Snapping turtles in folklore and mythology

Snapping Turtles in Folklore and Mythology: A Fascinating Dive into Ancient Beliefs


Snapping turtles are a unique and intriguing species, known for their distinctive appearance and behavior. But did you know that these remarkable creatures also hold a special place in folklore and mythology across various cultures? In this article, we will explore the captivating world of snapping turtles as they appear in the myths and legends of different societies. From Native American stories to Asian folklore, these ancient tales reveal the significance and symbolism associated with snapping turtles in our human narrative.

The Universal Symbolism of Snapping Turtles

Before delving into specific stories, it’s essential to understand the universal symbolism attached to snapping turtles in folklore and mythology. Snapping turtles often represent longevity, wisdom, and adaptability. These attributes are a result of their unique characteristics and long lifespan.

Snapping Turtles in Native American Folklore

Snapping turtles in folklore and mythology
Snapping turtles in folklore and mythology

The Snapping Turtle and Creation

The Iroquois Creation Myth: The Iroquois people have a creation story that features the snapping turtle. According to their myth, the world was initially a watery abyss, and all the animals lived in the Sky World. To create our world, a pregnant Sky Woman fell through a hole in the Sky World and landed on the back of a massive snapping turtle. The turtle carried the weight of the world on its back, eventually forming the land we now know.

Symbolism of the Snapping Turtle

The Eastern Woodlands Tribes: Various Native American tribes, including the Eastern Woodlands cultures, hold snapping turtles in high regard for their longevity and resilience. The turtle shell, due to its hard exterior, symbolizes protection. The tribes also associate the turtle with healing and transformation, as it withdraws into its shell and emerges renewed.

Asian Legends of Snapping Turtles

The Journey of Urashima Taro

Urashima Taro in Japanese Mythology: In Japanese folklore, there is a tale of Urashima Taro, a fisherman who saved a small turtle from mistreatment. In gratitude, the turtle took him to the Dragon Palace beneath the sea. There, he met the beautiful Princess Otohime, with whom he fell in love. After spending what seemed like a few days in the palace, Urashima Taro returned to the surface, only to discover that many years had passed. The turtle in this story represents not only transformation but also the concept of timelessness and the fleeting nature of human existence.

The Black Tortoise in Chinese Mythology

The Black Tortoise (Xuanwu): In Chinese mythology, Xuanwu, also known as the Black Tortoise, is a deity associated with the north and the element of water. He is often depicted as a warrior with a snake coiled around his arm, standing on the back of a black turtle. The turtle symbolizes stability, protection, and the ability to navigate the waters of life. Xuanwu is revered for his role in warding off evil spirits and ensuring safe journeys.

Snapping Turtles in African Folklore

The Creation of Earth

Akan Creation Myth (Ghana): The Akan people of Ghana have a creation myth that features a snapping turtle. According to their beliefs, the universe was created when a giant snapping turtle dived into the primordial waters, stirring up mud that eventually formed the land. The turtle is considered a sacred creature in Akan culture, symbolizing the beginning of all things.

European Legends and Symbolism

Turtles in Celtic Lore

Celtic Symbolism: While the snapping turtle is not native to Europe, turtles, in general, have found a place in Celtic folklore. They are often associated with ancient wisdom, patience, and a connection to the land. The Celts, with their strong connection to nature, saw turtles as beings of wisdom and protectors of the natural world.

Modern Interpretations

Environmental Significance

In modern times, snapping turtles are also seen as symbols of environmental conservation. Their presence in ecosystems signifies a balanced and healthy environment. Protecting snapping turtles and their habitats has become a focal point for wildlife conservation efforts, highlighting the enduring importance of these creatures.

The World Turtle and Kurma: Guardians of Creation

The World Turtle: A Cosmic Supporter

In numerous Indigenous American creation myths, the notion of a World Turtle takes center stage. This giant turtle, often depicted carrying the world on its back, is a symbol of resilience and strength. The world itself rests upon the shell of this ancient, cosmic creature, emphasizing the profound connection between nature and existence.

