People from all over the world can recognize a turtle, they have a distinctive appearance that intrigues us. This sparked my curiosity as to how turtles play a role in human history, throughout different cultures around the world.

Blanding’s turtle. Photo taken by Lisa Browning.

Most of my research has led to Indigenous cultures and Asian cultures. My findings take only a small glimpse into these cultures, capturing just the tip of their rich histories. I do not represent any of these cultures and I encourage those who are interested, to do their own research or speak with individuals who can provide a personal perspective.

Painted turtle. Photo taken by Lisa Browning.

I started my research by looking into a couple North American Indigenous cultures. A common term that appeared was “Turtle Island”. I learned that “Turtle Island” can mean different things to different people. This is because Indigenous peoples and cultures vary greatly.

Anishinaabe culture talks about Turtle Island as a piece of mother earth which was placed on the back of a turtle [1]. The turtle having 13 scutes on its carapace, represents the 13 moon cycles in a year [1]. This signifies the changing of seasons and the passing of time and makes the turtle an eternal keeper of time [2]. Turtle behaviour also plays a role in telling time. For example, if turtles are seen foraging and preparing for hibernation, then this provides a cue that the winter season is coming. [2]

13 internal scutes on the carapace of a Blanding’s turtle. Photo taken by April Dejong.

Haundenosaunee culture tells the creation story of Sky-woman. Sky-woman is the great-great Grandmother of humans who came here from another world [3]. At this time the planet had no land and only water [3]. To survive from the water, animals put Sky-woman on the back of a turtle [3]. A muskrat brought up dirt from under water to be placed on the turtle’s back [3]. Sky-woman had seeds of many things, and as she walked counter-clockwise around the turtle’s back, the seeds turned into humans [3]. The more she went around the turtle’s back, the more was created until the turtle turned into the Earth [3].

Chief Lady Bird’s design of Turtle Island to celebrate Indigenous History Month on Twitter in 2018. Retrieved from CBC News

In Chinese culture, I found that turtles are represented through a lot of different symbology. Many of the statues in the Imperial Palace of Beijing are statues of turtles. This is said to represent imperial wisdom and longevity [4]. The Chinese Imperial Army flags also have images of tortoises on them to represent power and inaccessibility [4].

A turtle statue in the Imperial Palace of Beijing. Retrieved from CBC News

The turtle is also considered one of the “Four Fabulous Animals” alongside the dragon, the phoenix and the tiger [5]. This was important in Chinese art at the beginning of the Han dynasty, where each animal represented a cardinal direction (dragon- east, phoenix- south, tiger- west, and turtle- north) [5].

The “Four Fabulous Animals” representing the four directions on a mirror made in the late 7th-8th century CE [5].

In Japanese culture, the tale of Urashima Tarrō tells of a fisherman who rescued a baby turtle from kids who were mistreating it [6]. He was greatly rewarded for rescuing the turtle and was brought to Dragon Palace on the turtle’s back [6]. Japanese culture views turtles in a similar light as Chinese culture, where turtles are an omen to good luck, wisdom and longevity [6].

I’m sure there are many more cultures where turtles have a role to play. From what I have gathered in my research; turtles have meant a great deal to humans for a long time. They are woven into our history and hopefully, through conservation efforts, we can continue to celebrate turtles for years to come.

Blanding’s turtle. Photo taken by Lisa Browning.


[1] Anishinaabemdaa. 2019. “Thirteen Moons”. Retrieved from:

[2] Bell, N., Conroy, e., Wheatley, k., Michaud, B., Maracle, C., Pelletier, J., Filion, B., Johnson, B. 2010. “The Ways of Knowing Guide”. Toronto Zoo.

[3] Porter, T. “Mohawk (Haudenosaunee) Teaching”. 2006. Retrieved from:

[4] Jerebtsov, M., & Pivtorak, P. n.d. “Animalistic image of the turtle in Chinese classical culture”. Culture Science, Philosophy, Philology, Art, History and Archeology (7).

[5] Yale Art Gallery. 2020. “Asian Art”. Retrieved from:

[6] Zepnova, E. 2019. “How Japanese folklore conveys the idea of nature to kids”. University of Barcelona. Retrieved from: