Origin & History Of Turtles: Ancient Myth To Modern Science

Origin & History Of Turtles

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From myth to medicine to theatres – turtles sure have made their way into all the significant scientific & cultural sectors. Back in school, I got to know how the myth of the black tortoise shaped the entire Chinese culture. I fell in love with the symbolism of turtles once again in college life after watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the theatres.

Recently, I had the opportunity to read up on a thesis on the cultural symbols of turtles in different countries. It made me want to compile all the tidbits from different cultures to get a full understanding of the origin & history of turtles in ancient myth & modern science.

Turtles are a sign of auspiciousness, purity, stability, and longevity in most cultures despite the factual diversification. Many of the turtle symbolisms have even helped to shape the benefits of spiritual recovery in the modern world.

In this article, I’ll attempt to inform you about a bunch of turtle myths from around the world. Fair warning – if you think of myths as plain superstitions, this article might just take your mind for a 180-degree spin.

Fictional Turtles From Around The World

From Aesop’s fables to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, fictional turtles are everywhere to teach us various lessons. Take a look at some of the most famous fictional turtles from around the world –

1. Black Tortoise

The black tortoise is an euphemism for the black warrior of the four Chinese constellations. The black warrior is associated with the direction north and its season is winter.

The black tortoise and the snake that wraps around it also represent the dual elements – earth and water. In Taoism, the black tortoise protects the north and watches over the people.

After death, the black tortoise helps the soul of the deceased to reach the afterlife safely without getting corrupted. The black warrior, in combination with the snake general, also watches over the universe, i.e. the heaven and the earth.

2. World Turtle

Have you heard of the term ‘Turtles All The Way Down?” Well, it’s a metaphor for the pre-existing balance of the earth.

The expression refers to the infinite regression of turtles to support the world as we know it. As in, the world rests on top of a turtle which further rests on top of a larger turtle.

And this continues to go on endlessly. Hence, any disturbance can’t harm the balance of the world or the sky. Since there are only turtles all the way down.

3. Shetyw Turtle

The Shetyw turtle is a part of Egyptian mythology. These Shetyw turtles are often referred to the freshwater turtles of the Nile. And a pair of Shetyw turtles would represent the ebb and flow of the ever-so-prosperous Nile of Egypt.

4. Akupara

Akupara is the cosmic turtle in Hindu mythology. Like the myth of the world turtle, Akupara upholds the earth and sea on his back and protects all the living beings in the world.

5. Qian Gui – Golden Coin Turtles/Tortoises

Fun fact, Golden coin turtles aren’t necessarily fictional. In Chinese culture predominantly, miniature turtles or tortoises are referred to as golden coin turtles or tortoises.

What’s The Specialty Of These Turtles?

Well, they don’t normally exceed 5 cm in length. These miniature turtles are often used as a symbol of wealth and prosperity in traditional Chinese households.

The locals use these turtles as offerings to invite more good luck & wealth into the home. These miniature turtles are also known as Qian Gui in some of the research texts. This name likely originates from Dian-Qian-Gui in Southwest China.

Roughly translated, Dian-Qian-Gui refers to the ‘Golden Triangle’ as this area contains a vast number of gold deposits. Despite the lack of a sound genetic model, investigators can trace the sedimentary origin to the Triassic period.

The Triassic period is the shortest and also the first period of the Mesozoic era i.e. the era of reptiles. At the end of this period, a mass extinction of organisms led to the rise of dinosaurs in the next geological period.

However, many of the turtle species’ managed to survive this mass extinction due to their extreme evolutionary traits. Turtles also eventually went on to survive the asteroid hit, which wiped out all of the dinosaurs on Earth.

Diabolically enough, they didn’t just survive but started to have an increase in diversity after the extinction of dinosaurs. No wonder they’re considered symbols of good luck and longevity in most cultures throughout the world.

Turtles In Historical Warfare

Can you imagine someone riding in on a turtle to the war? While that might not have been the case directly, turtles have helped to shape the outcome of many historical victories.

