Turtle symbolism and meanings include longevity, perseverance, steadfastness, protection, retreat, healing, tranquility, the Earth, and transformation. For as long as humans have walked the Earth, there have been turtles. Thus, human beings have been telling stories about turtles for a very long time. In addition, the turtle spirit animal is an important figure to many people who feel a kinship with theses animals, whether land or sea turtles. In this post, you’ll learn about turtle and sea turtle mythology and meanings, the turtle spirit animal, and more.
Table of Contents
- Difference Between a Turtle, Sea Turtle, Terrapin, and Tortoise
- What does a turtle symbolize?
- Detailed Turtle and Sea Turtle Symbols and Meanings
- Turtle Spirit Animal
- Turtle Power Animal
- Turtle Totem
- Turtle Mythology and Folklore
- Native American Turtle Meanings
- Australian Aboriginal Creation Myths About Turtles
- Polynesian Turtle Symbolism and Myths
- Japanese Turtle Symbolism and Stories
- Turtle Symbolism in China
- Turtles in Taiwan
- Turtle Symbolism in Vietnam
- Turtle Meaning in Hinduism
- Turtle Meaning in Ancient Egypt
- Sufi Turtle Symbolism
- Turtle Symbolism in Nordic Cultures
- Turtles in Celtic Mythology
- Turtle Dream Meaning
- Turtle Tattoo
- Organizations that Protect Turtles
Difference Between a Turtle, Sea Turtle, Terrapin, and Tortoise
Before we get started, I thought some of you might be interested in learning about the difference between a turtle, a sea turtle, a terrapin, and a tortoise. While they are very similar, there are some distinct differences.
To begin, many turtle species and all sea turtles spend most of their time in the water. In fact, they only leave it to lay their eggs on land and occasionally to bask in the sun. Thus, many species of turtles have webbed feet and their sea turtle cousins have flippers. Terrapins, on the other hand, and some species of turtles spend more time on land. These species live in more brackish, swampy environments. Tortoises, on the other hand, are different from their water-loving cousins in that they live totally on land and do not have webbed feet.1
This post will cover turtle, terrapin, and sea turtle symbolism, and I’ll write a separate post on the tortoise soon.
What does a turtle symbolize?
- Perseverance and Steadfastness
- Home and Retreat
Detailed Turtle and Sea Turtle Symbols and Meanings
“The turtle’s teachings are so beautiful. So very special. It teaches us that everything you are, everything you need, and everything you bring to the world is inside you, not external, and you carry it with you, and are not limited to a place, space, or time.”
– Eileen Anglin
Turtle Symbolism: Longevity
Turtles have been on the Earth for 220 million years. In addition, they have long lifespans. Land turtles can live to 40 years old, while sea turtles can live into their 80s.
The Story of Atu
My family has a mud turtle (genus Kinosternon) named Atu who is 28 years old. A friend of mine found her on the street in San Francisco. She was young and sickly. When my friend went on a trip, she left the little turtle with me.
Atu seemed to improve under my care, so Katie gave her to me. Atu lived happily in an aquarium for a number of years when I live on the houseboats in Sausalito, California.
My mom is a great lover of turtles, and always asked about Atu, hinting that she wouldn’t mind having her come live with her in Colorado. The turtle is clearly one of my mom’s spirit animals and has been for as long as I can remember.
So, I smuggled Atu in my pocket on a flight to Colorado. My mom became her benefactor for a number of years. My mom had a good friend named Susan who always took care of my mom’s animals when she traveled. A true animal whisperer, Susan also became besotted with Atu. Eventually, she expressed that she wouldn’t mind having Atu come live with her. When my mom got ill, she asked me if she could give Atu to Susan. Knowing Susan, I said yes. Atu has lived with Susan now for well over a decade where she enjoys being hand-fed freeze dried worms every evening.
As ancient beings with long lifespans, turtles are symbols of longevity in cultures all over the world. In this way, they are the opposite of butterflies and dragonflies, whose time on Earth generally lasts just a couple of weeks or months, respectively.
When the turtle is your spirit animal, you are an old soul with a perspective on life that is deep and open-minded. You have much to teach others about life and about why we are here.
