Posted in Animals

A lucky turtle

When I caught sight of this turtle trailing a skirt of algae, I was immediately reminded of the similar turtles that are often depicted in Asian art.

A turtle trailing a skirt of algae

The Divine Minogame symbolizing longevity; the long tail is supposed to be algae. This public domain image was provided courtesy of the Walters Art Museum .

In China such a turtle is supposed be one of four sacred animals: the turtle, the tiger (or kirin or rhino), the dragon, and the phoenix. The Japanese adopted the mythos surrounding the sacred turtle whom they refer to as the minogame. Not every turtle gets to become a minogame, just the lucky ones who have been blessed with long life. In fact the title of “minogame” is reserved for turtles who are at least 1000 years old. In art these ancient turtles are always represented with a swirling skirt of algae trailing behind them. The algae tail is supposed to make its first appearance when the turtles reach 500 years of age. The longer the algae tail, the older the turtle is supposed to be.

The turtle also personifies one of the four compass points, the north. Besides embodying longevity, the turtle of the north embodies endurance and strength. Perhaps its endurance and strength have contributed to its long life. In Asian art the turtle’s strength allows him to carry heavy burdens, and in sculpted form he often carries a stele (an engraved, upright stone that serves as a commemorative tablet). Vmenkov has developed a photo gallery of turtles bearing stelae at Flickr.

You may have noticed that the turtle in the art work above has an unusual head. This particular turtle isn’t just an ordinary, long-lived turtle. It is a bixi. I believe that bixi first entered the world of art and myth when one appeared on The Nine Dragon Scroll. The nine dragons in this famous scroll were supposed to be the sons of the Dragon King. Bixi is supposed to be the first son of the Dragon King; all the other sons look like ordinary dragons without turtle shells, but Bixi is a dragon tortoise.

However all this lore seems very lofty and far removed from Ohio. I believe the turtle in my topmost photo is a Northern map turtle, sometimes called a Common map turtle (Graptemys geographica). Since almost all the turtles that I see in central Ohio are Midland Painted Turtles or Snapping Turtles, it was exciting just to see a different species. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Northern Map Turtle is very wary and often spends its time at the bottom of deep water. It has strong jaws and likes to eat creatures with shells, such as clams, snails and crayfish. Most surprisingly, it is the last turtle species in Ohio to go into hibernation and can be seen walking around under the ice.

I only got the briefest look at this little guy before he darted off, so I was persuaded of his wariness. And the skirt of algae made me think that he doesn’t come out of the water very often. The algae skirt may also mean he has been blessed with good fortune, and I hope that’s true. But I feel fortunate that I was able to get a glimpse of him. 🙂

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© Deborah Platt, Robert Platt and 2012 to 2021

3 thoughts on “A lucky turtle

  1. There’s an amusing and probably apocryphal story told by Stephen Hawking in “A Brief History of Time”:

    A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

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