Admiral Yi Sun-Shin
Admiral Yi Sun-Shin

1. The Legend Of Yi Sun-Shin

Yi Sun-Shin is one of the most famous Korean naval generals of all time. He’s known for attacking and ambushing enemies with his unique vessels to secure essential victories.

He rode in on ‘turtle ships’ – a marine vessel that looked like the shell of a tortoise to the war zones. These vessels were unique in the sense that they protected the general firmly from sudden attacks while providing vision and stability.

Due to the sturdy nature of these warships, it was harder to track down the general or snipe him in a battle. While the enemies were busy figuring out the complex nature of the turtle ships, Yi Sun-Shin, with the help of his advanced cannons and military power, swept away the enemies.

2. History Of Submarines

The first demo of a submarine was the American Turtle. The design reflected the construction and mobility of a sea turtle.

Although the submarine was supposed to run a covert mission to attach landmines to the British fleet, the operation was eventually unsuccessful due to a lack of foresight.

However, the design was later perfected and ultimately became an inspiration for the modern submarines of today.

ancient warrior turtle symbols
I have generated these ancient warrior turtle symbols using AI

3. Warrior Turtle: The Myth Of Ninurta

This is a Sumerian myth where turtles once again decide the fate of the universe and everything within.

In ancient Mesopotamia, Ninurta came into possession of a special fate-controlling tablet after defeating the Anzud Bird. However, the power drives him mad and he seeks to have control over the entire world with the help of the tablet.

So, Enki, the god of wisdom, comes up with a plan to retrieve the tablet from Ninurta. Enki constructs an enormous attack turtle from clay to punish Ninurta for his wrongdoings.

The turtle goes on to gnaw at Ninurta’s feet to immobilize him. And for the final blow, the attack turtle digs a deep pit and takes Ninurta down the massive hole.

Enki then retrieves the magic tablet and restores the balance in heaven and earth due to the sacrifice of the warrior turtle.

4. Shells Or Shields?

While the sturdy carapace shields the squishy organs of a turtle, is it sturdy enough for human battles?

Well, the short answer is, no. However, there are instances of turtle shields in human warfare. In Rajasthan, the carapace of massive turtles was decorated and used by the Kshatriya soldiers to fight alongside the artillery.

The inscriptions and the designs often depicted the traditional values of the warriors to boost their morale in the war zones. For instance – in this specific shield, the crescent moon design is a nod to the God of change and destruction, Shiva.

Miniature of roman empire' soldiers in turtle formation
Miniature of roman empire’ soldiers in turtle formation

Turtles In Hindu Mythology

Turtles are dominantly prevalent in Hindu mythology as well. Here are a few instances of turtles in Hindu mythology that you probably didn’t know of –

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1. Base Of Trimurti

If you look at the statue of a Trimurti closely, you’ll find that the base has a turtle at the bottom. This further alludes to the ideological beliefs about the longevity and strength of turtles.

According to the myths, the turtle helps to stabilize the base both due to mechanical prowess and spiritual healing. The turtle helps to repel the evil spirits from everything.

Hence, the Trimurti can transform the rest with purity and resilience with the help of the holy turtle.

2. Kurma: Reincarnation Of Lord Vishnu

Lord Vishnu has many avatars including a turtle avatar known as ‘Kurma’. It’s his second avatar after Matsya or fish.

Kurma is the symbol of stability, resilience, and firmness. It’s said that in the legend of Samudra Manthana, Lord Vishnu takes the form of a turtle to restore Mount Mandara with the help of Vasuki i.e. the snake draped around Shiva’s neck.

This instance coincides with the legend of the Black Tortoise, where the tortoise is found floating intertwined with a snake.

Hindu statue of Vishnu riding Garuda and a glorious turtle
Hindu statue of Vishnu riding Garuda and a glorious turtle

3. The Vastu Tortoise

The Chinese aren’t the only people who keep turtle figurines around the house for good luck. The Hindus have a similar philosophy known as the Vastu Tortoise figurines.

In Chinese culture, this is known as the Feng Shui practice.