As a symbol of ancient wisdom, the turtle is a helpful totem to meditate on when you wish for a long life of health for yourself and others. In addition, the turtle spirit is a helpful symbol to think about when you are creating something that you want to endure the test of time. This can be a creative project, a relationship or partnership, or a new business venture. Turtles, after all, were built to last.
Perseverance and Steadfastness
The steady turtle is also a symbol of perseverance and steadfastness. In the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare,” despite his slow pace, it is the tortoise who prevails because of his consistency and focus. The saying “Slow and steady wins the race.” embodies the spirit of the turtle.
The turtle spirit is a wise teacher who reminds you that once you are clear about your goal, stay true to your path, even if your progress seems slow and arduous.
Of course, it’s essential to be crystal clear about your objectives first. If you feel like you’re unsure of your path, it probably means you just need more information. Seek it out. Study, explore, meditate, and reflect. This process is also part of your journey.
Resist and Persist
The turtle spirit also embodies perseverance. In a world that can be negative, harsh, and cruel at times, the turtle reminds you to put on your shell of resistance and keep moving forward.
With their hardened shells, turtles are the ultimate symbols of protection. Native American mothers used turtle medicine to protect their newborn babies, including holding sacred medicines in turtle shells.
Summon the turtle spirit when you are going into a situation where you need protection. This could be a negotiation, a confrontation, or simply a new experience where you are pushing your limits. You have a tough shell of willpower and resolve that’s stronger than you realize.
Home and Retreat
We all need to retreat into our shells from time to time, away from the chaos of the world. When the turtle is your power animal, it’s important to give yourself the time you need to go into your man cave or she den, to take care of yourself, reflect, and recharge. Then, you will be better equipped to stick your neck out, embrace new experiences, and bask in the sunshine of life.
As they are symbols of protection and retreat, turtles are also powerful symbols of healing. As noted earlier, the Navajo People used turtle shells to hold and dispense their medicines because of the turtle’s special healing qualities.2
If you are ill or someone you love is, meditate on the turtle’s longevity, endurance, and power to heal. And, it goes without saying, always seek out help from your Higher Power and your Angels.
If you have ever seen turtles basking on a log in a lake and absorbing the sunshine, you know they are peaceful beings. While they can be territorial, you don’t see turtles battling like wolves over a piece of meat, or like crows driving an interloping owl away from their territory. Turtles don’t have time for such shenanigans. They would rather be peacefully coasting under water or soaking up the sunshine on shore.
If you’ve ever had the privilege to snorkel or scuba dive and watch sea turtles in the ocean, you have a first-hand account of just how gentle and tranquil these special beings are.
Summon the turtle spirit animal when you need tranquility. Even looking at turtle images and videos can have a calming effect.
In Hindu and Native American cultures, the turtle symbolizes the Earth. In stories from both of these cultures, there are depictions of a great turtle carrying the world on his back, as well as being the creator of the world. Thus, turtles are symbols of both the vastness of the world and the Earth as a foundation for all life.
The turtle spirit asks you take a holistic view and think in terms of the big picture. If you feel unwell, focus on your overall health, not just treating symptoms. If you are unhappy in your life, perhaps a major lifestyle change is in order. And if you are caught up in immediate problems, heartbroken by loss or rejection, the turtle reminds that you there’s a great big world out there. It is full of interesting people, natural wonders, and countless experiences that you have yet to discover. Get out of your shell and explore the world.
“And the turtles – of course all the turtles are free, as turtles should be – and maybe all creatures should be.”
– Dr. Seuss
As semi-aquatic animals, turtles are symbols of transformation. All life originated in the sea, and eventually, some creatures made their way to land, including the turtle.
Yet, the turtle never completely disconnected from the water. Sea turtles especially evolved and returned full-time to the ocean, although they still make the pilgrimage to land to lay their eggs. Babies turtles, too, once hatched, will make the journey across the sand and back into the sea.
Diving into Your Subconscious
Going into water is symbolic for diving into your subconscious and your super-conscious – an altered state from your day-to-day life in the material world. Thus, the turtle spirit embodies the ability to transition back and forth between these two states.
Expand your consciousness.
The turtle spirit animal invites to expand your consciousness. There is so much more going on than we experience in our day-to-day conscious states. The turtle spirit animal reminds you that you have the capacity within you to transform any area of your life, including your thoughts.
