Turtle symbolism and meanings have mostly likely been around for as long as humans have walked the Earth, because turtles are far older in evolutionary time than we are. Turtles have roamed the Earth for about 220 million years, 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.
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. When we arrived, the turtles were already here, so this may very well be when turtle symbolism and stories began to take shape in the minds of our distance ancestors.
But while hominids have changed much over these millions of years, turtle 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.
Turtle and Sea Turtle Meanings and Symbolism
There are over 300 species of turtles, and they live on every continent except Antarctica, so turtle symbolism and meanings abound in cultures around the world. This post will focus turtles, sea turtles, and terrapins, but look for another post on tortoise spirit animals and symbolism coming soon.
Because turtles have lived all over the Earth for so long, they have meanings for both ancient and modern cultures around the world, some of which have turtle creation myths, as well as legends about turtle spirit animals. You can read more details about turtle folklore below, but first here are some common turtle meanings:
Perseverance and Steadfastness
Home and Retreat
What’s the difference between a turtle, a sea turtle, a terrapin, and a tortoise?
Before we get started, I thought it was important to distinguish among these related, but slightly different reptiles. Turtles and sea turtles spend most of their time in water, only leaving to lay their eggs on land and occasionally to bask in the sun. Thus, turtles have webbed feet and their sea turtle cousins have flippers. Terrapins are turtles who spend more time on land, living in more brackish, swampy environments. Tortoises, on the other hand, are different from their water-loving cousins in that they live on land and do not have webbed feet.
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 animals 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 him or herself 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 guide you on your soul’s journey.
How do you know if a turtle or sea turtle is your spirit animal?
If you are wondering whether the turtle is one of your spirit animals, consider the questions below. And as you read this post, you’ll learn more about turtles, so it may become even more clear to you. If you already feel that the turtle or sea turtle is one of your power animals, you may learn some new things in this post that further guide you on your life path. There is always more we can learn from these wise and ancient beings. And if you’re curious about other animals who might be your spirit guides, you can take UniGuide’s spirit animal test and read the spirit animal overview.
Questions to consider:
- Were you especially interested in turtles or sea turtles when you were a child?
- Has a turtle made himself or herself known to you, whether in real life or in art or the media, in a way that riveted your attention?
- Do you feel a connection to land or sea turtles, and do you experience a feeling of wonder when you see them or hear about them?
- Has a turtle or turtles entered your dreams?
- Have your friends, family, or others described you as patient and steadfast?
- Are you methodical about how you go about solving problems?
- Have you been described as an old soul?
Only you can truly know if the turtle is one of your power animals. You may have loved turtles your whole life, or you may be someone who never thought much about them until one suddenly entered your life and rivets your attention. Either way, if you the turtle spirit has made an impact on you, by all means explore what these ancient beings can to teach you!
Turtle and Sea Turtle Meanings
Here are some meanings and symbols for what turtles may mean in your life.
Turtles have been on the Earth for 220 million years, and individually, they have long lifespans. Sea turtles can live into their 80s while tortoises can live to 150 years old. Pet turtles, including box turtles, can also live for a very long time, up to 40 years.
The Story of Atu
My family has a mud turtle (genus Kinosternon) named Atu who is 27 years old. A friend of mine found her on the street in San Francisco. She was young and sickly, and so when my friend had to take a trip, she left the little turtle with me while she travelled.
Atu seemed to improve with me, so Katie gave her to me. Atu lived happily in an aquarium for a number of years when I used to 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. My mom is clearly a turtle person and has been for as long as I can remember.
So, I smuggled Atu in my pocket on a flight to Colorado, and my mom became her new 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 travelled. A true animal whisperer, Susan became bewitched with Atu. Eventually, she expressed that she wouldn’t mind having Atu come live with her. When my mom got ill, she asked if 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. They are quite the opposite of butterflies and dragonflies, whose time on Earth generally last just a couple weeks and a few 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.
When you wish for a long-life of health for yourself and others, meditate on the turtle spirit. You can also mediate on the turtle spirit when you are creating something, including relationships and partnerships, or even a business endeavor, that you want to endure and to be able to stand the test of time. 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 turtle spirit.
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 simply mean you 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 symbol of protection. Native American mothers used turtle medicine to protect their new born babies, including holding sacred medicine 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, which is 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 needed 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.
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, 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 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. After all, turtles are Zen.
In Hindu and Native American culture, the turtle symbolizes the Earth. In stories from both of these cultures, there are depictions of the turtle carrying the world on his back, as well as being the creator of the world.
The turtle spirit asks you take a holistic view. 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, or heartbroken by loss or rejection, the turtle reminds that you there’s a great big world out there full of countless experiences that you have yet to discover. Get out of the shell of your immediate challenges and explore the world.