Here’s a brief overview of some of the common types of Vastu tortoises for homes and the benefits of keeping them –

No.Vastu Tortoise TypeBenefits & SymbolismHousehold Placement
1.Wood TortoisePeace, simplicity, absorbs negative energyEast/southeast direction
2.Metal TortoiseRigidity, power, helps to increase immunityRooms with innocence & purity
3.Female TortoiseFertility, prosperity, increases love and endearment in the familyIn living rooms or dining rooms
4.Male TortoiseLongevity, enhances strength and durabilityIn front entrance or praying rooms
5.Gold/Silver TortoiseProsperity, stability, steady increase in wealth & powerIn front entrance or living rooms
6.Clay TortoiseFragility of life, regeneration, systematic equilibrium in the familyTowards the east of the house with open spaces
7.Crystal TortoiseAdaptability, and survivability, strengthen the family bondSouthwest or northwest direction
8.Glass TortoiseTransparency, purityLiving rooms or rooms with water decorations
9.Colored TortoiseHappiness, liveliness, constant motion of life, begets spiritual healingIn the children’s room or playing grounds

The Vastu Shastra is full of unique rules and regulations. For instance – there’s a right time and way to place these tortoises. Not following these regulations can invite bad luck into the house. Hence, it’s best to follow up with a Pundit for the proper info before placing Vastu tortoises.

Do Only Black Turtles Bring Good Luck?

No, bringing good luck isn’t limited to black turtles only. In fact, turtles of various colors can have different symbolisms depending on placement and historical significance.

Let’s find out how the color affects the significance of these turtles –

1. Black Tortoise

The black tortoise is one of the primordial creatures alongside the vermillion phoenix, white tiger, and the azure dragon. Hence, black turtles are found in most of the myths.

They’re symbols of power, prosperity, longevity, rigidity, stability, adaptability, etc. throughout ancient cultures. They’re also considered fighters & guardians of the afterlife. After death, black turtles will protect you during the passage so you can reach the afterlife safely.

Here’s my take as to why black turtles are predominantly used as symbols of wisdom and power.

When a turtle or a tortoise lives for hundreds of years, the shells slowly start to lose their original color. Over time, the darkening of the shells gives them a shadowy appearance.

Hence, old and mature turtles have almost black-colored shells which represent years of experience and survivability. As such, the myths also utilize the example of black tortoises to symbolize power, wisdom, longevity, etc.

AI drew these different colored tortoises
AI drew these different colored tortoises

2. Green Tortoise

Green tortoises are the opposite of black tortoises in nature. The newborn turtles have a fresh and soft green shell. The baby green color is both enchanting and pure.

Therefore, the green tortoise symbolizes freshness, regeneration, vitality of life, etc. In the Vastu Shastra, green tortoises help to increase the mental focus of pure minds. Hence, by keeping green tortoises in the kid’s room, you can encourage them to be more creative and full of life.

3. Red Tortoise

Red tortoises represent fame and reputation. Wealthy Chinese families keep these around the house to promote their status. They’re also rare in nature which further explains the symbolism behind the red-colored shells.

4. Blue Tortoise

Blue turtles symbolize peace, tranquillity, transparency, etc. When the family goes through animosity, keeping blue turtles can help to strengthen the bond between the members.

It helps to calm the nerves of the inhabitants to prevent agitation. As such, the family members can make rational decisions in a relaxed manner and achieve the best outcomes.

5. Yellow Tortoise

Yellow is a universal color for friendliness, happiness, joyfulness, etc. Yellow turtles work the same way.

The bright sun-like color is designated to maintain harmonious relationships within family members. The yellow turtles keep the bad energy away so that everyone can stay happy and prosperous. It also stabilizes mental health.

So, as you can see, good luck doesn’t come from black turtles only. Colored tortoises also have multifarious benefits that eventually lead to the prosperity of the household.

