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-Tortoise" mytheme was discussed comparatively by Edward Burnett Tylor (1878:341).
In Chinese mythology the creator goddess Nüwa cut the legs off the giant sea turtle Ao (鳌) and used them to prop up the sky after Gong Gong damaged the Buzhou Mountain that had previously supported the heavens.
The most widespread name given to the tortoise is Kurma or Kurmaraja. The Shatapatha Brahmana identifies the earth as its lower shell, the atmosphere as its body and the vault of heaven as its upper shell.
An alleged tortoise Chukwa supporting Mount Meru is reported by Leveson Venables Vernon-Harcourt in 1838. Vernon-Harcourt claims that this Chukwa was introduced to bishop Heber "in the Vidalaya school in Benares [by] an astronomical lecturer" (sic; vidyalaya is the Sanskrit for "school"). Chukwa along with Maha-padma (spelled "Maha-pudma") as the name of a world-elephant mentioned in the Ramayana has subsequently made it into Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and was further repeated by reference to that work.
The concept of World-Tortoise and World-Elephant was conflated in popular or rhetorical references to Hindu mythology.[dubious ] The combination of tortoise and elephant is present in John Locke's 1690 tract An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which references an "Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise ". It is repeated in Bertrand Russell's 1927 Why I Am Not A Christian in the reference to "the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise". A whimsical allusion to such a supposed "tortoise-and-elephant" version of the myth appears in Wilfrid Sellars' 1956 Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind:
- authoritative nonverbal episodes... would constitute the tortoise on which stands the elephant on which rests the edifice of empirical knowledge.
- Why the World is on the Back of a Turtle - Miller, Jay; Man, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 306–308, including further references within the cited text)
- L. Vernon Harcourt (1838). The doctrine of the Deluge: vindicating the scriptural account from the doubts which have recently been cast upon it by geological speculations. London: Longmans. p. 250. OCLC 3825449.