It is always fun when what you assume is just a piece of whimsy has an actual basis in reality. That happened for me last week when I opened my daily e-mail from Atlas Obscura, a site I have always enjoyed due to the unique and interesting people, places and things that it discusses. The site had an article entitled “Why is the World Always on the back of a Turtle?” that instantly rang a bell with me.
Of course many readers will instantly think of Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels. For the few that are unfamiliar with the stories, they are based on a flat circular planet that travels through space held up by elephants that are standing on the back of a giant space turtle, named A’Tuin. I had always thought that this was a bit odd, but in a series that has walking, and dangerous, furniture, I never really gave it much thought.
According to the article it turns out that the idea of a planet floating through space on a giant member of the Chelonioidea family comes from ancient sources, appearing first in Hindu mythology. According to anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s Researches Into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, we have it all to blame (or credit) on the god Vishnu’s second avatar for starting the whole idea. Then the same motif developed independently in Native American mythology.
I had always assumed that Pratchett had just created a funny vision of the world, and he may have come upon the idea independently, but I suspect that he just snuck in another cultural reference that so many of us would miss. Good for him. I was also surprised that when I mentioned this to several people at the local dog park they were apparently all aware of the Hindu tie in but not the Native American one.