Turtles In Greek Culture

From sculptures to pottery to ornaments, the Greeks sure do know how to appreciate turtles as a marketable design. Turtles have also appeared in many Greek myths, such as –

1. Sciron, The Robber

Sciron was an Isthmian outlaw and he lived on the Sceironian Rocks near a cliff. He pretended to help people wash their feet while passing by the cliff. And as soon as the travelers would kneel to wash their feet, Sciron would kick them.

A huge sea turtle would then devour these victims and Sciron would steal their leftover belongings. Sciron was later killed by Theseus in the same way as Sciron killed his victims.

2. The Lyre Of Chelis

Chelis was a lyre made by the Greek God Hermes. Compared to the other wholesome myths, this one’s pretty gruesome.

Hermes was a fan of artistic and entertaining stuff. He was also pretty creative to induce aestheticism to mundane life.

And the lyre of chelis is the product of one such whimsical moment. The story goes – Hermes once found a small turtle. He went to remove the shell and add horns to its body. Furthermore, he made musical strings from the intestines of a ship and added them to the body to make Chelis.

Hence, the lyre was named Chelis after the Greek word ‘Chelona’ i.e. the tortoise. It’s said that the lyre had a bittersweet sound as if the melody was masking the agony.

3. The Coinage Of Aegina

The Greeks brought forth a new form of currency in the 6th century BC named Aegina. They were named after the island of Aegina in Southeast Greece.

Initially, these coins were made of gold and silver and they had a sea turtle design on top of them. These coins soon became one of the most important trading currencies there.

Turtle Symbolism In Singaporean Culture

There are a few unique turtle symbolisms found in Singapore. Check out these two instances of turtle symbolism in Singaporean culture –

1. Turtles As Grave Markers

Direction is of utmost importance to those who practice Feng Shui per the ancient Taoist philosophy. Hence, turtles are used as grave markers to dictate the north-south direction.

Black tortoise symbols are used to direct the grave towards the north. Again, tortoise-snake symbols are used to signify the north-south direction of the burial sites.

The Singaporeans also believe that black tortoises protect the dead and watch over them in the afterlife. Hence, by placing the symbols, they try to ensure their loved ones are at peace.

2. Dragon God Tortoise Charm

Like most Chinese households, Singaporean households also consider turtles as a sign of auspiciousness.

The dragon god tortoise charm has the head of a dragon with the body of a tortoise. Traditionally, this charm invites Qi i.e. positive energy within the house. Alternatively, it repels off all the negative energies for a healthy and prosperous life.

The charm is usually placed in the front direction of the house near the main entrance. The Singaporeans believe that if anyone enters the house with malicious intent, the charm protects the inhabitants from misfortune.

The dragon head charm also aids in the increase of monetary wealth and virtues. As such, it’s not an uncommon sight in the house of local businessmen to treasure these charms.

Turtles In Buddhist Philosophy

In Buddhism, turtles are considered wise and humble creatures. As such, turtle statues and artworks can be found to this date in prominent temples and excavated palaces.

1. Stele: Commemoration & Celebration Of Life

Steles refer to tablet turtle monuments which symbolize the culmination of a monk’s life. With this stele, Buddhist temples commemorate the life of a monk and celebrate the achievements and the philosophies they left behind.

As the Buddhists religiously consider turtles as a sign of wisdom, they’re the perfect vessels to carry on the legacies and memories of the deceased monks.

The monks are like turtles themselves, achieving the highest form of purity and peace, to access divine wisdom. So, it’s only befitting that their stories are told in a similar manner.

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Visitors can read these monuments and find new hope about life in this world and life thereafter. The stories help with inner reflection so that one can be at peace with their soul.

2. Parable Of The One-Eyed Turtle

The myth of the blind turtle or the one-eyed turtle is one of the core myths of Buddhist philosophy. It’s the myth of how rare it is to take birth as a human being in this world.

The parable goes something like this – a blind turtle (or a one-eyed turtle according to other sources) with an infinite lifespan lives under the ocean. There’s a hollow sandalwood log floating on the ocean surface.

Once every 100 years, the turtle swims up to the surface to find its way into the hollow sandalwood log. But as he’s blind, it’s hard for him to locate the log amidst the storms and tsunamis of the violent ocean.

