The Turtle

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


"We call him Tortoise because he taught us", said the Mock Turtle angrily. "Really you are very dull!"

Lewis Carroll

 Out of the sea came the great green turtle. From another shore, swimming in broad flippered strokes, she moved over dark and noiseless depths into the current that would pass along the isle of Tiburon. Her enormous disc of a shell caught the moonlight spreading along the rotating surf and she paused. Head up, warily looking towards the arid beach, she waited for a time and let the vibration of the tide deliver its cryptic message to her scaly skin and carapace. Satisfied that she had arrived at the right spot, she cautiously approached the shore.

 There were people on that island with blown and ragged hair. Their high cheekbones spread beneath tilted eyes and their small, swift bodies endured the harshness of hot desert winds and nights of exposure on the small promontories overlooking the sea. When the time of the great turtles came, they concealed themselves and watched. They strained their eyes and felt the awe that men feel at the approach of mystery, at the anticipation of arcane presences. The great green turtle's laborious exit from the fiery surf would fill them with wonder, and even if they took her eggs after she had laid them, they would do so with trembling reverence and the women would decorate her barnacle-covered carapace with leaves and small flowers. They would gather around her and speak of their problems in life and tell her that they had sacrificed her for the sake of their generation. They would keep her bones as sacred relics and rejoice that the ancient creator had sent a representative in his original form.

 They would rejoice and feel deeply privileged, because the Seri Indians, like so many other people in the world, believed that the world was formed on the back of a colossal turtle who rose out of the abyssal depths of oceanic space. Heralded by a terrible turbulence followed by tidal waves and storms, this giant reptile emerged and the soil upon its mountainous shell became the growing ground of cacti, shrubs, animals and the Seri themselves. Tribal people of Central Asia have a similar tradition which includes a creative deity and his assistant, who saw a giant turtle diving in the abyss as they descended from heaven. Seating themselves upon its shell as it coursed downwards, they drew up earth which became the material of the world. Similar variants abound and often parallel myths depicting the fall of Spirit into matter, such as that of the Algonquian tribes which tells how Ataentsic was cast down from the Sky World and alighted upon a great turtle whose carapace began to grow until it became solid land. The Buriats of Central Asia say that in the beginning there was nothing but water and a great turtle looking into it, which places the burden of procreative desire upon the turtle itself. The Hindu myth possesses more layers of complexity in that the turtle as an avatar of Vishnu becomes a platform for Mount Mandara which is used as a churn to stir up the Sea of Milk. In this guise of Kurma, Vishnu becomes the pivot for the world-mountain and strives to recover the valued objects lost in the deluge.

 Tibetan and Chinese iconography depict this primordial turtle afloat on the great Ocean of Chaos, its four legs marking the cardinal points of creation, the elephantine pillars of the world. The rounded carapace imitates the heavenly arch which has become welded to the squared plastron of the earth. That this occurs at more than one level is sometimes illustrated by a series of turtles standing atop one another, an idea which is widespread in Asia. It is an idea which is apparently not uncommon in other parts of the world as well, a fact which struck the philosopher William James. After delivering a lecture on the solar system, the gifted thinker was approached by an elderly woman who told him his theories were all wrong. She claimed that instead of living on a ball rotating around the sun, we live on a crust of earth upheld by a giant turtle. Indulging her, the weary James asked what this turtle stood on, only to learn that it stood on the back of a second, far larger turtle. "But", he objected, "what does this second turtle stand on?" The old lady then crowed triumphantly and answered, "It's no use, Mr. James, it's turtles all the way down!"

 The turtle is a symbol of material existence rather than of transcendence. It alludes to forms of the manifest world and not to the creative origins behind, it. This is not conclusive, however, because the symbol of the turtle has many permutations which seem to encompass the entire process of manifestation. It has been held that the water-dwelling turtle, with its head and appendages withdrawn into its round shell, represents the dormant circular universe suspended, in boundless space. When its head protrudes, the first point of creation is indicated, and by extending its tail a line bisecting the circle into hemispheres is created. The head and two hind legs form a triangle within the circle and other combinations suggest a square, pentagon and hexagon, which last is the symbol of the fully manifest universe swimming in space. The breadth of accommodation here generalizes the meaning of the symbol to the point of obscurity. It is valuable to ponder the example of Manjusri Bodhisattva who was born Anupadaka, out of a lotus and from whose face the turtle sprang. The Chinese believed that their first emperor was an incarnation of Manjusri and his (and subsequent rulers') reliance upon turtles in magical practices is well known. Further clarification of the point might be found in a consideration of the Satapatha Brahmana, where the creative activity of Prajapati is depicted as undertaken by him in the form of a turtle.

 Qwing to its marvellous slowness, the turtle seems to be a natural symbol of material as opposed to spiritual evolution. In his Journal Thoreau asked the reader to "Consider the turtle. . . . Perchance you have worried yourself, despaired of the world, meditated the end of life, and all things seemed rushing to destruction; but nature has steadily and serenely advanced with the turtle's pace." His advice echoes Aesop's adage concerning the tortoise and the hare: "Slow and steady wins the race", but it also points to the inexorable process of evolution which is witnessed, undergone and experienced by the whole of life. Basic to this process are the senses and elements, which are expressions of one another that link together perception, action and substance, just as the turtle did when it sprang from the great Bodhisattva's face. As it slowly moves through its life, the turtle hears, sees, smells, tastes and feels through vibrations which merge into its skin and shell. Turtles do not hear vibrations through the air but only those which are transmitted through solid substance. The colours they see are the qualities of light that attract them for reproductive purposes, and the shapes that lure them to shore are of the earth and seem to have a strange magnetic quality sensed only by them.

 The turtle's ability to go without food, the difficulty in destroying it, the ease with which it conceals itself, its slow movements and uncanny appearance all combine to suggest the qualities of infinite watchfulness and patience. The turtle endures and seems wise though sometimes cunning even in its ponderous movements. It radiates a grim sense of humour at times as though it has seen too much of the world to get in a flutter over anything, but has learnt the strength of a tenacious though well-tempered determination. Of the many African versions of the tortoise and the hare story, cunning often accompanies the steady determination of the turtle who waddles off at the last minute with all the spoils of victory. Such tales allude to the great antiquity of the turtle which has witnessed the coming and going of multitudes of species in evolution and has outlived most of them by millions of years.

 The great primordial turtle has been sending its representatives across seas, swamps, deserts, rivers and forests of the world since middle Triassic times. When the Mesozoic dinosaurs failed in the process of natural selection, the turtle lived and carried on in an almost unmodified condition up to modern times. Taxonomically, it is of the class Reptilia and of the order called Chelonia, which are the highest of the cold-blooded vertebrates. In the evolutionary scheme of things the turtle is far advanced over other reptiles, having locomotor appendages, a complex skeleton and a dry, horny covering which places it closer in development to birds and mammals than to fish. Archaic turtles like the archelon swam the oceans of the globe at twelve feet in length and weighing six thousand pounds. During Cretaceous times they competed for supremacy with sharks and ichthyosaurs in what must have been terrible and devastating battles in which only the victor lived to continue its sweeping moves across swampy inland seas and vast oceans. From Miocene to Pleistocene times the Himalayan foothills of India were trod by a giant land tortoise whose shell was seven feet long and whose height was a good five feet. While such a monstrous creature with its vast and horny carapace and its grim, underslung jaw might have frightened the Atlantean survivors who hunted the ahs and lived in the most primitive fashion, they were no doubt also inspired. They must have experienced inklings of soul-memories based upon archetypal symbols that had been handed down through the ages of man. For almost two hundred million years chelonians in all their species have represented the great turtle in the world. They have watched myriad biological forms emerge and then disappear until finally the human form evolved and thinking man awoke to witness an old and hoary memory stored in this watcher's ancient eye.

 In Greek and Roman art the turtle is sometimes represented in contrast with a bird or merely a pair of outstretched wings. This counterbalancing suggests opposition and emphasizes the fixed nature of the symbol. Thus the turtle seems to embody turgidity, involution, obscurity from light, slowness, stagnation and highly concentrated materialism. Those who covet the flesh of the turtle usually hope to imbibe some of its rich powers of fertility and clearly yearn for the fruits of material appetites and physical generation. It is doubtful that fears of stagnation or obscurity hinder the desires of such enthusiasts whose notions of winged flight are usually equated with worldly conquest, and to meet their voracious demands whole species of turtles have been slaughtered to extinction. It is as if the tamasic substance of the powerful primordial turtle had been mistaken for its well-concealed, slow-burning fire of creation. The lubricity associated with the flesh of the turtle, its slipperiness, oiliness and even lewdness, have denigrated the animal in the minds of men even while they have identified some of their own voluptuous desires with its consumption. Thus turtle eggs are eaten to promote fertility and the poor animal's generative organs are torn out and ingested in tea or soup.

