western awareness of the Indian version could date back even earlier since John Locke mentioned the Hindu belief in a 1690 essay and there was cultural contact between Europe and India much earlier.
In China, a piece of traditional mythology includes a turtle Ao, but the picture was a little bit different. According to the legend, one goddess decided to cut off the legs of that creature and use them while conquering the heaven, where another God lived. It’s not quite carrying the world on its back, but it still puts a terrapin at the center of the universe, making sure that the sky doesn’t fall. As it was said before, the concept of a world seems to have arisen independently within Native American myth and legend. In the creation stories of the Lenape and Iroquois people, the Earth is created as the soil is piled on the back of a great sea tortoise that continues to grow until it is carrying the entire world. Many indigenous tribes in North America refer to the continent as Turtle Island to this day. Overall, the picture of a giant, massive tortoise going somewhere in the world is unbelievable. It’s hard to realize and difficult to imagine why this creature survived through such a great variety of cultures, countries, and remains as a real thing. But, in the end, why turtles?
In a 1974 issue of the anthropological journal “Man,” the scholar Jay Miller provides some thoughts on what makes the tortoise such a popular world bearer, writing, he said that he viewed the animal as a logical choice for such a titanesque because its shape and appearance were suited to this role. But he goes on to write, specifically of the Lenape belief in a world tortoise, that the creature also mirrored aspects that they valued in their culture, such as perseverance and longevity. And that idea doesn’t apply to the cosmic creature in Lenape culture. He said that with intensive research, the above analysis should also apply to other societies that place the earth on the back of a turtle. Most tortoises are also famously long-lived, giving them a wise, ancient quality that lends itself to mythologizing.
The world on the Turtle’s Back is a myth which means that this story is a way to show basic meanings and impacts of a religious community. Myths of creation have a distinctive character that provides the model of a mythic expression in the culture and the model of other cultural myths. The world as a structure of meaning and value has not appeared to all human civilization.
This story is quite interesting. There was a place the Sky World, and there lived a man and his wife who were expecting for childbirth. And there was a tree in the center of the Sky World. Food from that tree was forbidden to eat, touch, look and even think. And can you guess what happens next? The wife, being pregnant, wanted roots from exactly that tree because somehow they were tasty. The man answered that they weren’t supposed to do that because it was forbidden. While wife stayed uncompromised saying that only that food is now needed for her and the baby. Husband went and started digging the tree roots when suddenly made a hole in the sky. He understood that he made it, but he swept it under the rug and ran away. After that wife yelled at him and said that their kid will be better without such a bad father, that he was supposed to be with them no matter what but here she was disappointed. When she stands up and look into the hole, she saw a sea; it was that much magnificent that she fell from the sky. Fortunately, birds caught her and riding on the turtle’s back carried her up back. She understood that she made wrong and promised to plant the root again. But the next problem occurred – where to find water to make the tree alive again? And here was the moment where the man told that he could do that, but accidentally died. But a myth is a myth, birds and other animals did something to him and turned back to life again. At the end of the story, we see a nice rejoin of the family.
The cosmic creature became the home for people, lands, and animals who ride on its back because the turtle is the only one who can swim in the ocean. The turtle symbolizes life and interconnection of all living creatures and gods. Turtles were commonly seen as animals in earlier times. When the woman put the dirt on the turtle’s back, when she fell and walked around it in the same way the sun goes around the earth, the dirt grows that much that water disappeared. When a man helped and turned the water back, there was enough of it to plant the roots, which the woman did. The tree grew again, and then she made a birth of her baby, her little girl. That was the story of how the world on the turtle’s back appeared.