The Ancient Modern
Turtles as Revelation / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Today, I visited the Zoma Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they have a garden restaurant that surrounds a small enclosure for tortoises.
Seeing them brought back vividly the memory that, as a child, I had a large collection of turtles. Not live animals—collectibles. I remember brass, carved coal, spun glass, stone, ceramic and plastic turtles, which I used to keep on a shelf in my bedroom.
As I concentrated on the memory, I could see many of these objects, both found and given. I hadn’t thought of this collection for years. Strangely though, I recall that I was passionate about collecting them, but I can’t quite remember why. I just don’t remember the reason for the attraction.
And with further strangeness, the tortoises here have shaken out this memory just at the same time I’m reading an explanation of the Hindu myth of the world resting on the back of a tortoise.
The tortoise symbolized the human faculty of being both interior and exterior—of living in the visible and hidden worlds at once. The tortoise can “interiorize itself.” The tortoise receding into its shell is like a practice of prayer or meditation.
I wonder if this was somehow my instinctual draw to turtles and tortoises as a child. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, very early in life I wanted to associate myself with these animals who have this particular symbolic function in metaphysical thought.
Of course, maybe someone just gave me a turtle toy, and since I happened to have one, I wanted more. Maybe, I was simply caught up in the fashionable habit of collecting. Maybe, I just thought they were cool.
But these explanations don’t really explain the nature of my youthful fascination.
The tortoises here in the garden are beautiful—like living rocks, all different sizes (some just hatched) and all vividly geometric. It seems to me now that they are a starkly simple revelation of the marriage of matter and consciousness—like matter has “gathered itself” around a turtle-soul in order to reveal and serve turtle-ness.
In South Asian thought, the tortoise is the conjunction or harmony of eternal idea with revelatory appearance. In other words, the tortoise is an Icon. And as with all Icons, deep consideration of what is being revealed extends our intellectual grasp of humanity.