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Turtles have a firm footing in mythology, which also gives them a solid standing in dream symbolism. The symbolism of turtles in dreams mirror that of their symbolism in waking life, including representations of:
- Wisdom and the intellect
- Unexpected triumph
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Introversion and the need for solitude
Some aspects of turtles in dreams that may not be quite so obvious are feelings of impatience or concerns about a lack of progress in some area of waking life. Turtles may also even embody the Wise Old Man archetype in dreams.
Let's look at each of these ideas and sort out the meaning of the turtle who crawled into your dream.
Turtles as Symbols of Wisdom
Turtles often stand in as symbols of wisdom, perhaps because they are known for having lengthy lifespans and age is often synonymous with wisdom.
Since turtles are associated with wisdom, when we dream of them, it serves us well to look around at its surroundings to see what area of our lives it might be offering us wisdom about.
For example, if you see a turtle creeping around your workplace, ask yourself if there are any areas going on in your career where you might need some guidance.
Or if a turtle is sitting in a flower bed, it might be a great idea to do some research about what flowers mean in dreams see if there is some wisdom a turtle might have to impart to you in the areas of your life where flowers bloom!
If a turtle speaks to you in your dream, or if someone with a turtle speak to you, be sure to try to remember what the turtle or the person says.
Sometimes what is spoken may be little more than a mash-up of weird words with no discernible meaning, but sometimes, words from dreams can give us great insight into what's going on in our unconscious.
If the idea of the turtle as a symbol of wisdom rings true for you read on to find out about the Wise Man (senex) archetype and how it may be playing out in your waking life.
"Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow."
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Symbols of Integrated Spirituality
In Chinese mythology, turtles are seen as symbols of the unification between the earth and heaven. The Chinese saw the turtle's circular shell as signifying heaven and the turtle's squarish underbelly as symbolic of the earth itself.
Given that two primary symbols of heaven and earth were together in one creature and that creature was noted to live an extremely long life, the turtle was seen as the stuff of legends: it lived for what seemed like forever and it could carry heaven on its back.
In dreams, turtles can turn up as symbols for doing deep psychic work and signify a deep integration of that which is spiritual into one's everyday, waking world.
What does mythology have to do with dream symbolism? Mythology is the storehouse of humanity's associations with various symbols and as such, it provides a wealth of information and insight into the meaning of symbols when they appear in dreams. Here are just a few myths cross cultural myths involving turtles.
Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword) This myth resonates with Grail mythology with 15th century Emperor Ly Thai To defeating invaders via the use of a magical sword. After he defeated his enemies, a giant golden turtle swam up and took the sword from the emperor, returning it to the realm of the divine.
The turtle in Nigeria is viewed primarily as a trickster archetype. Sometimes the tricks lead the turtle to triumph, other times, he simply finds trouble. Either way, what he is mainly known for is his ability to craftily sum up his enemies and circumstances with slow, deliberate patience, and find a way out of whatever he has crawled into.
Sciron, an Isthmian bandit, employed a titanic turtle to eat the bodies of those who Sciron robbed and tossed off the cliffs and into the sea. He was killed by Theseus.
The turtle is, in Chinese mythology, one of the "Four Fabulous Animals"--the animals charged with ruling over the four directions. The Black Turtle, who has some interesting additions to its normal appearance such as fiery tentacles and dragon ears, was emblazoned on the banners of the Chinese Imperial Army as a symbol of unsurpassed strength and invincibility due to its inaccessibility.
In North America, many aboriginal cultures believed a 'World Turtle' who carried the earth on her back. Earthquakes were ascribed to the activity of the World Turtle stretching. Due to the belief in the World Turtle, some Native American cultures call the North American continent 'Turtle Island.'
Turtles as Symbols of Unexpected Triumph
When we think of animals who always win, we adults might not immediately think of the turtle, but any child who knows Aesop's fable about the fast-moving hare and the slow, but steadily moving tortoise, might put the turtle at the top of that list.
In dreams, a turtle might symbolize an unexpected victory or an ability to take on an enemy against whom one is seriously outmatched and come out on top. The enemy does not have to be a human—the enemy might very well be a bad habit that one has fought against for years, and lost.
According to the Perry Index, the moral of the tortoise and the hare story is that "many people have good natural abilities which are ruined by idleness; on the other hand, sobriety, zeal and perseverance can prevail over indolence." — Ben Edwin Perry
We often covet the talents of others, believing they possess abilities we ourselves lack. However, talent is only a part of the success equation. What is often more important that having a talent is the ability of the person with the talent to use the gift diligently, constantly creating with their craft rather than napping safely in the knowledge that one has all one needs to win, but never actually running the race!
