turtle as a symbol of antiquity, fertility and stability is central
to creation stories from many places. Stories told and
retold throughout history have enabled generations of people to
understand their immediate world. Generally the epic stories tell
of the heroes, the gods and supernatural beings and the great
struggles. Many of the themes recur across many cultural groups-the
creation of the universe and humanity, their destruction and the
Gods battles against the evil forces.
The turtle’s qualities of wisdom, stability and
longevity help to place this ancient species central to so many
creation stories. Turtle iconography is abundant in the
great religions of the world. The domed shell of the turtle is
frequently represented in the foundations of ancient monuments.
This perhaps references the pre-Brahmic creation myth of the turtle's
back being the bowl of heaven and the underbelly the earth. For
the Hindu community Vishnu appears in his second incarnation as
Kurma. His role is to aid in the churning of the cosmic sea and
the search for ambrosia - the elixir of life. In Buddhism the
turtle appears as Bodhisattva Manjueri, the maker and supporter
of the earth.
Some of these stories and myths continue to form the basis
of cultural ideas still visible today In Bali the turtle
is still the key to the creation of the world and its stability.
The ancient manuscript called the Catur Yoga tells of the time
before the creation of heaven, earth, and sky wherethe great serpent
Antaboga meditated to create the turtle Bedawang Nala- the stabiliser-
the one that floats on the world ocean. Around the turtle he coiled
two snakes to form the foundation of the world. On his back rested
a small black stone that dried to form the mountains and the rice
fields. Even today a small earth tremor is understood to be the
shifting of the turtle and a shifting in the delicate balance
in the harmony of the natural world.
The great epic stories contain precious knowledge. These
are often told in several layers depending on how ready or authorised
the listener is to hear them. On Melville Island the
story of Jilarringa explains the origins of the ocean and the
importance of respecting traditional law and the words of the
elders. The ancestors and their stories help form the landscape
and seascape as we know it today. In North East Arnhem Land the
turtle is associated with the weather. Once a year she journeys
along the Wessell Island chain, surfacing to exhale air that forms
the clouds. This is a sign that the sea will be smooth, fish plentiful
and the passage of the boat safe.
Stories often contain a reason for everything that has
or ever will exist. On Darnley Island the first coconut
to arrive on the island was caught by Gedor, a fisherman mistaking
it for a turtle. The first Palu'e ancestors' journey from the
western rim of the earth can be traced through epic song cycles
still performed today. Dancers sing chains of paired place names
representing the many stages of the mythical eastbound voyage.
The universal truths and a code of conduct are often contained
within the story and act as a teaching tool between the generations.
The kindness of the turtle to Xuanzang, the brave Chinese monk
and his fellow traveller the Monkey King in AD 600 is still quoted
as a model for good behaviour. Children today are reminded of
the need to fulfil any promise no matter how small. The story
of the monkey and the turtle is not limited to the Chinese community
on Christmas Island; it has been adopted by children throughout
the islands where the Chinese have traded. The recording in the
exhibition coming from Darnley Island in the Torres Straits.