The following excerpt is from www.likeacat.com. It explains turtle symbolism throughout different cultures and eras.
A great deal of mythology exists in regard to the turtle. In the Far East, the shell was a symbol of heaven, and the square underside was a symbol of earth.
The turtle was an animal whose magic united heaven and earth. The turtle is a creation of nature that carries its round shell over the ground, like heaven, and has a flat bottom, like earth.
With a profile resembling a mountain and the turning motion of its toes, it seemed to be a depiction of heaven and earth-changing constantly through the seasons.
In the West, early Christians didn’t like turtles, and they viewed them as symbolizing evil forces during the war. In Greece, turtles were once believed to be citizens of hell.
But like the Chinese, Indians have a legend that “the world is supported by four elephants standing on a giant turtle.” (As in the great Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.)
After hearing a Western scientist clearly give a scientific explanation for the formation of the world, one old Indian woman said that he was wholly mistaken, that the world was being supported by a giant turtle.
When the scientist asked what was under the turtle, she said, “Of course there is an endless pile of turtles, one on top of another.”
Turtles seem to possess an enviable and god-like resistance to aging, and so they came to symbolize longevity. Their link to heaven and earth made them a natural for use in divination.
Turtles are also symbols of immortality and are considered temporary dwelling places for souls making their way through a series of lives on the path to Nirvana.
The turtle is considered to be the second incarnation of the powerful god Vishnu in the Hindu religion. After a great flood, which occurs every four billion years and dissolves the earth, Vishnu transforms himself into a great turtle.
On his back, he carries a vessel in which the gods and demons mix the elements necessary to re-create the globe.
After a thousand years, when the earth has been reborn, the turtle remains in place, and on his back stands a large elephant, which supports the planet.
According to some Native American tales, the Earth Diver turtle swam to the bottom of the water that stretched across the world. He surfaced with the mud which the creator used to make the earth.
The turtle is a shore creature, using the land and the water. All shore areas are associated with doorways to the Faerie Realm. The turtle is sometimes known as the keeper of the doors. They were often seen as signs of fairy contact and the promise of fairy rewards.
A Japanese Fairy Tale about Urashima tells of a man who protects a turtle from some boys who were bothering it. As a reward, the turtle takes the man to meet the King of the Ocean.
As a reward for his good deed, Urashima marries the King’s beautiful water sprite daughter. In Nigeria, the turtle was a symbol of the female sex organs and sexuality. To the Native Americans, it was associated with the lunar cycle, menstruation, and the power of the female energies.
The markings and sections on some turtles total thirteen. In the lunar calendar, there are either thirteen full moons or thirteen new moons alternating each year. Many believe this is where the association with the female energies originated. The turtle symbolizes the primal mother and Mother Earth.
To the modern Chinese, turtles are viewed in many different ways. It is regarded as one of the four divine animals, along with the dragon, phoenix and chimera.
They are worshipped in temples. Flour turtles used to be used as offerings at temple festivals or big family events.
However, the term turtle is also used as a curse word, and the Taiwanese expression for gamblers “losing your shirt” translates as “knocking turtles”.
Apart from gamblers’ fears that eating a flour turtle will turn their luck sour, turtles have many other bad connotations in modern Chinese society. In fact, when people curse each other these days, the first thing to come out is often “turtle egg” or ” grandson of a turtle”.
Even so, the image of the turtle as a spiritual beast has become deeply implanted in people’s minds. One ancient text warns its readers not to act rashly when catching turtles and always to carry out the proper ceremony to worship them first.
There are also many legends about how those who killed turtles eventually met with misfortune.
Common Buddhist restraints against the killing of animals evolved into the Buddhist ceremony of releasing turtles.
Turtles remind us that the way to heaven is through the earth. In Mother Earth is all that we need. She will care for us, protect us, and nurture us, as long as we do the same for her.
For that to happen, we must slow down and heighten our sensibilities. We must see the connection to all things. Just as the turtle cannot separate itself from its shell, neither can we separate ourselves from what we do to the earth.