Turtles All The Way Down

by Harry Miller October 01, 2019

Anyone who has ever read one of Terry Pratchett’s fantasy ‘Discworld’ novels will know that the fictional flat Discworld rests upon the backs of four gigantic elephants, who, in turn, spin the world whilst walking on the shell of the enormous Turtle, ‘Great A’Tuin’.  

Most will agree that Pratchett wielded a brilliant imagination, but the turtle / elephant concept was actually burrowed from the ancient ‘Cosmic Turtle’ (or ‘World Turtle’) mythologies, which can be found in Hindu, Chinese, and Native American cultures.  

In Hinduism the turtle seems to have many names and guises, one being Kurma, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu.  Another name for the weightlifting turtle is Akupāra, or Chukwa, with the accompanying elephants being named Maha-pudma.  The following quote is taken from from the ‘Siddhāntasundara’, (c. 1500), which was written by the Hindu astronomer and mathematician, ānarāja:                

"A vulture, which has only little strength, rests in the sky holding a snake in its beak for a prahara [three hours]. Why can [the deity] in the form of a tortoise, who possesses an inconceivable potency, not hold the Earth in the sky for a kalpa [billions of years]?"

In Chinese mythology, the turtle known as Ao not only supports the world but the sky too.  You see the heavens were once held aloft by Mount Buzhou, but when Gonggong the destructive water God destroyed the mountain, Nüwa, the creator God, had to slice the legs off poor old Ao, and used them to prop up the sky instead - how resourceful!         

The Native American version of events speak of a sky woman who fell through a hole in the heavens and plummeted down to the water world.  The water animals went to her aid and she was saved by climbing on to the back of a giant turtle.  Realising that the woman was going to need soil to live on, the other water animals dived down and gathered mud from the ocean floor to pack on the turtle’s enormous shell, and slowly and surely the world as we know it was formed.      

Pratchett isn’t the only author to borrow the mythical idea of a giant universe influencing turtle.  Stephen King has ‘Maturin’, the mystical turtle who spends most of infinity hidden away sleeping in his shell, only to appear every now and then when he has a stomach ache, and vomits up a universe or two! 

But if (and I say “if”) the world does indeed sit upon the back of a giant great turtle, then what you may ask does the turtle sit on?  Well, some say another larger turtle - in fact, some say it’s turtles all the way down! 

Harry Miller
Harry Miller


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