Symbols - What does heaven look like
Tortoises are a family, Testudinidae, of land-dwelling reptiles in the order Testudines.
They are shielded from predators by a shell. The top part of the shell is the carapace, the underside is the plastron, and the two are connected by the bridge. Inside the shell is the tortoise’s soft body.
It thus has a hard shell that resembles the Matrix in its pattern, with a soft interior, and as a whole, it is a symbol of the cosmic Egg being ‘hardware’ on the outside and ‘software’ - spirit - on the inside. Its shape is round above, but viewed from below it is square, as such the symbolism of the four sided square as an Earth symbol comes into play. Again the tortoise is a marriage of the earth and the rest of the egg.
It shares a great deal of symbolism with the turtle and is in the same family, but the turtle is in some ways a more versatile symbol as it is a creature of both Water and Earth. Both however, lay Eggs, as such it has a creative role.
In effect, the Tortoise is a symbol of the Created, a sort of Great Mother; whereas the turtle can be used to demonstrate the idea of a universe swimming in a watery sea of chaos, the tortoise can be used to incorporate via its four sturdy little legs the four pillars of wisdom.
Both tortoise and turtle are long lived adding further to the symbolic value, as the Great Mother -the created universe - is also of incalculable age.
Symbolically the retraction of the tortoises head into its shell is regarded as a conscious turning inward as in meditation and therefore showing an advanced spiritual state. Very old sages are sometimes depicted as tortoises.
Tortoises in myth and legend
Kurma (Sanskrit: कुर्म) was the second Avatar of Vishnu. An avatar is a manifestation of a deity on earth in the physical as opposed to spiritual state - in other words a physical incarnation of a spiritual deity - as such the Creator [in this case Vishnu] has made the Created [symbol of the tortoise] incarnate.
In some cases the tortoise is used to represent one increment of development of the creation, or a configuration, as opposed to the creation from its very beginnings to its very end. Kurma belongs to the Satya Yuga [see Shaivism and the Ancestors].
In the myths and legends, symbolic floods [occasionally accompanied by actual floods and environmental catastrophes] signal the transition between one Yuga and the next, and Kurma the tortoise is occasionally shown sitting on the bottom of the ‘ocean’ after the Great Flood, waiting to emerge and provide the foundation for the next configuration/increment.
In legend, a mountain was placed on his back by the other gods so they could churn the sea and find the ancient treasures – that is the knowledge - of the Ancestors.
If we put this legend in simple evolutionary terms, when an environmental catastrophe wipes out vast numbers of species, other new species are waiting in the wings, so to speak, ready to be implemented on earth, and when they do emerge, the new species attempt to see if they can learn from the past by looking within the spiritual realm for lessons learned.
Occasionally exactly the same meaning is conveyed by showing the tortoise supporting the elephant on whose back the world rests. The elephant is male [Creator], the tortoise female [Created], so representing the two creative powers.
In Japanese mythology, the tortoise is also support to the ‘Abode of the Immortals’ and for the ‘Cosmic Mountain’, as such the beliefs are almost identical to those of the Hindus.
In Chinese myth and legend, the Goddess of Creation – Nu Kua used the feet of the Cosmic Tortoise for the ‘4 Corners of the Earth’ and its shell for the ‘Vault of the Heavens’.
Otherwise, however, the symbolism of the tortoise as an increment of creation is the same as that in the Hindu and Japanese systems. Rarely is a distinction made between the tortoise and the turtle and together they are associated with the element of Water, the season of Winter and the direction of North – the direction of death / rebirth. Thus in any cycle the tortoise is the symbol of the deletion of the old increment of creation and the implementation of the new increment of creation.
The ability to slow down its body metabolism (apparently dying), during winter hibernation, and then awake renewed, reflect the death /rebirth association.
Chinese artwork will sometimes show a snake and tortoise entwined and it is said that “their coupling engendered the universe”. This is the symbol of the ouroboros, representing energy recycling – thus the picture is telling us that a new increment of creation is formed from the recycled energy of the old increment.
In Native American Indian American Indian tradition, both the turtle and tortoise are the oldest symbol for the eternal Earth Mother from which we are all born, our lives evolve, and to which we will return.
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.