The World on Turtle’s Back Summary, Characters and Themes

“The World on Turtle’s Back” is an Iroquois creation myth that explains the origin of the earth and life on it. It is a story rich with themes of balance, duality, and the importance of nature and animals in the creation process. 

Summary

The narrative starts in the sky world, a place that exists above the clouds and is inhabited by celestial beings who live much like humans but with their own divine qualities. 

Among them is a pregnant woman who craves roots from the Great Tree, a tree that is not to be disturbed according to the sky world’s laws. Her husband, trying to satisfy her cravings, digs around the tree, causing a hole to form in the sky world’s floor.

The woman falls through this hole, leaving the sky world behind. As she descends, birds of the air come to her aid, slowing her fall. They seek help from the creatures of the great water below, which is all that exists beneath the sky world at this time. The animals decide to support the sky woman and agree that she needs land to live on. Various animals attempt to dive into the water to bring up earth, but many fail.

Finally, the little muskrat, the least of all the animals, succeeds in gathering some earth. The turtle offers his back to hold the earth, and this small bit of soil is spread over the turtle’s shell, which grows into the world we know, often referred to as Turtle Island in Iroquois mythology.

The Sky Woman lands safely on this newly formed earth and begins to walk around the Turtle’s back in the direction the sun moves, spreading the soil further. She gives birth to a daughter, who later becomes impregnated by the West Wind and gives birth to twins.

The twins are polar opposites of each other. One is good, creating beneficial things for humanity and shaping the world in positive ways, while the other is mischievous, creating obstacles and challenges. 

Despite their differences, both contribute to the creation of the world’s physical and moral landscapes.

The twins are constantly at odds, embodying the dual nature of the world: light and dark, good and evil, creation and destruction. Their struggles explain the presence of good and bad in the world. 

Eventually, the good twin defeats the evil twin, but the balance they establish remains a fundamental aspect of the human and natural world.

The story concludes with the importance of balance, respect for nature, and the acknowledgment of good and evil’s necessary coexistence. 

The earth on the turtle’s back symbolizes the interconnectedness of all living things and the earth itself, urging us to remember our place within this balance.

The World on Turtle's Back Summary

Characters

Sky Woman

Sky Woman is the central figure of the creation story, representing fertility, motherhood, and the genesis of life. Her fall from the sky world into the watery abyss below initiates the creation of the earth on Turtle’s back. 

Sky Woman embodies the connection between the heavens and the earth, highlighting the role of women as life-givers and central figures in the creation narrative. Her desire that leads to her fall symbolizes the human connection to nature and the unforeseen consequences of actions.

Good Twin

The Good Twin represents the positive forces in the world, such as light, growth, and creation. He is a symbol of benevolence, order, and harmony, contributing to the world’s beauty and sustenance by creating plants, animals, and daylight. 

His actions reflect the Iroquois values of peace, cooperation, and respect for nature. 

The Good Twin’s endeavors to shape a world beneficial to humanity underscore the importance of positive contributions to the balance of the world.

Evil Twin

The Evil Twin embodies the opposite forces of his brother, such as darkness, chaos, and destruction. However, labeling him as “evil” simplifies the complex nature of his contributions. 

He introduces necessary challenges and adversities, such as creating predators, night, and harsh weather, which are vital for the balance and dynamism of the world. 

His existence and actions demonstrate the Iroquois belief in the necessity of balance between opposing forces, acknowledging that hardship and challenges are essential aspects of life.

Great Turtle

The Great Turtle plays a crucial supportive role in the myth, offering his back as a foundation for the new world. This act symbolizes strength, endurance, and the earth itself. 

The Great Turtle’s willingness to help Sky Woman highlights themes of compassion, community, and the interconnectedness of all beings. He embodies the idea of the earth as a living, supportive entity, foundational to the existence and sustenance of life.

Themes

1. The Duality of Existence

At the heart of “The World on Turtle’s Back” is the theme of duality, represented most vividly by the twin brothers who embody the opposing forces of good and evil, creation and destruction. 

This theme extends beyond the characters to reflect a fundamental aspect of the human condition and the natural world. The story suggests that duality is an intrinsic part of existence—day and night, growth and decay, joy and sorrow. By portraying the twins as essential to the world’s formation, the myth underscores the idea that opposing forces are not only inevitable but also necessary. 

They give rise to the dynamic balance that sustains the world and drives the cycle of life. This theme invites reflection on how contrasting elements within ourselves and our environment are crucial for growth and understanding.

2. Significance of Nature and Animals in Creation

The narrative places a profound emphasis on the role of nature and animals in the creation of the world. The descent of the Sky Woman and the subsequent creation of the earth on the back of a turtle highlight the interconnectedness and mutual dependence of all elements within the natural world. 

The animals, who come to the Sky Woman’s aid and contribute to the creation of the land, symbolize the respect and reverence the Iroquois hold for the natural world. This theme celebrates the harmony between humans and nature, suggesting that animals and the earth itself are not mere resources but sacred partners in the dance of creation. 

It reflects an ecological wisdom that recognizes the value of every creature and the importance of living in harmony with the environment.

3. Importance of Balance and Harmony

Closely linked to the themes of duality and the significance of nature is the overarching theme of balance and harmony. 

The story illustrates how the world is a product of balancing forces. The creation of the earth on Turtle’s Back, the interplay between the Sky Woman’s descendants, and the actions of the twins all point to a universe where balance is key to existence. This balance is not static but dynamic, requiring constant negotiation and cooperation among all beings. 

The myth conveys that harmony in life is achieved not by eradicating opposition but by embracing it, understanding its role, and finding a middle ground. 

This theme is a powerful reminder of the need for balance in our personal lives, in our interactions with others, and in our relationship with the planet.

Final Thoughts

This myth, like many creation stories, serves to explain natural phenomena, teach moral lessons, and establish a cosmology that places humans within a broader, interconnected universe. It underscores the Iroquois’ deep respect for nature and the importance of harmony and balance in life.

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