The teaching of this parable is that – it’s rarer to be born as a human being in this world than it is for the blind turtle to find the hollow sandalwood log in the ocean.

Hence, the Buddhists teach the converts how lucky they are to be one of the few chosen ones. Finding one’s way to the Buddha’s way of life and teaching is no less than a miracle.

3. Fortune-Telling Turtles

In earlier times, turtles were also used for fortune-telling but it was never as reliable. They were simply used to explain and interpret the divine interventions to the common people.

For instance – in the legend of Yu, the flood crisis of the Yellow River was finally averted by digging ditches to redirect the water to fertile lands.

Myths suggest that Yu figured out how and where to dig the ditches by seeing the map on a turtle’s shell.

The old tortoise had so many cracks in its shell that it resembled the map of China. Hence, people consider the event to be a divine intervention from the Gods to protect the people from the disastrous floods.

The Buddhists believe that turtles represent the relationship between heaven and earth.

According to Taoism, they also refer to the symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature. We’re nothing without nature and nature is nothing without us.

But together, we represent the universe. Just like the shell keeps the soft turtle underneath comfortable and secure, nature protects and nurtures humanity so we can evolve.

Ancient Tree Hugger Turtle Totem
Ancient Tree Hugger Turtle Totem

Turtles Through Ancient History: Positive Connotations

Most cultures represent turtles in a good light. As they invite good energy inside the house and repel the negative ones, they are mostly associated with pleasant virtues such as auspiciousness, protection, strength, etc.

Here are a few more depictions of turtle attributes throughout the world and the reasoning behind the connotations –

1. Longevity

Turtles can live for hundreds of years, even in the wild. As they can survive in both land and water, they can survive rough weather and living conditions for a long time.

Due to their long lifespan and survivability, they symbolize longevity in many cultures. For instance – if there’s a sick patient inside the house, Taoist followers often seek the help of Feng Shui turtles to bless the patient with longevity.

2. Patience

Who doesn’t know about the story of the hare and the tortoise? Patience and consistency is the key to victory – that’s the moral of this infamous Aesop’s fable.

Even though the hare is speedy and athletic, his pride makes him underestimate his opponent. He falls off the wagon and ends up falling asleep right before reaching the finish line.

The tortoise, on the other hand, despite being slow, reserves his energy and doesn’t give up midway.

Soon enough, due to his patience and consistency, he passes the sleeping hare and wins the race.

So, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t athletic or gifted. As long as you’re working hard to achieve something, you’ll eventually reach your goal on your own merits.

Teenage mutant ninja turtles figures in the park Muzeon in Moscow
Teenage mutant ninja turtles figures in the park Muzeon in Moscow

3. Rarity

In correlation to the one-eyed turtle mythology found in Buddhism, turtles are also a symbol of rarity. As they’re one of the very few species to this day to live for hundreds of years in the wild, spotting an old turtle is a sign of good luck.

While the myth talks about the birth rarity and abnormalities, the teaching transcends to materialistic beliefs as well.

For instance – keeping and taking care of a turtle can increase your chances of good fortune. Similarly, it can decrease your chances of misfortune. Again, it can help sharpen your mind to gain wit and wisdom, so that you can develop rare and unique perspectives on mundane stuff.

4. Reincarnation

The idea of reincarnation is found mostly in the Hindu myths. In Hindu mythology, the turtle became the symbol of reincarnation due to lord Vishnu.

Lord Vishnu is one of the principal triple deities in Hinduism, alongside Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva. Lord Vishnu is also known as the Preserver i.e. who’s in charge of creating, transforming, and protecting the universe.

In one of the myths, Lord Vishnu is reincarnated as Kacchapa (Hindu for turtle) to bear the weight of the world. Of all the animals, the turtle was believed to be sturdy enough to carry the weight of the entire universe.

Additionally, turtles, due to their longevity, were considered knowledgeable and wise. Hence, it was the perfect reincarnated form of Lord Vishnu to take care of his people.

