Both the tortoise and the turtle are reptiles, and part of the family Testudines. The tortoise lives on land, gets fairly large – some species regularly weigh in at hundreds of pounds - and has a pretty long lifespan. It’s not uncommon for a tortoise to live over a hundred years, and many records reveal tortoises in captivity that have reached nearly two hundred years of age. By contrast, turtles are much smaller, and generally live in or near water. Turtles typically live from twenty to forty years, although some species of sea turtles have been documented at nearly seventy years of age.
Because of their slow, meandering ways and their long lifespans, turtles and tortoises often appear as symbols of longevity, stability, and wisdom. Let’s look at some of the ways that tortoises and turtles have appeared in myth, magic and legend, throughout the centuries.
In China, tortoise shells, which represent unchangeability, were used as a method of divination. In Chinese legend, the turtle is strongly associated with the element of water, for obvious reasons, and in many tales symbolizes both order, and the creation of the universe.
A number of Native American tribes include the tortoise in their creation stories. The Mohawk people tell of a World Turtle, who carries the earth on her back – and when the earth shakes and moves, it’s because the World Turtle is stretching underneath the weight of all she carries on her shell. Both the Lenape and Iroquois have similar legends, in which the Great Spirit placed all of creation on top of the shell of a giant tortoise.
Turtles appear in folk magic as well. Folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt, who wrote numerous volumes about the magical culture of the southern United States, says it was common knowledge in some rural areas that carrying a turtle bone in your pocket would bring good fortune your way. In some traditions of hoodoo and rootwork, a turtle’s shell can be used in certain lunar-related spellwork, because the shell is often divided into thirteen sections – the same number as there are lunar months in a calendar year.
The shell of the tortoise also appears in African diasporic religions. The turtle’s shell can be used in rattles or fetishes, and the tortoise appears in several Yoruban folktales as a trickster and troublemaker. The turtle is also sometimes offered as a sacrifice to the gods in Santeria and other Afro-Caribbean religious practice.
Here are some ways you can incorporate the magic of the turtle and tortoise into your life:
- In Feng Shui principles, the turtle has several important meanings. Placed at the north of your home, a black turtle will help attract smooth energies in matters of business. At your back door, a turtle represents strength, and offers protection.
- Carry the bone of a turtle in your pocket or wear it as an amulet for good fortune.
- Use an empty turtle shell for divination purposes – you can fill it with water and use it for scrying, or use it as a catching bowl for bone or stone divination.
- Do you have a pet turtle? They symbolize the strength and stability of your home – keep your turtle happy for a long and healthy life, and he’ll watch over your house and keep you secure.
- If you’re out and about, enjoying nature, keep an eye out for tortoises and turtles. They’re associated with our need for purpose and focus, perhaps because of their slow, deliberate pace. If you see a tortoise or turtle, follow it for a while to see where it goes – and as you do, think about all of the places you need to go yourself.
- Wear turtle earrings or a necklace to bring security and stability into your life.
- If you find a turtle shell that’s no longer inhabited by its original occupant, bring it home and place it near your front door for protection of the house and those who live within.