Tattoo Designs & Symbols

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Tattoo designs - T >> Turtles

Turtle tattoo designTurtle / Tortoise Tattoo Designs - Western cultures have long seen the tortoise as symbolic of patience and wisdom under duress. Aesop's fable of "The Tortoise and the Hare" is a celebration of the tortoise's steadfastness in the face of the speedy hare. The turtle's ability to escape danger by retreating into its shell has made it a powerful symbol of protection, healing, and inner knowledge. Little wonder that many identify with the spirit of the tortoise and make of it a reassuring tattoo design.

Turtle or tortoise - for purposes of symbology the difference is semantic, since they're of the same family. A tortoise spends its life in mainly arid terrain, and would probably drown in open water. The turtle can manage both realms of land and sea, swimming by holding its breath. The sea turtle, the largest of this family, rarely leaves the water except to lay its eggs.


Because of its early appearance on the planet - as much as 250 million years ago - the turtle is often associated with Creator symbolism. Indigenous peoples refer to North America as Turtle Island. According to legend, North America was created on the back of a turtle. In India, the tortoise supported the elephant, who, in turn supported the world.

In Chinese culture, the turtle has been attributed with strength, endurance, slowness, fecundity, and longevity. Its image appeared on the imperial banner as an emblem of protection in war. For the Japanese, the sea turtle was the emblem of Kumpira, the god of sailors. In Africa, where it has been a masculine symbol of fertility, the tortoise is also a household pet and emblem of protection. And in Ancient Greece, the turtle found a home as the emblem of Aphrodite, goddess of love, who associated the animal with the feminine/yielding aspect of water.


The turtle's legendary stability and endurance qualify it for a place of prominence in carvings and sculptures in many of the world's ancient cultures. For the Mayans, the turtle was associated with water and land and thunder. One Mayan deity is depicted wearing a turtle shell on his head. The Iroquois have their Giant Turtle, symbol of the wisest. Not so popular with the Aztecs, however, the turtle represented cowardice and boastfulness - hard on the outside, soft on the inside.

Amongst coastal peoples around the world, the sea turtle has become a special symbol of longevity, fertility and good fortune. As a graceful swimmer, it is also represents freedom. The sea turtle is unique in that it lives in water - it has flippers, not feet -- but must leave its favoured medium to procreate. It builds a nest on land. The journey from the ocean's edge across great stretches of sand, dragging its weight without hurrying or complaining, has made the sea turtle a symbol of patience and virtue. Once a suitable beach nest has been dug, the female turtle drops her eggs, as many as a hundred at a time. She buries them and returns to the ocean.

From the beginning of its life, the baby sea turtle must struggle to survive. Defenceless as it is against squadrons of scavenger birds, its first steps in the direction of the water are fraught with danger. If the sea turtle reaches the surf alive, the struggle against ocean predators is just beginning.


There was a symbolic association between the sea turtle and the constellation Pleiades - known also as the Seven Sisters. As those sea turtles make their way across the sands to lay their eggs, the constellation coincidentally made its pre-dawn appearance in the summer skies.

Perhaps nowhere is the turtle more revered than in the South Pacific, where its status in ancestral society was sacred. For its association with deities and chiefs, the turtle tattoo motif is a favourite in Polynesia. Placement of the tattoo in traditional Polynesian tattooing was significant, since it implied a person's genealogy, social status and personal accomplishments. An account by a returning missionary to London relates how the knees of the chief, Te Pou, were 'tattooed with the most sacred of all fish, and reserved for the chief alone.'

In French Polynesia, where the sea turtle is an ocean deity, it appears in many of the carved columns as a symbol of fertility. The turtle is placed above a depiction of the king and queen embracing. These columns are placed to mark a sacred site.

Amongst the peoples of the Polynesian Islands, the turtle was often a ritual offering. Turtle feasts took place during particular lunar months. In ancient Hawaii, the sea turtle was the manifestation of the Creator god, and to eat it was to connect with that Creator. It was believed that the head of the turtle lived on after being separated from its body.


The greatest of the swimming turtles is the Hawaiian green sea turtle. Families that revered the turtle as a personal deity took special care not to harm it, much less eat it. Legend tells of one Hawaiian turtle that could transform into a human form if the need arose to protect children playing at the ocean's edge.

Tiger Inspiration Gallery - Click here to get inspired!The oldest known turtle was owned by the Tonga royal family - living from 1777 to 1965.

It's little wonder that the sea turtle tattoo endures to this day, and is still one of the most popular Polynesian tribal tattoo designs.

Get inspired by some really amazing images and photos in our Turtle Inspiration Gallery

See also: Marine Life Tattoo Index, Nautical Tattoo Designs

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Tattoo designs - T >> Turtles

Tattoo Symbol Index - A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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