As I’ve been preparing the newest painting, the research has been fascinating. I’m not sure quite why this keeps happening to me, but as soon as I start thinking about concepts and using symbols and images to relate or portray them, it feels like I’m being guided by an outside force. Too many times, ideas that are seemingly unrelated, but nevertheless all emerge from my mind on a subject, coalesce into surprisingly brilliant outcomes and powerful, related meaning.
I was invited to paint at a fundraiser on June 16th, where we’ll be raising funds for an organization that helps preserve threatened and endangered species in Southern Utah. I immediately settled on a desert tortoise. I wanted to create a painting that relates the importance of creatures like the desert tortoise that are endangered. Importance as in, we’re all woven together, interrelated, and we depend on each other for existence. All life works this way–and when one kind of life goes missing, all the others feel it and are hampered or diminished by it.
So it turns out the myth of the World Turtle–where the turtle holds the entire world on its back–shows up in Eastern mythology, both in India and China, as well as many tribes of Native Americans, including the Iroquois, Huron, and Cheyenne.
I find the metaphor beautiful and exact. Especially given our time–where the natural world and nature in general are in such literal peril (as is the desert tortoise, or the sea turtle which is also referenced in similar myths and is also endangered), that using the symbol became perfect. It is estimated that desert tortoises have existed for 15 to 20 million years. And in our time, we are counting the very few that are left… Much like the entire Earth today, the desert tortoises long existence is being threatened by the introduction of human technology and unconscious human population expansion. The Earth today (our literal existence) is on the back of the desert tortoise–an animal on the verge of extinction. The Earth is a cosmic island. And an extinction of the World Tortoise would be profoundly detrimental, because it brings all of us (and our creature brothers and sisters) one step closer to the same fate… -am. Jun 2012
The World Turtle (also referred to as the Cosmic Turtle, the World-bearing Turtle, or the Divine Turtle) is a mytheme of a giant turtle (or tortoise) supporting or containing the world. The mytheme, which is similar to that of the World Elephant and World Serpent, occurs in Hindu, Chinese, and Native American mythology.
The World Turtle carries the Earth upon its back in myths from North America. In Cheyenne tradition, the great creator spirit Maheo kneads some mud he takes from a coot’s beak until it expands so much that only Old Grandmother Turtle can support it on her back. In Mohawk tradition, the trembling or shaking of the Earth is thought of as a sign that the World Turtle is stretching beneath the great weight that she carries.
Indians of North America used combs made of tortoise shell to signify the margin between life and death. According to their beliefs, the cosmic tree emerges from the spine of the tortoise.
-  Stookey, Lorena Laura, 2004, Thematic Guide to World Mythology, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-31505-1.
-  http://www.eedi.org.ua/eem/3-11eng.html
Some tribes call the North American continent ‘Turtle Island’ and believe it is the first lands created. Huron and Iriquois also have well known World Turtle myths. Here’s the story as related by some Jr. High School students. Very fun: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NO8vilKF_Mo
The Creation Story
An Iroquois Legend
In the beginning, the world was not as we know it now. It was a water world inhabited only by animals and creatures of the air who could survive without land.
Up above, the Sky World was quite different. Human-type beings lived there with infinite types of plants and animals to enjoy.
In the Sky World, there was a Tree of Life that was very special to the people of the Sky World. They knew that it grew at the entrance to the world below and forbade anyone to tamper with the Tree. One woman who was soon to give birth was curious about the Tree and convinced her brother to uproot the Tree.
Beneath the Tree was a great hole. The woman peered from the edge into the hole and suddenly fell off the edge. As she was falling she grasped at the edge and clutched in her hand some of the earth from the Sky World. As she fell, the birds of the world below were disturbed and alerted to her distress. The birds responded and gathered a great many of their kind to break her fall and cradle her to the back of a great sea turtle. The creatures of the water believed that she needed land to live on, so they set about to collect some for her. They dove to the great depths of the world’s oceans to gather earth to make her a place to live. Many of the animals tried to gather the earth from the ocean floor, only the muskrat was successful. With only a small bit of earth brought onto turtle’s back from his small paws, Turtle Island began to grow.
The Sky Woman soon gave birth to a daughter on Turtle Island. The daughter grew fast. There were no man-beings on Turtle Island, but a being known as the West Wind married the daughter of Sky Woman.
Soon the daughter of Sky Woman gave birth to Twins. One was born the natural way, and he was called the Right-Handed Twin. The other was born in a way that caused the death of the mother. He was called the Left-Handed Twin. When their mother died, their grandmother, Sky Woman, placed the fistful of earth that she grasped from the edge of the Sky World, and placed it on her daughter’s grave. The earth carried special seeds from the Sky World that were nourished by the earth over her daughter. So from the body of her daughter came the Sacred Tobacco, Strawberry and Sweetgrass. We call these Kionhekwa. The Life Givers.