While the specifics of these stories vary across different Indigenous cultures, the overarching theme remains consistent: the World Turtle signifies the interdependence of all living beings with the Earth. This symbol is a reminder that our actions have a direct impact on the world we inhabit, and it underscores the importance of nurturing our planet.

Kurma: The Cosmic Tortoise of Hindu Mythology

In Hindu mythology, Kurma, the second avatar of Lord Vishnu, plays a similar role as the World Turtle. During the churning of the ocean of milk, Kurma took the form of a giant tortoise to support Mount Mandara. This act of unwavering support ensured the successful extraction of the elixir of immortality (amrita).

Kurma’s presence in this myth illustrates the idea that the divine can manifest in many forms, even as a humble tortoise. It emphasizes the importance of patience, determination, and steadfastness in the face of daunting challenges.

Mbeku: The Clever Trickster of West African Folktales

Mbeku the Trickster

In Igbo and West African folktales, Mbeku stands out as a mischievous and cunning tortoise. Known for his intelligence and craftiness, Mbeku often finds himself embroiled in humorous and challenging situations. His antics challenge conventional wisdom and often lead to unexpected outcomes.

Mbeku’s stories teach valuable lessons about wit and resourcefulness, showing that intelligence and creativity can triumph over physical strength. He reminds us that sometimes, it’s not the strongest who prevail but the cleverest.

Minogame: The Shape-Shifting Enigma of Japanese Folklore

Minogame and Transformation

Japanese folklore introduces us to the enigmatic Minogame, a giant sea turtle said to be the transformed form of Otohime, the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea. This mystical creature is characterized by the long, beautiful seaweed growing from its shell, which symbolizes age and wisdom. It is said that the Minogame can transform into a human woman.

The concept of transformation is central to Minogame’s story. It reflects the fluidity of boundaries between the human and natural worlds, suggesting that the two are intricately connected. Minogame embodies the idea that profound wisdom can be found in the depths of the ocean, and those who seek it must be open to change.

Kappa: The Aquatic Trickster of Japanese Lore

Kappa: Mischievous Water Dwellers

While not turtles in the strictest sense, Kappa are turtle-like humanoid creatures in Japanese folklore. These water-dwelling beings are known for their mischievous and sometimes malevolent nature. Kappa are said to inhabit rivers and lakes, and their pranks often involve luring unsuspecting humans into the water.

The Kappa’s role as tricksters serves as a warning to respect the power of natural bodies of water. They remind us that beneath their calm surfaces, lakes and rivers can conceal dangers, emphasizing the importance of caution when venturing into the wild.

Turtle Island: Indigenous American Connection

Turtle Island: A Symbolic Name

Turtle Island is the name given to North America by some Indigenous American peoples. This name reflects the strong connection between the land and the creatures that inhabit it. It symbolizes the idea that the land and its inhabitants are interconnected, emphasizing the need for harmony and balance with nature.

The concept of Turtle Island encourages us to view the environment as a living entity and to recognize our responsibility for its care and preservation. It is a powerful reminder that the natural world is not a resource to be exploited but a part of our collective identity.

The Snapping Turtle Shell: A Symbol of Protection and Strength

The Snapping Turtle Shell in Symbolism

The snapping turtle shell is not just a physical attribute but a potent symbol in many cultures. It represents protection and strength, serving as a metaphor for resilience and the ability to shield oneself from adversity.

In Native American traditions, the snapping turtle shell is believed to provide protection from negative energies and influences. Its formidable appearance and defensive capabilities embody the idea that, like the turtle, we can use our inner strength to safeguard ourselves in challenging times.


Snapping turtles, with their unique characteristics and long lifespan, have left an indelible mark on the folklore and mythology of various cultures around the world. These ancient stories remind us of the enduring qualities of these creatures, such as longevity, wisdom, and adaptability. Whether in Native American legends, Asian folklore, African creation myths, or modern environmental concerns, snapping turtles continue to hold a special place in our collective imagination. Their symbolism serves as a powerful reminder of the natural world’s significance and the enduring wisdom of ancient beliefs. So, next time you encounter a snapping turtle, remember that it’s not just a remarkable creature; it’s a living legend with a history deeply intertwined with the human narrative.