Patience, wisdom, and longevity are all virtues that are often connected with the turtle. These shelled reptiles are known for their slowness, which is often interpreted as a sort of measured wisdom. From tortoises to terrapins to sea turtles, members of the turtle family are found in mythological traditions around the world. Storytellers use turtles to demonstrate important lessons, while cultural myths connect turtles with the world itself. In this article we’ll dive into the beauty of turtles and the incredible traditions around the world which feature the steadfast and mighty turtle!
Table of contents
- Turtle Symbolism and meaning
- Turtle Native American Symbolism
- Turtle Eastern Symbolism
- Turtle Christianity Symbolism
- Turtle Celtic Symbolism
- Turtle African Symbolism
- Turtle in Dreams
- Turtle Encounters and Omens
- Turtle’ Mythology and Folklore
- Turtle Spirit Animal
- Turtle Totem Animal
- Turtle Power Animal
- Turtle Tattoo Meaning
Turtle symbolism and meaning
Perhaps because of their slow pace, or perhaps because they can be very long-lived, turtles are often connected with longevity and the elderly. Turtles are amongst the longest living animals on the planet. A Seychelle’s Giant Tortoise named Jonathan, (and yes, before you ask, tortoises are, in fact, a member of the order of reptiles known as turtles) turned 190 years old in 2022. This makes Jonathan the oldest living turtle and one of the oldest land animals. Jonathan was born in 1832 and has lived through the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the invention of the lightbulb and the photograph, the moon landing, and both World Wars. (1)
Jonathan demonstrates the many reasons why turtles are associated with long lives. Because they live so long, turtles are also connected with medicine, health and healing. It is thought, by some, that the turtle holds the secret to maintaining one’s health and aging gracefully.
Because of their tough carapaces, turtles are often connected with defense. The turtle’s sturdy shell represents the desire to shield one’s vulnerabilities from the outside world. In many cases, this also connects turtles with shyness and difficulties opening up to others. When someone is shy or out of their element, it is often said that they are having trouble “coming out of their shell.” (2)
Cartoonish depictions of turtles often depict a turtle’s shell as a sort of portable home. This is not exactly true. Turtles’ shells are connected to their ribs and spines. If a turtle’s shell is gravely damaged, the turtle cannot leave it and will perish. Nevertheless, turtles are sometimes connected with vagrancy, because they’re seen as carrying all of their worldly possessions on their back. Turtles are also connected with stability and strength. Artistic depictions of turtles sometimes portray them as carrying heavy structures atop their shells.
Turtle Native American symbolism
The turtle is a significant animal for many Native American tribes. On the east coast of North America especially, turtles are connected with both creation and the earth itself. Various tribes including the Iroquois and Lenape believe that the earth was created by the creator and placed upon the back of a giant turtle. Because of this belief, North America is sometimes referred to by these groups as “Turtle Island.” (3)
In some tribes, soft-shelled turtles are thought of to represent femininity. There is a myth in which a beautiful young woman catches the eye of a painted turtle. The painted turtle tries to get her attention, but she does not notice him. So, the turtle paints himself in flashy colors and comes to meet the woman at the river’s edge. The woman falls in love with the turtle but says they are too different to be together. The turtle instructs her to enter the water so that she may become a turtle too. She does so and when she touches the water she becomes a soft-shelled turtle. (4)(5)
Turtle Eastern Symbolism
In Chinese mythology, the four cardinal directions are guarded and embodied by four celestial warrior spirits. The turtle is said to represent the North and is connected with the winter season. Through cultural interactions, the turtle spirit has found its way into Japanese culture as well, though it remains much more prevalent in this role in China. (6)
In much of Eastern mythology and symbolism, turtles are connected with longevity, health, and balance. (7)
In Japan, the fearsome Kappa most closely resembles the turtle out of any creature form the animal kingdom. The Kappa is a river spirit with a humanoid body, turtle shell, and webbed fingers and toes. Depictions of the Kappa vary and this creature is said to be capable of both good and evil. In some cases, the Kappa is responsible for harmless mischief. Much darker stories describe Kappas as stealing children from the water’s edge and drowning or eating them. Kappas are thought to be both wise and cunning. (8)
Turtle Christianity symbolism
Turtles don’t appear in the Bible, but the turtle’s long life is sometimes connected with eternity and wisdom. For this reason, turtles can be connected with faith and with heaven.
Additionally, the patience of the turtle and the way it carries its shell on its back represents man’s burdens and the importance of industriousness.
Turtle Celtic symbolism
Compared with other animals, turtles are not hugely significant to Celtic mythology, however their large domed backs might be connected with the belief that mounds were places of mystical power. Mounds were thought of as transitional spaces between earth and the Otherworld.
Turtle African symbolism
In ancient Egypt, turtles were thought of as guardians of the Nile. As creatures which could pass between the land and the river’s waters, turtles were thought of as capable of transitioning between the worlds of the living and the dead. Depictions of turtles often treat them as mysterious and powerful. They are thought of as warrior spirits on account of their defensive shells. Turtles were sometimes invoked for protection from harm. Despite this, the turtle was sometimes cast into malevolent roles and was thought to be an enemy of the sun god. (9)
In many African myths and stories, the turtle is a cunning trickster who enacts revenge on those who underestimate him. In the African version of the race between the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise wins, not by his steady patience, but thanks to a clever trick. Instead of outpacing the hare, the tortoise outsmarts him by planting several of his relatives along the track so that each only has a short leg to run. (10)
Turtle in dreams
Dreaming of a turtle may signify health or prosperity. A turtle dream indicates that one’s path is long and that one will have many opportunities to grow and mature along the way.
