Friday, 11 March 2011

On cultural importance of Sea Turtles.

Sea turtles (and all other type of turtles) are a very important species not only on the evolutionary point of view but also on the cultural one. They have an important role in many mythologies and religions around the world, especially in Asia and North America and are often associated with creation myths

In several religions, mythology and folklore from around the world, turtles symbolise wisdom, longevity, tranquillity and steadfastness. In creation myths of several cultures the turtle or tortoise carries the earth and heavens on its back.

In CHINA we have several testimonials of the importance of the turtle as a symbol.
  • The first traces of Chinese writing are as old as 3500 years: these primitive ideograms were engraved on stones or on a turtle’s carapace, as preserved for eternity. This allowed the elaboration of the 214 major keys of the Chinese writing system.
  • According to a legend dating back to 650 BC, the original example of magic squares, The Lo Shu square, was discovered on the carapace of a turtle emerging from the waters of the river Lo.
  • In Taoism, major philosophy in China, turtle is one of the “Four Fabulous Animals” (with the unicorn, phoenix and dragon) and it’s associated with the North cardinal point, with the Water element, with the winter season, with the Yin and with the colour black (colour of purity in the Far East).
  • A symbol of a turtle was often used in burials (due to its meaning of longevity) and carved turtles were supporting memorial tablets for high-ranking officers and emperors.
  • In Feng Shui, the Black Tortoise, which symbolises family life, represents personal relationships. Having a tortoise at the back door was a sign of good luck. Three tortoises in a stack represented a mother and her babies.
  • Buddhist or Taoist temples had often turtles, not to eat them but to protect life of residents.
  • In Hindu mythology the world is held by four elephants standing on a turtle.
  • In Hinduism, Akupara is a tortoise that carries the world on his back. It holds up the earth and the sea.
  • The second reincarnation (avatar) of Vishnu was a turtle called Kurmâ.
In VIETNAM, there are many legends related to turtles. One of these is linked to the Green Lake (Lake Thuy), south of Hanoi. According to the Legend, the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) gave Le Loi (emperor of Vietnam) a magic sword. With this sword, Le Loi fought many successful battles against the Ming Dynasty and gained independence for Vietnam from the Chinese Empire. One day Le Loi was out on the Green Lake, when a large turtle surfaced, took the sword from Le Loi and dived back. On that day, Le Loi renamed the lake in Hoan Kiem (The Lake Of The Returned Sword), which is still its name today.

In JAPAN the turtle is called minogame and it’s the symbol of longevity and happiness. Also, the minogame has a very important role in the legend of Urashima Taro.

In the Island of JAVA, Indonesia, there is one of the most important Buddhist temples called Candi Borobudur. The temple is decorated with 2,672 relief panels. The panels from 191 to 195 tell the story of a Bodhisattva’s reincarnation as a turtle. After a sea monster had destroyed their sailing vessel, a group of shipwrecked merchants were rescued by the Bodhisattva in his past life as a tortoise, who allowed them to climb onto his back so that he could carry them safely back to land. Tired from the strenuous swim, the Bodhisattva quickly fell asleep. Upon awakening from his nap, the Bodhisattva overheard the starving merchants say that they wished they could eat the tortoise. Out of compassion for the hungry mariners, the Bodhisattva offered his own body to the merchants as food.

According to Native American mythology, NORTH AMERICA is called Turtle Island. Most of the creation myths from the Native American people tell that the earth was created from some mud laid on the back of a giant turtle and that the earth is still carried on its back. Also when the giant turtle stretches it causes earthquakes. Generally speaking, for Native Americans the turtle is the oldest symbol representing the earth, personification of the goddess energy and the eternal Mother from which our lives evolve.

In the GREEK mythology, the birth of the turtles’ species is explained by the legend of the nymph Chelone, from which it takes its name. According to the legend, Chelone dared to mock Zeus and Hedra on their wedding day and therefore had been punished by the Gods to live in the sea and carry her home on her back until the end of time. In another poem by Homer dedicated to the God Hermes, he recounts the invention of the lyre. It narrates that Hermes attached a set of strings to a turtles’ carapace and gave it as a gift to the God Apollo.

This is just some information on the importance and relevance of the turtle as a symbol in religion, mythology, and folklore from around the world.

We can say that, generally speaking, the symbol of a turtle can find the following meanings:
  • Mother Earth
  • Longevity, immortality
  • Heaven (carapace) and earth (plastron)
  • Wisdom, due to her slow pace
  • Protection
We thought it was important to remind everyone of the spiritual and cultural importance that our ancestors gave to turtles and therefore add a further perspective to turtles’ conservation.

The more humans can learn about nature and respect it, the more conservation will be effective.

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