The Historic Cultural Connections To The Honu

February 12, 2019

Sea turtles have been present in human cultural traditions and mythology for millennia. The charismatic species have often been cast as a central character in art and allegorical tales that define and connect civilizations. Many cultures have revered sea turtles as celestial beings with supernatural power.

For example, the indigenous Iroquois people of eastern North America told a creation story where the Earth was formed on the back of a sea turtle after Sky Woman fell from the sky to the ocean. In the tale, Muskrat went to get mud from the deep sea to build Sky Woman a home on Great Turtle’s back.

The Moche people of Peru and the Seri Indians from the Gulf of California both have creation stories that describe the Earth being built on the back of a great sea turtle swimming in a vast ocean. In Hindu mythology, the earth is supported by four elephants standing on the back of a turtle. The Hindu deity Vishnu was reincarnated as the turtle Kachhapa that carried the weight of the world on its back.

a sea turtle hold four elephants and the world on its back
In Hindu mythology, the earth is supported by four elephants standing on the back of a turtle. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Mayans created images of sea turtles in carved objects, stone altars, written symbols, and paintings. The creature represented the circular earth and the cyclical passage of time. Scenes from the Mayan creation story, reflected in the stars, involve the sea turtle. The turtle constellation, known as Ak’ek, was associated with three stars that form the sword belt of the constellation we know as Orion, the hunter.

The sea turtle is also prevalent in other cultural legends. The mythical Chinese emperor Fu His was said to have created Chinese writings using eight mystic diagrams inspired by markings he saw on a sea turtle’s shell as it emerged from the water. The ancient Chinese used sea turtle shells as oracles for divination. In Hawaiian culture, the sea turtle, called Honu, guided the first Polynesians to the chain of islands. Another Hawaiian legend is that of Kailua, a sea turtle who transforms into a woman in order to watch over children playing on the beach.

Like ancient myths, modern-day popular culture features sea turtles as wise guides, rescuers, warriors, and friends. Crush and Squirt are loveable sea turtles from the Disney movie Finding Nemo who befriend Nemo and aid him on his journey. Tirtouga and the evolution Carracosta are skillful Pokemon warrior sea turtles. Umigame is the thousand-year-old sea turtle of Dragon Ball and is even older than Master Roshi. And Shen-zin Su in World of Warcraft is a giant sea turtle called the Wandering Isle by beings who ride on his back as they explore the world.

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