As the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:
“Stop acting so small. You are the Universe in ecstatic motion.”
Turtle Spirit Animal
When the turtle is your spirit animal, you are blessed with an ancient understanding of the world. According to Native American traditions, you don’t necessarily choose your spirit animals. Instead, they choose you. Your spirit animal might come to you in a vision quest or through prayer or meditation, or in another powerful way that impacts your human experience on Earth.
If a turtle or sea turtle makes themself known to you, whether in real life or through art, the media, or elsewhere – pay attention. There are no coincidences. Your spirit animal serves as a guide, bringing you messages from the Universe to help you are you navigate your life path and your soul’s journey.
Turtle Power Animal
“Try to be like the turtle at ease in your own shell.”
– Bill Copeland
As the name implies, a power animal can empower you with their most dynamic traits. For example, you can summon the turtle power animal when you:
- Are starting a new relationship or endeavor and want it to last for the long-term.
- Feel the need for more protection in your life, whether it’s physical, emotional, psychic, or financial.
- Need to summon the perseverance to get through a challenging time in your life or to overcome obstacles.
- Want to transform an area of your life.
- Need more peace and tranquility in your life.
- Would like some good luck to come your way!
A turtle totem is a symbol that encapsulates the positive attributes of the animal is represents. So, a turtle totem can be a good luck talisman for bringing healing and protection in your life. It can also be a good luck symbol when you are undergoing a transformation and hope for positive outcomes.
Turtle Mythology and Folklore
Turtles have roamed the Earth for about 220 million years,3 making them a little “younger” than sharks, who are roughly 450 million years old, and dragonflies, who are about 300 million years old. Sea turtles, however, are a bit younger than land turtles, at about 120 million years old. Biologists surmise that sea turtles evolved from their land-loving cousins, eventually developing flipper-like “feet” from semi-webbed feet, thanks to evolution.4
We are youngsters compared to turtles.
Compared to these ancient animals, we humans are youngsters. Our first ape-like ancestors who walked on two legs didn’t appear on Earth until 5 – 7 million years ago.5 When we arrived, the turtle was already here. So, this may very well be when turtle symbolism and mythology began to take shape in the minds of our distance ancestors.
While hominids have changed much over these millions of years, turtles are pretty much the same as they ever were. Apparently, no one saw a reason to break the turtle mold. So, you can say that turtles and sea turtles are truly ancient beings who carry in their DNA the wisdom of the ages.
Not only are they ancient, turtle are everywhere. There are over 300 and they live on every continent except Antarctica.6 Thus, turtles appear in the mythology and folklore of many cultures. Here are some of those stories:
Native American Turtle Meanings
Every Native American culture is unique, with their own set of traditions and beliefs. However one thing they all have in common is a deep reverence for animals and nature. For many Native American tribes, the turtle is a powerful being.
A Celestial Symbol of Mother Earth
For the Native Americans, the turtle symbolizes the Earth Mother. Most turtles have 13 scales, or scutes, on the back of their shell. To Native Americans, these scutes represent the 13 full moons that we have each year.
In addition, on the very outer rim of most turtles’ shells, there are 28 smaller scutes. For the Native Americans, these 28 sections represented the 28 days in a lunar month.7 Thus, turtles were considered a celestial symbol of Mother Earth.
Turtle Earth Mother
There is a Native American creation myth about a great flood, which covered the Earth with water. The Turtle Earth Mother swam below the surface of the water and gathered mud from the ocean floor. She used this mud to create land for people and animals to live on.8
The Iroquois have a similar creation myth. In their story, the Sky Woman falls down to Earth. However, the Earth is covered in water. So, the animals who were living in the sea, tried to create some land for her. They swam to the bottom of the sea and brought up mud to create the land, but had nowhere to put it. So, the muskrat began to pile mud on top of the turtle. Soon, the other animals joined in to pile more mud on the turtle’s back. The turtle grew larger and soon an entire island formed on his back, and this is how the Earth was made.9
For the Mohawk People, the Earth was also carried by a giant turtle. And earthquakes were merely the turtle shrugging to shift the weight of the world she was carrying on her back.
Native American cultures have a clan system that is organized around family groups, which are based on the maternal line. Clans serve as a system of community organization and a division of labor, and some historians surmise that they helped to keep gene pools healthy by preventing close relatives from marrying.