5. Creativity

The turtle is a massive symbol of creativity in old Tibet.

In fact, the Feng Shui practice suggests that keeping bright and young turtles around the house can help boost the creative thinking capabilities of the kids.

This notion likely originates from the multifarious instances of turtles being wise creatures in myths and movies.

For example – Master Oogway is the creator of Kung Fu in the movie Kung Fu Panda. Throughout the movie, he offers multiple wise and creative solutions to his disciples.

Turtles In Christianity: Derogatory Symbolism

Some provinces of China and some Christian myths have derogatory expressions and symbols for turtles. While most of the world associate virtues like fertility, prosperity, power, etc. with turtles, some cultures include negative symbolism.

Here’s a brief overview of a few derogatory attributes associated with turtles –

1. Laziness

Turtles are slow in nature and that’s a fact. Hence, despite having a hard shell, they can’t quite run away from a fight. And once they’re captured, it’s easy to overpower them.

As such, many tribes associate laziness and flatulence with turtles to encourage people to be more active and healthy. Even in the story of the hare and the tortoise, the tortoise never would have succeeded if the hare was equally active.

So, with expressions like ‘turtlehead’ or ‘turtlemouth’, people refer to others as lazy or slow. If someone is slow to understand something or can’t keep up, they’re compared to a turtle i.e. they’re considered empty in the head.

2. Lust

Turtles have been used as a symbol of lust in the Christian community in some cases. Some myths suggest that the female turtles used to mate with snakes. This interspecies procreation was considered filthy and abominable.

Again, turtles are a symbol of fertility in many regions. Hence, many housewives would keep turtles around the house for divine intervention. People believed that it would increase lust and desire in the husbands for their wives.

World turtle carrying the elephants that carries the earth upon their backs
World turtle carrying the elephants that carries the earth upon their backs

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

It’s hard to keep track of so many myths around the world. However, this one became one of my favorites as soon as I came across the story. It’s the story of the Iroquois tribe and how the world was created and why.

The Iroquois tribe existed around 4000 years ago and their inhabited regions are now known as Ontario & New York. Like most other cultures and regions, they too, wondered about how they came into existence.

See, the Iroquois people believed the world was simply composed of ocean and air. There were no human beings on earth, only aquatic animals and birds.

Above the vast ocean, there was a floating island, and ‘Sky People’ lived there. The island contained a big tree in the middle and this was the centre of the universe. As such, the Sky People were forbidden from interacting with this tree.

One day, a Sky Woman got pregnant and she started to have strong pregnancy cravings. She wanted some bark from the forbidden tree no matter the cost.

At her behest, her husband, the Great Spirit went to get some bark from the divine tree. However, he accidentally dug a hole through the island and the hole revealed the vast ocean.

The husband was afraid of the repercussions and so he brought his pregnant wife to the tree. Afterward, he threw her down the hole to avoid God’s wrath.

After the Sky Woman fell into the ocean, the animals of the world helped her to avoid death. It was a giant sea turtle that kept her on his back so that she wouldn’t drown.

Eventually, the other animals helped the Sky Woman with soil so that she could plant the roots of the divine tree on the turtle’s back. Afterward, the back of the giant turtle became the world as we know it now. And surrounding us is the vast ocean that almost drowned the Sky Woman.

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Myths such as these are why turtles became the symbols of longevity, power, and prosperity. In the majority of the myths, turtles have always helped to avoid great disasters. Furthermore, they’ve helped shape today’s world enormously.

And finding out about all of these concurring stories makes one wonder – are we actually living on the back of a giant turtle? How amazing would that be?

Ocean turtle on an isolated black background. Vector illustration EPS 8.
Ocean turtle on an isolated black background

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

Turtle symbolism and folkloric connections aren’t limited to Asian cultures only. To this day, multiple indigenous tribes in and around the Caribbean Sea protect different ancient cultures and practice harmonious relationships with nature to preserve these once-celestial reptiles.

