Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Turtle Tales for Turtle Day

Today is World Turtle Day! Who even knew there was such a day? It reminds me, though, of all the turtle tales, legends and superstitions I have heard over the years.

For example, we all know that turtles are the symbol often used for longevity, patience, and wisdom. There is also a belief in many indigenous cultures that a turtle is carrying the world on its back, as in this story from the Huron legends.  In another story, the continents were formed when turtle's shell was cracked.

The story of tortoise and hare is a well-known Aesop fable but turtle stars in many stories, usually in a starring role. In one Caribbean tale, turtle wants to fly, and persuades some geese to carry him on a stick which two geese carry in their beaks. Turtle grabs hold with his mouth, and is soon flying high with the geese. He is so proud that he shouts, "Look at me!" to his friends below--and of course the moment he opens his mouth, he falls back to the ground, cracking his shell. Which, they say, is how the turtle's shell was cracked.

In an Anansi story, Anansi invites turtle to dinner but turtle must clean his feet before eating. Of course, every time the turtle washes them in the river, his feet are dirty by the time he returns to Anansi's house, and Anansi ate all the food. Turtle returned the invitation, and Anansi decide to go to turtle's for dinner one day. But turtles home was under the water, and since Anansi was very light he could not get to turtle's house, and the smell of the delicious food only added to his distress.

Folklore and superstition does not overlook the turtle. Carrying a turtle bone is supposed to bring good luck, and some people say the thirteen sections of a turtle's shell are symbolic of the 13 lunar months. Turtles were believed to offer protection against evil, so keeping one around the house was a good idea.

Not all peoples viewed turtles kindly, however. Early Christians saw them as symbols of bad luck during war. Some believed their shells were the shelter for evil spirits, others that the shell harbored the souls of dead sinners. A few other beliefs: "The Thais believe that if you free a turtle, you will find relief from sadness and upset, while the Vietnamese believe that if you see a turtle crossing the street, your plans will be delayed. The Chinese believe patting the shell of a turtle or tortoise will bring you luck and in parts of Angola, it is believed that putting a tortoise shell underneath your door will help you warn off a rival." (from the website Reptile Expert)

One of my favorite turtle stories is from Margaret Read MacDonald's book, The Storyteller's Start-Up Book. I bought this book when I first began telling stories, and Turtle of Koka was the first story I learned from it. This Caribbean tale tells of a turtle that is captured and taken to a village to be cooked for dinner. The turtle manages to trick the people into believing their weapons and methods cannot kill him, and then fools them one last time and escapes safely, waving goodbye as he swims away. The story is perfect for audience participation, and offers opportunities for singing, call-and-response and creativity. It also teaches gentle lessons of courage in the face of adversity, and thinking instead of crying about bad luck. Of course, each listener takes from the story what speaks to them, and that is the very best a folktale has to offer.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

1 comment:

Jack Abgott said...

I refuse to celebrate Mitch McConnell, but all other turtles...Yay!

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