 While this wasteful practice may be prompted by a very vaguely held notion of the hidden powers possessed by the turtle, it is largely inspired by a simple awareness of the visible habits of the animal. In the last century the sight of thousands of Pacific Ridleys massing on a Caribbean shoreline a half mile long must have been impressive, and their enormous production of eggs in nests hastily dug in such a fashion as to overlap one another destructively contributed to the general impression that sea turtles were literally brimming over with so much fertility that they could afford great wastes of the species. Men watched the huge green turtles with their low disced shells, the hawkskills, leatherbacks and loggerheads, and witnessed a fecundity which suggested to them a never-ending supply. It is not difficult for men to help themselves to this bounty. All they have to do is wait for the great arribadas, when the egg-laden females hone in on their natal beach and imprint their broad tractor trails up the sand to nest. When they have completed their digging ritual and have placed themselves over the pit, they fall into a deep resting trance which renders them entirely incommunicado with the outside world. Lights, shouting or even banging against their shell fails to penetrate the depth of this complete abandonment to the act of creation.

 When she has completed laying the eggs, the female turtle covers them and leaves. Her involvement with them is finished and she will return during the season to the shore only to lay another clutch, cover it and abandon it to its own fate. The intensity of focus, the concentration of power, seems to be entirely centered on the act of birth itself rather than on the business of mothering. This echoes the nature of the mating ritual responsible for fertilization, when two adults give themselves over to a crashing courtship involving roaring and pounding of shells and a floating embrace which may continue for hours or even days. So great is the fertility of the turtle that one such mating can result in several clutches of eggs extending even beyond one season and any one of these may include as many as two hundred eggs. This, together with their longevity and the ability to survive long fasts and hold their own even with large sharks, has inspired men to covet the power of the turtle. Not content with generative powers, human beings desire an earthly sort of immortality and often seem to be willing to trade their daimon for physical endurance. It has been noted with interest that the turtle is hard to kill, and some who perhaps have felt sympathy for their agony say that they die too hard! A turtle's heart will keep beating a day after it is cut out of its body, as though it is informed by a steady rhythm which is not dependent upon a temporary integration of parts but which is rooted in universal substance itself.

 Turtles are magical. From the famous chelonian who rose up out of the water and displayed prophetic writing on its back before the wondering eyes of the first emperor of China, to the lowly little terrapin believed to bring foul winds and bad luck along the Gulf coast of Florida, they have sustained this ancient mystique. Long have they been used in magical practices calculated to control the elements, and their parts ingested or worn around the body were believed by many to enhance a similar control of the human senses. The turtle shaman sought to control counterpart forces within and outside himself through taking on the steady restraint of the turtle which can hold its breath for a very long time and regulate its metabolism through immense periods of hibernation or aestivation. This ability to exist in a sort of suspended animation must contribute to the turtle's longevity, and any shaman would envy die intensity and productivity of its trance-like states. But there are dangers in this and the turtle was often enlisted as an ally to protect against the negative aspects of the forces it evoked. In proto- and early dynastic Egypt the use of turtle motifs on palettes, vessels and in amulets and figurines suggests this protective role.

  In ancient China a giant turtle was the symbol of control of the empire but turtles in the flesh were continually used for divination. Knowledgeable practitioners claimed that there was no better medium for divining the future, and they heated the carapace until it cracked and revealed a meaningful pattern. They commonly used the hexagonal pattern of the diamond-backed terrapin in connection with the I-Ching and considered the information thus revealed to be instructions from the creator of the world. Irrigation canals, croplands, towns and drainage systems were laid out according to such instructions, and the destinies of rulers and whole armies often rested upon the reading of the heated shell. Writing itself was said to have been revealed on a sea turtle's back, and even the natural designs of its carapace were considered to be a map "as timeless as the earth itself". If one seriously attempts to interpret the myth about the turtle springing from the face of Manjusri Bodhisattva, one might intuit a connection between higher human consciousness, which is independent of time and space, and that reflected consciousness which is locked into manifested categories and struggles to link together the past and future. Limited by the nature of his vestures, man is enthralled by the sensory world through the double-edged power of his mind. The turtle, being of very limited and concentrated intelligence, is not hindered by any reflective tendency, but bears unconsciously in its substance the stamp of being which is the object of its own overwhelming creativity. Such a purely subjective state seems to be almost perfectly represented by the turtle and it is only in such subjectivity that the future and past could simultaneously be revealed. The divination of ancient shamans and magicians must have been based upon this assumption, for all persons of philosophical bent have recognized that the Divine operates through the still centre that is revealed when subject and object are merged.