Dreaming of a turtle might indicate a sense of vulnerability as well. Turtles hide their weaknesses beneath a tough external shell. Dreaming of turtles might indicate that one feels threatened and is trying to hide the softer and more sensitive aspects of oneself from the outside world. Remember, though, that no turtle can remain in its shell forever. Vulnerable or not, you will have to face reality at some point and should try to do sowith enthusiasm.
A turtle encounter may be a reminder to take a slow and steady approach to your problems. Rushing through things will often lead to a messy result. The turtle reminds you that all things happen in their proper time and that you need only work at a steady pace to achieve what you can. (11)
Turtle dreams may also refer to elderly loved ones. The turtle urges you to soak up wisdom form your elders and appreciate their presence while you can. It will not always be available to you.
Turtle encounters and omens
Turtles are usually thought of as good luck symbols. Encountering a turtle is thought to imply that a long and healthy life awaits.
Because the turtle carries his “home” on his back (though this isn’t true biologically, it is commonly depicted as such), a turtle encounter might represent safe travels and the idea that your home is wherever your heart is. Remember where you come from and bring your home with you in your heart as you travel.
A visit from a turtle might signify a hard lesson in the future. Turtles live long lives and in doing so they remind us that some lessons can only be learned through experience. A turtle encounter may give you strength and protection in the trials ahead, or it may simply act as a reminder that every struggle is a learning opportunity which brings oyu closer to wisdom and enlightenment. (12)
Turtle mythology and folklore
Ancient Mesopotamian mythology includes a turtle acting at the behest of Enki, a Sumerian god of water. When a god named Ninurta attempts to steal a powerful tablet, Enki uses a mighty turtle to thwart him.
In Greek mythology, a nymph named Chelona, which means “turtle,” disrespected Zeus by refusing to attend the wedding of Zeus and Hera. When questioned, Chelona declared that she preferred her own home to the wedding venue. As punishment, Zeus cursed her to carry her home on her back forevermore and she became a turtle. (13)
Another Greek myth states that the very first lyre, a stringed musical instrument, was created by the god Hermes using several strands of his mother’s hair and the shell of a turtle. Hermes is said to have accomplished this on the day of his birth and to have given the lyre to his brother, Apollo the god of music, as a gift. (14)
According to Hindu mythology, the entire world is supported by four giant elephants who stand on the back of an enormous turtle. This image is a common artistic and mythological motif known as the “world turtle.” (15) (16)
Turtle spirit animal
If your spirit animal is the turtle then you are patient, steadfast, and down to earth. People with the turtle as their spirit animal understand that good things come to those who wait. They are unlikely to rush things or insist on unnecessary competition. They are not, however, lazy. The turtle spirit animal handles its responsibilities with steadfast resolve and never shirks its duties.
the turtle spirit animal is often found in people who can be called “old souls.” Turtle spirits are naturally wise and adapt easily to life’s many challenges. People with this spirit animal are great at giving advice to others and are happy to offer their insight ot those who want or need it. (17)
Turtle totem animal
The turtle totem animal refers to someone who is steadfast and unchanging. The turtle bears the weight of whatever the world throws at it without giving an inch. People with this totem animal have an unflinching resolve and are level-headed in times of crisis.
People with the turtle as their totem animal know that the only way out is through. They embody the idea of “keep calm and carry on.” The turtle totem animal never gives in or surrenders.
Because the turtle lives longer than other creatures, it is able to observe patterns which they do not live long enough to see. The turtle totem animal is the keeper of the higher knowledge and wisdom which come with experience.
Turtle power animal
The turtle power animal signifies healing and protection. For people who have been wounded, the turtle allows you to guard yourself against harm whilst you heal. When you’re ready, the turtle gently nudges you to rejoin the world at large.
People with the turtle as their power animal are empathetic and are natural healers. The turtle power animal loves seeing others grow and thrive. People with this power animal may find that working with children suits them especially.
Turtle tattoo meaning
A turtle tattoo may represent patience, wisdom, tenacity, courage, or enlightenment. One might choose this tattoo to depict their ability to weather hard times and come out stronger and wiser for it.
A turtle tattoo may also represent the cosmos and higher knowledge associated with global myths involving the “world turtle.”
Turtle tattoos in Chinese styles may represent the turtle as the celestial guardian of the North.
For Native American people, a turtle tattoo may represent longevity, creativity, or one’s heritage as a native of “Turtle Island.”
Turtles are scattered throughout the mythology of cultures around the globe. From The Tortoise and the Hare to the “World Turtle,” the turtle seems to be an almost universal symbol for patience, wisdom, and enlightenment. To be quite honest, there are dozens more turtle myths which we could share here, but this article would stretch on for pages and pages if we were to try and cover them all. Hopefully, this snapshot of turtle mythology gives you a new appreciation for these fascinating reptiles!