We win when we actively participate, always remembering life is a marathon, not a sprint. If a turtle appears in your dream, you might take his example to heart and just work on running your race, not looking to the one in the lane who appears faster than you.
Many people have good natural abilities which are ruined by idleness; on the other hand, sobriety, zeal and perseverance can prevail over indolence.
— Ben Edwin Perry
Symbols of Feeling Overwhelmed
Dreams of turtles can indicate a nice integration of the spiritual into one's life or a high degree of self-integration and actualization.
This might sound like the turtle is an overwhelmingly positive dream symbol, and typically it is. However, all archetypes carry shadows. The turtle is no exception.
While carrying the entire world on our backs may seem like an act of self-sacrifice, sometimes when we take on the troubles of the world all we accomplish is taking on trouble!
We are all meant to be part of a community and we are all meant to carry one another's troubles, but sometimes we tend to take on the troubles of others, not as an authentic act of self-sacrifice, but as a way to avoid our own trials and troubles.
When we focus on the outer world, it makes it easy to avoid looking into ourselves, to our own inner world and deal with what we're carrying around in the depths of our own psyches.
If you dream of a turtle who looks like it's seen far better days, a turtle who looks like it's having a hard time carrying its own shell, it might be time to ask yourself if you're taking on more responsibility than belongs on your own shoulders...and why you're doing so.
Turtles are the subject of cross-cultural superstitions. Here are just a few:
Touch a Tortoise
In China, touching a turtle's shell brings good fortune.
Some Angolans believe that the way to ward off an enemy is to keep a turtle shell tucked underneath your doors.
Turtles as Symbols of Delay and Good Luck
In Vietnam, turtles are highly revered given their association with an important victory against invaders in the 15th century. However, spotting turtles has different meanings to the Vietnamese. Some people believe that a turtle crossing your path means your plans will be postponed, while others believe seeing a turtle at any time is a strong indication of good luck and fortune.
Let My Turtle Go
In Thailand, freeing a turtle means you'll free yourself from feelings of despair.
Souls of Sinners
In Hindu lore, the soft-shelled black turtle is meant to be the soul of a dead sinner who has been turned into a reptile.
Turtles as Representations of Introversion
Introverts are often mislabeled or misunderstood. To many people the label of introvert conjures images of a person hiding out, afraid to encounter the world, a grumpy, antisocial being who just wants to be left alone.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Introverts are simply people who get their energy from being alone. They are wise men and women who find solitude refreshing, who find time alone invigorating and restorative. It isn't that they dislike going out; they simply don't find outings the place where they find their energy.
Dreams of turtles can signify a longing for some time by ourselves, some time where we can curl up into our own shells and relax, read, or create a masterpiece in our own time.
If you tend toward the introverted side of life, that is, if you get your energy from being alone instead of from being out and about, turtles in dreams might suggest that you have been depriving yourself of that time that you need to recoup.
Wise Old Man Archetype
Senex, the title bestowed on elderly men with fine families in Ancient Rome, was the name Carl Jung chose for the archetype of the Sage, or Wise Old Man, archetype.
The senex, in Jungian psychology is a figure that appears in dreams as symbolic of a high degree of self-individuation and is, in fact, indicative of the emergence of the Self archetype.
As Marie-Louis von Franz aptly puts it in Man and His Symbols: 'If an individual has wrestled seriously enough and long enough with the anima (or animus) problem...the unconscious again changes its dominant character and appears in a new symbolic form...as a masculine initiator and guardian, a wise old man.'
In dreams, the Wise Old Man may take the form of an Obi Wan Kenobi type of character or sometimes it may even appear in dreams as an animal symbolic of wisdom, such as the turtle.
If you have been struggling with the contents of the unconscious and have been engaged in serious therapeutic work and turtles have found their way into your dreams, congratulations! You are doing great work. Keep it up and cross the finish line tortoise in tow!
Franz, Marie-Louise von (1978). "The Process of Individuation". In Jung, C. G. Man and his Symbols. London: Picador. pp. 207–208.
Fables: Babrius and Phaedrus (Loeb Classical Library No. 436). by Babrius (Author), Phaedrus (Author), Ben Edwin Perry (Translator)
A Bad Day to Be a Jellyfish
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Róisín Aisling Ireland