The World Turtle (also referred to as the Cosmic Turtle, the World-bearing Turtle, or the Divine Turtle) – is a myth of a giant turtle (or tortoise) supporting or containing the world. The myth, which is similar to that of the World Elephant and World Serpent, occurs in Chinese mythology and the mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
The World Turtle in Hindu mythology is known as Akupāra (Sanskrit: अकूपार), or sometimes Chukwa. Example of a reference to the 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?” The British philosopher John Locke made reference to this in his 1689 tract, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which compares one who would say that properties inhere 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.”
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable lists Maha-pudma and Chukwa as names from a “popular rendition of a Hindu myth in which the tortoise Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma, which in turn supports the world”.
In Chinese mythology, the creator goddess Nüwa cut the legs off the giant sea turtle Ao (Chinese: 鳌; pinyin: áo) and used them to prop up the sky after Gong Gong damaged Mount Buzhou, which had previously supported the heavens.
The Lenape myth of the “Great Turtle” was first recorded between 1678 and 1680 by Jasper Danckaerts. The myth is shared by other indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands, notably the Iroquois.
The “world-elephants” are mythical animals, which according to some authors, appear in Hindu cosmology. However, this concept is not found anywhere in the Puranas or the Epics and Al Biruni makes no mention of it, only quoting Brahmagupta who states “the earth is the only low thing”.
The popular rendition of the World Turtle supporting one or several World Elephants is recorded in 1599 in a letter by Emanual de Veiga. Wilhelm von Humboldt suggested that the idea of a world-elephant was due to a confusion, caused by the Sanskrit noun Nāga having the dual meaning of “serpent” and “elephant” (named for its serpent-like trunk), thus representing a corrupted account of the world-serpent.
The Amarakosha (5th century) lists the names of eight male elephants bearing the world (along with eight unnamed female elephants). The names listed are: Airavata, Pundarika, Vamana, Kumunda, Anjana, Pushpa-danta, Sarva-bhauma, Supratika. Four names are given in Ramayana 1.41: Viru-paksha, Maha-padma, Saumanas, Bhadra.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable lists Maha-pudma and Chukwa are names from a “popular rendition of a Hindu myth in which the tortoise Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma, which in turn supports the world”.
The spelling Mahapudma originates as a misprint of Mahapadma in Sri Aurobindo’s 1921 retelling of a story of the Mahabharata,
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