The tortoise symbolizes a long life, wisdom and peace.
It is also linked to the lunar and Mother Earth symbolism.
The difference between a Turtle and a Tortoise
It is not uncommon to use the term “turtle” to include both land tortoises and sea turtles.
The turtle is a creature of the sea. The tortoise is a creature living on land. Turtles have flat shells. The shell of a tortoise is shaped like a dome.
Both the turtle and the tortoise are auspicious. The tortoise lives longer than a turtle. A tortoise many live 150 years compared to a turtle that may live 40 years. This makes the tortoise a symbol of longevity, not the turtle.
Chinese Tortoise Symbolism
In China there are four sacred creatures. They are the tortoise, the phoenix, the dragon and the Ky-Lin (unicorn likeness).
The tortoise is the creature of the North. These four creatures are extremely auspicious and promote tons of good luck.
In Feng Shui it is said that placing a turtle ornament in the Northern area of your home is auspicious.
Just make sure to keep it out of the kitchen and bathroom.
Some prefer the turtle/ tortoise shown placed on a bed of coins. This will combine longevity and wealth.
Wearing a tortoise amulet for good luck is considered by many as a sensible thing to do.
In China the tortoise is credited with oracular powers. The shell of the tortoise would be carefully examined as it was believed to hold the secrets of the future.
The Turtle and the Magic Square
From China we hear the story of the turtle which revealed the magic square. Emperor Yu ruled in Ancient China between 2205 and 2198 B.C.E. He had a reputation of being wise and ruled in a just manner.
At one time Emperor Yu was engaged the supervision of building a dam on the Yellow River. Sitting by the bank of the river he was interrupted by a divine turtle which appeared from the river. The name of the turtle was Hi.
The emperor was astonished when he took a closer look on the back of the Turtle. There was a magic square, nine numbers in all. The numbers added up to 15 in every direction.
Emperor Yu was acknowledged as the one who first discovered the magic square, brought to him on the shell of the turtle. It is known as the “Lo Shu” square and is important in Feng Shui.
The Tortoise In Greek Mythology
The tortoise was sacred to the Greek god named Hermes. He was the messenger god. Hermes was also important as a promoter of peace. It was told that Hermes produced lyre and made it from a tortoise shell.
The tortoise being connected to the lyre made it the answer to the ancient riddle; “While alive I was silent; dead I sing sweetly.”
Tortoise charms could be worn to promote peace between enemies. With all the fighting going around today, maybe more such give the tortoise charm a chance. Wearing a tortoise charm as a symbol of promoting peace between enemies cannot hurt.
In another story from Greek mythology a woman named Chelone refused attend the wedding of Zeus and Hera. Hermes was furious. He threw her house into the river and transformed Chelone into a tortoise. Chelone means tortoise in Greek.
Yet another myth tells that Zeus invited all the animals to his party. All the animals came except the tortoise. Zeus went to see the tortoise and demanded to know why she did not show up at this major feast. It is to be noted the tortoise did not at the time carry a shell.
The tortoise simple answered “There is no place like home”.
Zeus was not at all happy. In a rage he ordered that the tortoise forever more was to carry her home on her back.
The Tortoise and the Hare
Aesop (620–564 BCE) was an Ancient Greek story teller. The stories he told remain popular worldwide and are known as Aesop’s Fables. We are all familiar with the Fable of the tortoise and the hare who race. The hare takes a nap believing he has plenty of time to win the race.
The tortoise keeps walking. Although he is slow, he is very persistent. Naturally the tortoise crosses the finish line first and wins the race. “Slow and steady wins the race” is a popular saying. The tortoise became a symbol of persistence.
Turtle Symbolism in India
The god of preservation, Vishnu has taken different forms nine times. Hindus are waiting for the tenth and final reincarnation.
The second time Vishnu was reborn (his second avatar) was as a half man, half turtle. Vishnu was called Kurma during his second avatar. The divas and asuras were quite busy churning the Ocean of Milk. Their goal was to produce the nectar of immorality (amrita).
This was no easy task and they need to use Mount Mandara as a churning staff. A problem arises when Mount Mandara started to sink.
Vishnu came to the rescue. He took the form of a half turtle and half man (Kurma) and was able to support and hold Mount Mandara in place.
Tortoise as a Taoist Symbol of the Whole Universe
The tortoise is described as the creature which supports the world during the beginning of creation. The four firm legs are a symbol of the four directions.
The underside of the tortoise represents the earth and the shell represents the heavens. The tortoise carries the universe and this is most powerful.
How the tortoise shell protects second cousins who marry
In north-eastern Thailand there is a tribe called Baan Phraan Muan. These villagers have a very strict rule about who should marry and what is considered incest. They claim that even second cousins who marry would be incestuous.
The villagers agree that should a marriage between second cousins occur, they will be deeply sorry. They will not be punished by their fellow villagers or family. The punishment will come from the spirits and that is a whole lot worse.
So what should seconds cousins do if they are in love and just want to spend their lives together? The solution is of course to trick the spirits.
The bride and groom must eat rice served in a tortoise shell. They eat in the same fashion a dog would eat. The spirits will obviously believe the bride and groom are actually dogs, as humans normally do not eat rice in this manner.
The spirits have no problem accepting that dogs are incestuous. Therefor the spirits will see no reason to punish the couple. Problem solved.
Turtles at Temple of Literature, Hanoi
The Temple of Literature called Văn Miếu in Vietnamese. It is a Confucius Temple. This temple has a special feature; 82 turtles steles with engravings with praises of ancient monarchs and reasons why royal exams are vital.
It used to be very popular for students to rub the head of each turtle before taking an exam. Students believed this would help them pass exams with flying colors.
Officials have now put a stop to this practice by fencing in the famous turtles. Officials may have stop people in line to rub the turtle heads for good luck, but they have not stopped the belief that the turtle and the tortoise are auspicious.
Tortoises or turtles continue to be a symbol of longevity and wisdom.
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