Clans also have animals that are associated with them, such as the bear, crow, fox, or hummingbird, and a number of tribes have turtle clans. These tribes include the Chippewa, Huron-Wyandot, Menominee, Abenaki, Shawnee, and Iroquois.10
Australian Aboriginal Creation Myths About Turtles
As I wrote about in my overview post about spirit animals, like the Native Americans, the Aboriginal Australians believe strongly in the interconnectedness of life on Earth. Their belief system is sometimes referred to as “animism,” which means they viewed people, plants, animals, landforms, and celestial bodies as interconnected and part of a greater whole. The Aboriginal Australians also revered turtles, who figured prominently in some of their creation stories.
Wayamba the Turtle
A long time ago, Oola, the lizard, was gathering yams for her children to eat. Suddenly, a warrior named Wayamba jumped from the bushes and grabbed Oola and her children. He told Oola that she would become his wife. Wayamba was armed with weapons and a big shield, so Oola could not overpower him.
When Wayamba walked into his camp with Oola and her children, his tribe members were very angry because they knew he had stolen her. So, they told Wayamba that when Oola’s tribesmen came to rescue her, he would be on his own to defend himself. They weren’t getting in to a fight of his making.
Knowing he would be outnumbered, Wayamba wrapped two shields around his body, one in the front and one in the back. As Oola’s tribesmen attacked, throwing spears and boomerangs, Wayamba pulled his head, arms, and legs in between the two shields. However, knowing that he was still outnumbered, Wayamba ran as fast as he could and dove into a lake.
Wayamba was never seen again. However, those who venture into the water have reported seeing a strange creature with shields on its back down in the deep.11
Polynesian Turtle Symbolism and Myths
The Indigenous People of the Polynesian Islands also have a collection of turtle legends.
The Turtle and the Shark
There once was a blind woman named Fonueau who had a daughter named Salofa. One year, a severe famine overtook the island and Fonueau and Salofa began to starve. Fonueau assured her daughter that the villagers would surely bring them food because they knew she was blind. However, food never came.
As they grew more and more desperate, Fonueau and Salofa decided to leave their fate up to the gods. So, they jumped off a cliff into the sea. But when they both returned to the surface, they saw that the other had been transformed: one into a shark and the other a turtle.
Excited that they could suddenly swim so well, they swam to find another island. Eventually they came to the shore of a village called Vaitogi. When they arrived, the local chief, a man named Letuli, and his people took pity on the starving creatures and fed them.
The turtle and shark were then transformed back into their human forms of Fonueau and Salofa. Out of gratitude, the two women danced and sang to entertain Chief Letuli and his people.
Today, the people of Samoa play their special song when they need the power of the turtle and shark spirits, and it’s said that when they sing this song, a shark and turtle appear in the sea.12
Japanese Turtle Symbolism and Stories
In Japan, turtles are symbols of longevity and felicity.
The Story of Urashima Tarō
There once was a fisherman named Urashima Tarō who rescued a turtle. To repay him, the turtle said he would carry him on his back to the Dragon Palace beneath the sea. There, as his reward, the beautiful Princess Otohime would entertain him.
Urashima Tarō spent several pleasurable days with the princess. However, he knew he had to return to his home on land. When it came time for Urashima Tarō to leave, the weeping Princess Otohime gave him a jeweled box as a parting gift. However, she told him he must never open it.
Urashima Tarō turtle friend arrived to take him home. On the long journey, Urashima Tarō grew bored. Unable to contain his curiosity, he opened the jeweled box. When Urashima Tarō finally got back to his village, he learned that he had not been gone for just a few days. In fact, 100 years had passed, and he was now a very old man.13
Turtle Symbolism in China
In China, turtles are sacred animals who are symbols of longevity, wisdom, and wealth. For practioners of Feng Shui, placing a turtle statue near the front door protects your home from negative energy. In addition, placing a turtle behind your back in your office will help you to be more successful. Furthermore, placing a turtle in the career section of your home or office, as represented in the placement on the bagua, will bring professional rewards. You can also place a turtle in the health section of any room to bring health and vitality to inhabitants.