The Right and Left-Handed Twins were endowed with special creative powers. The Right-Handed Twin created gentle hills, beautiful smelling flowers, quiet brooks, butterflies and numerous creatures, plants and earth formations. His brother the Left-Handed Twin made snakes, thorns on rose bushes, thunder and lightning and other more disturbing attributes of today’s world. Together, they created man and his many attributes. The Right-Handed Twin believed in diplomacy and conflict resolution. The Left-Handed Twin believed in conflict as resolution. They were very different, but all that they created is an integral part of this Earth’s Creation.
Their Grandmother, Sky Woman, now came to the end of her life. When she died, the Twins fought over her body and pulled it apart, throwing her head into the sky. As part of the Sky World, there her head remained to shine upon the world as Grandmother Moon. The Twins could not live together without fighting. They agreed to dwell in different realms of the earth. The Right-Handed Twin continued to live in the daylight and the Left-Handed Twin became a dweller of the night. Both of them continue their special duties to their Mother the Earth.
A Wyandot (Huron) Legend
Many years ago the world had two parts. Animals lived in the lower part, which was completely covered in water and had no land or soil. Above was the Sky World, where the sky people lived. The Sky World had lots of soil, with beautiful mountains and valleys. One day a girl from the Sky World went for a long walk and became very tired.
“I’m so tired, I need to rest,” she said. She sat down under the spreading branches of an apple tree and quickly fell asleep. Suddenly, there was a rumbling sound like thunder and the ground began to crack. A big hole opened up next to the apple tree.
“What’s happening?” screamed the frightened girl. She tried to move but it was too late. She and the tree slid through the hole and tumbled over and over towards the watery world below.
“Help me! Help me!” screamed the girl. Luckily two swans were swimming below and saw the girl tumbling down from the sky. “Come on!” yelled one swan. “Let’s catch her before she hits the water.” “Okay!” yelled the other. The swans spread their wings together and caught the girl on their soft feather backs. “Whew! That was lucky,” said the girl. “But what do I do now? I can’t get back up to the Sky World and I can’t stay on your backs forever.”
“We’ll take you to Big Turtle,” said the swans. “He knows everything.” After hearing what happened, the Big Turtle called all the animals in the water world to a meeting. He told them an old story about soil being found deep under the water. “If we can get some of that soil, we can build an island on my back for you to live on,” said the Big Turtle.
“Sounds good to me,” said the young girl.
The Otter, Beaver and Muskrat started arguing over whom would dive for the soil. “I’ll go,” said the sleek Otter, brushing his glossy fur. “No! I’ll go,” said Beaver, slapping the water with his big flat tail. “I’m the best swimmer,” said Muskrat “I’ll go.”
“Aaaachooo!” sneezed the young girl.” Guys, guys, would just one of you go. These swan feathers are getting up my nose and making me sneeze.”
“Sorry” said the swans.
“That’s alright,” said the young Sky girl.
Then Toskwaye the little Toad popped up out of the water. “I’ll go. I can dive very deep,” she said. The other animals started laughing and pointing at Toskwaye. “You! You’re too small and ugly to help.” Cried the others, laughing.
“Be quite!” said Big Turtle in a loud, stern voice. “Everyone is equal and everyone will have a chance to try”. The sleek Otter smoothed his glossy fur, took a deep breath and slid into the water. He was gone for a long time before he came up gasping for air. “It was too deep,” he said. “I couldn’t dive that far.”
“Now it’s my turn,” said Beaver. He slapped the water with his tail as he disappeared. After a long time he came to the surface again. “It’s too far” he gasped. “No one can dive that deep.” Muskrat tried next and failed.
“Aaaachoo!” sneezed the young girl. “This is not looking good.”
“Now it’s my turn,” said little Toskwaye the Toad. She took a deep breath and jumped into the water. She was gone a very long time and everyone thought they wouldn’t see her again.
Suddenly Otter pointed at the water, shouting, and “Look, look bubbles!” Toskwaye’s small, ugly face appeared through the water. She spat a few grains of soil onto the Big Turtle’s back, then fell back into the water – dead.
The Turtle ordered the others to rub the soil grains and spread them around on his shell. The grains grew and grew, until a large island was formed – big enough for the girl to live on. It grew into our world, as we know it today. And the descendants of the Sky girl became the Earth’s people.
Today, some people say the whole world still rests on Big Turtles back. When he gets tired and changes his position, we have earthquakes.
Toad has not been forgotten either. American native Indians call her “Mashutaha”, which means ‘Our Grandmother’. No one is allowed to harm her.