Turtles in Folklore – The World Turtle Kurma

Turtles and tortoises are an important part of many world religions and folklores.  In China, the tortoise’s legs hold up the world.  In Japan, a turtle creature called the Kappa plays pranks on unsuspecting people near water.  But the turtle and tortoise appear elsewhere, like Hindu mythology in India.  There, the World Turtle is well known, and its importance is never forgotten.  His name is Kurma, and he is the world that we see every day.

In Hindu mythology, Kurma is the second avatar of the god Vishnu.  In that state, Kurma was responsible for bearing the Mount Mandara on his back.  As the Devas and Asuras tried to churn the ocean of milk to regain immortality, their churning stick (Mount Mandara) started sinking.  So Vishnu became the turtle Kurma, and bore the mountain on his back until the churning was complete.  In the end, Vishnu himself tricked the Asuras out of the immortality potion, and the Devas instead regained their powers.

Because of the legend and importance of this second avatar, Hindu mythology continues the belief that Kurma holds up the world.  The turtle’s body is literally the world: The earth is his lower shell, the sky and atmosphere are his body, and the heavens are his upper shell.  Kurma truly is the world itself.  However, there is also a second shelled creature that appears in the mythology.  In 1838, the tortoise Chukwa was purported by Leveson Venables Vernon-Harcourt to be supporting Mount Meru.  From that point on, this world tortoise was often seen alongside the world elephant, and the two were a part of popular references to Hindu mythology.

 Turtle Kurma

The story of Kurma (and, to a degree, Chukwa) shows how important turtles are in several different cultures.  Here, the turtle is the world itself, protecting all its inhabitants within a very large shell.  However, it also shows another important aspect of mythology: The propagation of stories across different cultures.  It’s no secret at this point that humankind developed first in a particular area of the world (the Middle East), and proceeded to spread out across the globe.  Various cultures developed everywhere, and certain aspects of some cultures were transferred to others as those people continued to spread out.  This principle is well demonstrated by the pyramids found all over the world in places that allegedly never had any contact with one another.

Mythology worked much the same as architecture and other aspects.  Generally speaking, the idea of something like a creation story is present in every world mythology and religion.  Everyone wants to explain how the world was created, and several of those stories involve very similar elements.  More specifically, cultures that may have come into contact during the formation of one or the other may have been directly influenced by the stories told, and certain ones were directly adopted, with but a few minor changes.

The tale of Kurma is one such story.  Along with the tortoise’s legs holding up the sky in Chinese mythology, the tortoise’s shell is also said to be surrounding the world.  The constellations in the sky are even etched into the underside of that shell.  So Chinese and Indian cultures must have come into contact early on, and the story of the turtle shell encompassing the world transferred from one to the other.  The tales are simply too similar to have not come from the same source.  Even if Kurma is the world itself, and not just surrounding it, they are still noticeably similar.

The importance of turtles in the world once again shows itself in Eastern Asian culture.  There is a sense now that this particular part of the Earth has always held turtles in high regard, and that the stories may have started somewhere there and spread out across the region.  However, that is not the only place where the turtle and the tortoise were important.  Legends and myths exist across the other continents as well, and they will be explored in time.  For now, it’s safe to say that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles really come from an amazing lineage, and have a lot to live up to.


The Author

Zach Gasior

Zach Gasior

Zach Gasior is an author and English professor at Baton Rouge Community College in Louisiana. His short stories have been published around the world, and he has two non-fiction books in print. He has contributed articles to several different sites, and has been a fan of the turtles since he was two years old, and his favorite ninja turtle is Raphael.

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