Turtles in Taiwan
In Taiwanese culture, turtles represent good luck, longevity, and peacefulness. Thus, the Taiwanese bake little cakes in the shape of turtles during festival season, giving them as gifts and offerings in temples.14
Turtle Symbolism in Vietnam
Turtles are also sacred animals in Vietnamese culture, and they are the subject of many Vietnamese stories. One of the most enduring is the story of the Sacred Giant Turtle.
The Sacred Giant Turtle
In the 15th century, a wealthy landowner named Lê Lợi was given a supernatural sword from his angels. With this sword, he successfully drove the occupying Ming Army off of his own and surrounding lands. Thus, the people crowned him as their emperor.
One day, Lê Lợi was taking a leisurely boat ride in a lake when a massive golden turtle surfaced. Now that the battles were over, Lê Lợi knew that he must return his magical sword, so he placed it on the back of the turtle, who swam into the depths of the lake. The return of the sword brought peace to the land, So, Lê Lợi renamed the lake, which is located near present-day Hanoi, “Hồ Hoàn Kiếm,” which translates to “Lake of the Returned Sword.”15
Turtle Meaning in Hinduism
Similar to the Native American creation legend, in Hindu mythology the world rests on a giant turtle. However, the Hindus insert four elephants who stand on the shell of the turtle to uphold the world.
In Hindu mythology, there is a giant turtle named Kurma who holds the god Vishnu on his back. Kurma even has a temple that’s dedicated to him – the Srikurmam Kurmanathaswamy Temple, which is located in Andhra Pradesh, India.
In Hinduism, Kurma is considered the first living being, his belly symbolizing the Earth and his shell symbolizing the celestial world, or heavens.16
Turtle Meaning in Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, turtles were plentiful in the Nile River. The Egyptians saw them as sacred beings who warded off evil. They wore turtle amulets for protection and to keep the wearer healthy.17 Thus, as with other cultures around the world, turtles in Egypt were symbols of protection, health, and longevity.
The Mesopotamians associated Enki, their god of water, with the turtle. In one story, when Ninurta, the god of hunting and farming, attempted to gain absolute power over the world, Enki released a giant turtle to follow him. The turtle caught Ninurta and bit his ankle. He then dug a big hole and pulled Ninurta into with him, thus saving the world.18
Sufi Turtle Symbolism
For the Sufis, turtles held important symbolic meaning. The Sufis saw the hatching of baby sea turtles who make their pilgrimage across the sand an into the sea as symbolic of one’s return to God through prayer and God’s guidance.19
Turtle Symbolism in Nordic Cultures
In ancient Norse legends, there were two Earth goddesses who are associated with turtles. Fjorgyn, the goddess of nature, soil, and stone, is often depicted with three spirit animals – a snapping turtle, a toad, and a vole. And Asha, who is the goddess of art and pottery, is often depicted with a painted turtle.20
Turtles in Celtic Mythology
Turtle Dream Meaning
If a turtle enters your dreams and you wonder what the dream meant, consider the emotions you felt in the dream. Dreams are personal to each dreamer, so a turtle dream for one person may be interpreted very differently from one that another person has. However, delving into the emotions you felt in the dream in context to your own views of turtles and sea turtles can provide better insights into what your subconscious is trying to tell you.
As they are symbols of retreat and transformation, a turtle dream might be interpreted as a sign for you to take some down time to rest and reflect and think about areas of your life that you would like to transform.
A turtle or sea turtle tattoo is a beautiful symbol that demonstrates that you are an old soul as well as a person who is still undergoing your own spiritual evolution and transformation. it also communicated that you are connected to the Earth and view life in a holistic, big-picture way. It also shows that you love turtles and sea turtles! Tattoos are personal to each individual, but hopefully understanding more about turtle symbolism and mythology will bring even deeper meaning to your tattoo.
Organizations that Protect Turtles
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), many turtle species are listed as threatened, endangered, or critically endangered.21 Threats to turtles and sea turtles include pollution, plastic waste, habitat loss, poaching, and the impacts of climate change, including severe storms, hotter sand, and sea levels rising. Furthermore, sea turtles are impacted by coastal development, fishing nets, and other commercial fishing activities.22 If you care about turtles, please do what you can to help protect them. Here are some organizations that are working to save the world’s turtles:
- Turtle Conservancy
- Humane Society International
- Sea Turtle Conservancy
- Wildlife Trafficking Alliance
- Turtle Foundation