As semi-aquatic animals, turtles are symbols of transformation. All of 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 to spend most their time in the water. However, they still make the pilgrimage to land to lay their eggs. Just as their babies, once hatched, will make the journey across the sand and back into the sea.
Diving into Your Subconscious
Going into water is a symbol for diving into your subconscious and your super-conscious – an altered state from your day-to-day life in the material world. The turtle spirit embodies the transition back and forth between these states.
Expand your consciousness.
The turtle spirit animal invites to expand your consciousness. You are on a path of spiritual transformation. As the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:
“Stop acting so small. You are the Universe in ecstatic motion.”
Your turtle spirit animal reminds you that you have the capability within you to transform not only your life – through your own thoughts.
Turtle Symbolism and Meaning in Ancient Cultures
Because turtles have been on the Earth for 220 million years, and they exist on every continent except Antarctica, they are the subject of legends and folklore in many cultures. Here are some turtle symbols, meanings, and stories in some of these cultures.
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.
For Native Americans, the turtle symbolizes the Earth Mother. Most turtles have 13 scales, or scutes, on the back of their shell. For Native Americans, these scutes represented 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. 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, and used it to create land for people and animals to live on.
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 back of the turtle. The turtle grew larger and soon an entire island formed on his back, and this is how the Earth was made.
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 Native American tribes have turtle clans. Tribes that have turtle clans include the Chippewa, Huron-Wyandot, Menominee, Abenaki, Shawnee, and Iroquois.
Australian Aboriginal Creation Myths with 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, the warrior called Wayamba jumped from the bushes and grabbed Oola and her children and told her 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 tribe 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 strange creatures with shields on their backs down in the deep.
Polynesia Turtle Stories
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, but food never came.
As they grew more and more desperate, Fonueau and Salofa determined to leave their fate 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 coming to the shore of the village of Vaitogi. When they arrived, Chief Letuli and his people took pity on them 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 villagers. 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 will appear in the sea.
Turtles in Asian Cultures
Japanese Turtle Meanings 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, Princess Otohime would entertain him as his reward.
Urashima Tarō spent several days with the princess, but knew he had to return to his home on land. Sad to see him go, as a parting gift, Princess Otohime games him a jeweled box, but told him he must never open it.
On his journey home on the turtle’s back, Urashima Tarō became board, and 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, but that 100 years have passed, and he was now a very old man.
Turtle Symbolism in China
In China, turtles are also 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, as will placing one in the career section of your home or office, as represented in the placement on the bagua. Similarly, you can place a turtles 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.
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 his and the surrounding lands. Thus, he was crowned emperor by the people.
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.”
Turtle Meaning in Hindu Culture
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 and hold up the world.
In Hindu folklore, these is a giant turtle named Kurma, who holds the god Vishnu on his back. Kurma even has a temple that is dedicated to him – the Srikurmam Kurmanathaswamy Temple, which is located in Andhra Pradesh, India.
In Hindu culture, Kurma is considered the first living being, his belly symbolizing the Earth and his shell symbolizing the celestial world, or heavens.
Turtle Meanings in Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, turtles were plentiful in the Nile River, and they were considered to be sacred beings who warded off evil. Turtle amulets were warn for protection and to keep the wearer healthy. Thus, as with other cultures around the world, turtles in Egypt were symbols of protection, health, and longevity.
In ancient Mesopotamia, Enki, the god of water, was associated with the turtle. When Ninurta, the god of hunting and farming, attempts to gain absolute power over the world, Enki release a giant turtle to follow Ninurta. The turtle catches Ninurta and bites his ankle. He then digs a big hole and pulls Ninurta into with him, thus saving the world.
Turtle Symbolism in Sufism
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.
Turtle Symbolism in Nordic Cultures
In ancient Norse legends, there are 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.
Turtles in Celtic Mythology
“And the turtles, of course all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”
– Dr. Seuss
“I’m like an old turtle these days. I don’t run wide-open everywhere, but at the end of the day, I’ll be where I’m supposed to be.”
– Tracy Lawrence
“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
“Try to be like the turtle at ease in your own shell.”
– Bill Copeland
“Take a walk with a turtle. And behold the world in pause.”
– Bruce Feiler
“Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”
– James Bryant Conant
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. Threats to turtles include pollution, plastic waste, habitat loss, poaching, and the impacts of climate change, including severe storms, hotter sand, and sea levels rising. In addition, sea turtles are impacted by coastal development, fishing nets, and other commercial fishing activities. If you care about turtles, please do what you can to help protect them. Below are some organizations that are working to save turtles.