Apaalanchi: The Wayuu Fishers

The Wayuu are one of the populous indigenous tribes and they inhabit the northernmost portion of South America. Their ancestral habitat faces the Caribbean Sea and they have a long-standing cultural relationship with marine turtles.

The Wayuu people have two primary professions – shepherd and fishers. And the Wayuu fishers are termed Apaalanchis.

For Apaalanchis, the ocean and the oceanic inhabitants are their livelihoods. They’re as passionate about the ocean animals as the shepherds are about the domestic animals.

Among these aquatic creatures, marine turtles are one of the most important ones in the lives of these indigenous people. The marine turtles are a symbol of life, regeneration, equilibrium, and harmony in these cultures.

In addition to the Fisher Wayuu people, similar ideological beliefs about marine turtles are found in the aboriginal tribes of West Africa as well.

1. Interpreting Dreams: Marine Turtle’s Blessing

In the Wayuu culture, if you dream of marine turtles, it means God is trying to send you a message about the future. The Wayuu people primarily worship Maleiwa to protect them from the adversities of the raging ocean.

So, dreams of marine turtles can come as a sign of the impending oceanic disasters. The Apaalanchis also believe that these dreams serve as a warning to protect you.

2. Journey To The Afterlife With Marine Turtles

Remember the myth of the black tortoise being the gatekeeper of death? Well, the Apaalanchis have a similar ideology too.

In their culture, in the afterlife, they have Jepirá, like how we have heaven and hell. The Apaalanchis believe that after death, marine turtles will accompany them to Jepirá.

The culture is also influenced by the idea of reincarnation. For instance – after the turtles leave you in Jepirá, you’ll meet mythical spirits known as Yolujas. Here, they’ll bless you to return to the earth as rain so you can be one with nature.

Hence, turtle meat is served in the Wayuu funerals, as they believe it’ll make the deceased’s journey easier. Alternatively, some believe that it helps to erase some of their sins, so that they can have a more peaceful transition into the afterlife.

3. Reaching Adulthood With Marine Turtles

Most aboriginal cultures harbour a natural tradition to commemorate the adulthood of a tribe member. And the Wayuu people aren’t any different.

Except in this case, their tradition of reaching adulthood is influenced by marine turtles as well. This goes to show how deeply the symbolism of turtles affects the Wayuu culture.

The tradition goes differently for male and female Apaalanchis. The male younglings must harvest a turtle before their family/community to prove his worth as a fisher.

As for the female Apaalanchis, they’ve got to prepare moon water first. To prepare moon water, the water must drip from the carapace of a marine turtle and sit under the moonlight for an entire night. Afterward, the female Apaalanchis have to shower in this moon water to complete the tradition.

The Wayuu people believe that marine turtles grant fertility to the female and longevity and power to the male members. That’s why, marine turtles are such a significant part of their journey towards adulthood and vigor.

4. Preserving Health: Medicinal Benefits Of Marine Turtles

According to an article published in SWOT, the Wayuu people consider 11 different parts of marine turtles to have medicinal properties. They also have seven different ways of administering the medicines to the injured tribe members.

As the Wayuu people believe that sea turtles are auspicious, they have spiritual healing effects as well in their culture. Staying near marine turtles can keep the bad energy away and restore mental peace and comfort.

This ideology is pretty similar to the Feng Shui practice in China where turtle statues are kept in the house for security.

Apart from spiritual healing, the Wayuu Apaalanchis believe that turtles can help with the following diseases –

  • Asthma
  • Rheumatic fever
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney and heart diseases, etc.

While it’s hard to find solid scientific grounds behind these medicinal beliefs, turtles are considered as a great cure for indomitable diseases in the Wayuu society.

Turtles In Medicine: Now & Then

Since ancient times, turtle flesh and bones have had great medicinal value. In some places, it was considered a sin to kill turtles. Again, in some places, people believed consuming turtles would grant you longevity and power.

Here are a few instances of turtles in ancient medicine and in medicinal practices nowadays –

1. Creating Enchanted Amulets

In the 4th millennium B.C. in China, priests came up with the procedure termed ‘Pyromancy’ as a cleansing ritual. This procedure further gained popularity in the Shang dynasty.

