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).
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.
An example a reference to a World Turtle in Hindu literature is found in Jñānarāja (the author of Siddhāntasundara, writing c. 1500): "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]?" Reference to the Hindu World Turtle in western literature developed into the "Turtles all the way down" expression referring to infinite regression, in early forms often combining the World Turtle with World Elephants. An early example of this is John Locke, who his 1689 tract An Essay Concerning Human Understanding compares one who would say that properties inherent in "substance" to the Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise "but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — something, he knew not what."
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.
- Vernon-Harcourt, Leveson Venables (1838). The Doctrine of the Deluge.
- Toke L. Knudsen, Indology mailing list.
- Locke, John (1689). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XXIII, section 2
- 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)