 Along the Caribbean coast there is a great rock formation called La Piedra de Tlacoyunque, which is believed to act as a beacon for turtles. A similar belief is also held by the Miskito Indians who live along the Nicaraguan coast. They say that a benign spirit of the land has the power to bring the big turtles onto shore to nest or to send them far out to sea if people become too greedy for their flesh. Another rock in this vicinity called Cerro Tortuguero is said to be magnetic and to turn in various directions in order to guide the turtles at sea. Inland at Copan, Uxmal and Izapan there are great turtle steles which are indeed magnetic and remind one that carved wooden terrapins were used as dry magnetic compasses two thousand years ago in China. Chinese soothsayers placed a lodestone needle in their tails and watched them rotate on bamboo pins. Enormous numbers of turtles gather at certain undisturbed turtle stones in the New World as though they themselves were drawn through the attraction of a lodestone in their own bodies, as though there was an irresistible link established between the turtle and its form by the magnetic field of the earth. The bonding force of magnetism is so basic to the eternal creation which is the life-force of evolution that it is easy to see a relationship of this essentially spiritual power to the nature of the turtle, the character of the turtle is, despite its apparent dark sluggishness, the dependable vehicle of the idea of creation made manifest. Even the name of the turtle-avatar of Vishnu is suggestive of this, for Kurma is the designation of "one of the vital breaths that causes the eyes to close". Thus with eyes closed to the external world, locked in a trance state of timeless oblivion, is the quintessential idea of creation experienced.

 Further light upon this theme is cast by the myth of Hermes, who was born to the nymph Maia in a cavern on Mount Kyllene in Arkadia. Immediately after his birth he walked outside the cave and spied a tortoise. With divine intuition he slew it, and removing its shell, fitted it with a bridge and seven taut strings of sheep's gut.

 When he had wrought the lovely instrument, he tried the chords, and made diversion meet preluding with the plectrum, and there went up from beneath his hand a tumult sweet of mighty sounds, as from his lips he sent a strain of unpremeditated wit, joyous and wild and wanton - such you may hear among revellers on a holiday.

 The music drifts from across the sea and catches all in its spell. Its shelled resonance sings of long-submerged shores and grottoes of an ancient imagination that combined sylphs and sea-urchins and wind flying through silken hair. The ancient agonies of starving dinosaurs, the endless wake of the shark and the noble promise of eohippus are woven together in a refrain of joyful melancholy. Such is the arcane but not often heard music of the turtle, the timeless melody of the spheres echoed across the strings of this world.

 In the Satapatha Brahmana it is said that "Prajapati, having assumed the form of a tortoise, created offspring." The later Puranic descriptions of the Kurma Avatar of Vishnu were, no doubt, inspired by this earlier source where the name of the creator in turtle form is Kasyapa. The saying that "all creatures are descendants of Kasyapa" takes on additional meaning when it is recalled that Kasyapa was the grandson of Brahma and the father of Vivaswat who was, in turn, the father of Manu. The Atharva Veda states that "the Self-born Kasyapa sprang from time" (Vishnu in post-Vedic times) and moves upon the primordial waters. Uses of the name Kasyapa in the Rig Veda as well as other sources demonstrate the flexibility of its designation. The Kasyapas are spoken of as a gotra of primitive non-Aryans who eventually became high-caste Brahmins and a leading tribe of north-central India. Mahavira, founder of the Jain religion, was supposed to have been a Kasyapa, and Buddhist literature indicates that the three Buddhas preceding Gautama were called Kasyapas. While there is much here that might be interpreted in terms of totemistic beliefs, a more archetypal and convincing explanation lies in the persistent traditions which symbolize the manifesting creative deity in the guise of a turtle. Thus any gotra using such a name would believe themselves descendants of the seed of the manifest form of a particular aspect of God, and the Buddhas themselves would be part of this creative hierarchy. H. P. Blavatsky put it succinctly in The Secret Doctrine when she wrote: "What are all the myths and endless genealogies of the seven Prajapati, and their sons, the seven Rishis or Manus, and of their wives, sons and progeny, but a vast detailed account of the progressive development and evolution of animal creation, one species after the other?"

 The origin and genealogy of Kasyapa, together with his twelve wives, are a veiled record of the order of evolution in the Fourth Round. This is revealed in the story of how his wife Vinata brought forth an egg which, when hatched, became Garuda, princely bird of the great cycle of Vishnu. Through the endless permutations of form, Kasyapa prevails as a seed that grows like the concentric circles of an expanding carapace. The very power to prevail is the key that implies control and the ability to focus upon the essential genii of breath and life. Centering its entire being upon the act of creation, the turtle lives in the eternal moment and becomes the catalyst through which the very idea of more refined and perfect forms can manifest in the world. Without the turtle, evolution itself would reach stagnation and the support of the world would retreat into the realm of the non-manifest. The music of the spheres would not be coaxed forth upon the tortoise lyre and Hermes would withdraw to the Olympian heights of other worlds. The joyously melancholy strains of the universe would play on but without an ear to hear.

Between the roar of the sea and the word of God
Lies the silence of the turtle.
Do you hear the music?
In the pulsation of the antique heart,
In the lines of the patterned shell,
The primordial flows in what is yet to be.