Pyromancy, as the name suggests, involved cleansing i.e. purification via fire. And turtle bones and shells were purified via this procedure to make enchanted amulets.

In addition to amulets, priests made oracle bones out of turtles for divination purposes. These amulets and bones were considered to have divine properties to repel the evil.

Again, the status of the enchanted items could tell you about your future. Keeping these items would keep you safe too.

Credit: Comune di Genova.

This is a special amulet design found in the tribes of the plain-residing Indians in Canada. These turtle-shaped amulets contained the umbilical cord of the newborn mothers.

It was worn by the mothers or the female members of the tribe to protect their sons or brothers. It also would grant healing energy to the recovering mothers after pregnancy.

2. Turtles In Egyptian Medicine

Multiple citations of turtle medicines can be found in the Ebers Papyrus which records the herbal literature of the Egyptian New Kingdom. The turtle carapace, flesh, etc. were utilized to treat the following diseases –

  • Hair fall
  • Hair removal
  • Skin diseases
  • Ultraviolet protection
  • Itchiness, etc.

Again, some believed that the turtle brains were nutritious enough to cure squinting issues in the elderly.

3. Turtles In Western Medicine

Although modern medicine refutes the idea of turtles being harvested as herbal medicines, some studies consider them an integral part of the spiritual healing of a patient.

For instance – Dr. Jollie-Trottier, a Native-American clinical psychologist, came up with the concept of Turtle Medicine. This medicinal concept is a culmination of the health benefits of spiritual and cultural beliefs. And it’s designed to help a patient recover from post-traumatic stress and anxiety.

Can The Past Of Turtles Protect Their Future?

While the glorious past of turtles often reminds us of their powerful mythological stance, the reality of it is different. The once-worshipped species are nowadays used/abused mostly for food, medicine, ornaments, etc.

So, can the past of turtles protect their future? Can mythological ideologies have real-life application?

1. Invasion Of Species

Due to the widespread popularity of turtles, people are more enthusiastic nowadays about varied breeds and designs. Hence, there’s an ongoing invasion of species regarding the ownership of natural habitats and food sources.

For instance – Japan currently faces a serious decline in the popularity and survivability of the native turtle species.

Even industrially, the dull earth-toned turtles are getting replaced by the imported bright red-eared slider turtles. These foreign species are competing with the native ones for natural habitats thus, resulting in an unhealthy invasion.

2. Natural Hindrances

As turtles are ectotherms, temperature is one of the fundamental environmental conditions for their survival. Here’s another fun fact – like chickens, temperature determines the gender of a turtle embryo as well.

For instance – if the temperature is below 27.7° celsius, you’ll have male hatchlings. Alternatively, keeping the eggs above 31.1° Celsius will give you female turtles.

Hence, with the increasing global warming, turtles are at risk of producing more female hatchlings than male. They’re losing their natural habitats rapidly and the rate of mating is decreasing profoundly as well due to the lack of partners.

So, the question is – can a species that survived multiple mass extinctions survive the upcoming climate changes? Will global warming cause turtles to wither away in the future?

Turtles have existed for millions of years and they’ve colonized every continent except the Arctic and Antarctic. And they’re not going away anytime soon. But scientists fear that we might face the extinction of some rare species in the future without proper preservation tactics.

Before You Go…

Whether in movies or real life, turtles sure do have a way of making us smile with their crazy antics and adorableness. And if you go over the myths of turtles in different cultures, you’ll find out about their historical significance as well.

In this article, I tried to present a concise overview of the origin and history of turtles in some of the most prominent cultures around the world. Hopefully, from ancient myth to modern science, I managed to cover it all.

It’s important to remember that traditions change over time and so do the mythical interpretations. But despite the diversification, depending on the origin, the turtle myths overlap in many different cultures.

So, did you find any stories in here resembling any of the myths in your culture? If so, don’t forget to share with us! And if you’ve got a pet turtle yourself, stay with The Turtle Hub to take the best care for the once-celestial reptiles.

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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