Shetu, sheta, ayotl, ak, tuki, gui, kame, suppon, kasyapa, as well as the more familiar honu, chelone, and testudo are all words that have been used from prehistoric times to designate one animal – the turtle. This is not surprising when we consider that the turtle is one of the first animals to have lent its traits to the world of myth.
Prehistoric and ancient men felt that animals predated and outwitted them, and therefore attempted to mimic their behavior. Early humans believed that gods and other higher beings, such as culture heroes and tribal ancestors, manifested themselves through animals to teach them all about life’s mysterious ways.
The turtle is no exception: throughout time, various cultures praised its resilience, patience, and wisdom as qualities one should strive for, and as such incorporated the shelled animal into their respective mythologies. As a long-lived and hard-shelled animal, the turtle became the perfect world-sustainer, while its excellent swimming abilities turned it into the perfect world-maker. To the Mesoamerican peoples, the connection between earth and the hard carapace of the turtle was even more complex, as the latter was seen as the magical place where dead men dwell and whence they are able to resurrect. Some cultures, such as the Chinese, believed that the beautiful markings on the turtle’s shell held the deep mysteries of the universe and helped spark the invention of writing.
Carefully looking at the night sky, many cultures imagined the shape of the turtle standing out from the multitude of stars, and whole stories of gods, heroes and wondrous adventures were thus woven around the figure of the shelled animal.
Mostly regarded positively, the turtle played at times the role of trickster and was even seen as a malevolent being. The case of ancient Egypt is best suited to illustrate this point: because of the damage it caused to people’s livelihoods and of its shadowy behavior, the Nile soft-shell was considered an evil being. The ancient Egyptians feared it and carried turtle-shaped amulets to protect themselves against the demonic powers of the turtle.
However, a turtle’s looks were not the only traits that populated early and ancient mythology; its non-physical features were also important. To the Romans, a turtle’s patience and above all, quietness, were seen as essential qualities of the perfect, subdued wife.
Even though the specifics of its symbolism may elude us now, the turtle’s lengthy lifespan and sense of wisdom are elements that are still recognizable today as they were long long ago, in prehistoric times.