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Tortoise Tales


While the majestic dragon takes centre stage in Chinese culture and feng shui, few realise the tortoise is just as important and powerful. As a protector, the tortoise is even better than the almighty dragon!

Synonymous with slowness, the lumbering tortoise is by no means stupid or clumsy as depicted in cartoons or popular sayings. The gait of a tortoise is definitely slow and more sedentary than fast-lane, but this creature is known for its tenacity, determination and resoluteness.

"Slow but steady" or "slow and sure" are the tortoise's most famous attributes. This plodding persistence symbolises all good things come to those who wait and who are patient. While some prefer making their first million before 25, others are content to build their career and nest egg over time.

Tortoises are universally loved and accepted by all civilisations. Though much revered by the Chinese as it features prominently in feng shui, the tortoise joins the phoenix, Chi Lin, cat and bat by being left out in the Chinese zodiac. Still, it is famous for longevity and strength, common traits found in many cultures.

In Hindu myth, the tortoise Chukwa supports the elephant Mahapudma, which in turn supports the world. By coincidence, this belief is also found in Chinese legends, whereby four giant tortoises support the pillars of the universe.

The word for 'Tortoise' comes from the Latin word 'testudo', meaning "shield" or protective cover. Ancient Roman soldiers used entire tortoise shells to cover and protect their heads from flying arrows and boiling oil when storming fortresses. They also used tortoise shells as shields, forming an effective wall when attacking.

Slow & Steady Wins The Race

The story of the hare and the tortoise is well known among children, teaching them the virtues of perseverance. In the fable, the hare and the tortoise compete in a race. The hare shoots off like a rocket from the starting line, leaving the much slower tortoise behind in a cloud of dust. The over-confident hare was so far ahead, it decided to rest under a shady tree, with the unfortunate consequence it fell asleep. Meanwhile, the slow tortoise laboriously continued plodding, passing the snoozing hare and reaching the finishing line long before the awakened hare could catch up! A valuable lesson in life that anyone can attain his goals by slow and steady means.

Achilles & The Tortoise

Then there is the famous paradox proposed by the ancient mathematician Zeno in 425 BC called "Achilles and the Tortoise". This question asks the fascinating question that does not seem to provide a neat solution, thereby upsetting all precision-driven, mathematical formulas. In a race between Achilles (the handsome hero of the Trojan war) and a tortoise, Achilles can run ten times as fast as a tortoise. Achilles gives the tortoise a 100-yard head start. In a real race between a human and tortoise, the man easily wins, even if the tortoise is half a mile ahead, but in theory, this seemingly easy race ends in mystery, as Achilles simply cannot win the race. As Achilles runs the first 100 yards, the tortoise runs ten. While Achilles runs that ten, the tortoise runs one. As Achilles runs one yard, the tortoise runs one-tenth of a yard and so on et infinitum! It proved insoluble till the 17th century when James Gregory proved the existence of the 'converging series', where an infinite number of terms add up to a finite sum.

The Tortoise In Feng Shui And Chinese Culture

Apart from being slow, the tortoise is famous for its longevity. Many believe tortoises easily live to over a hundred years. Because of their reputation, tortoises are believed to be able to see into the future about what is in store. Burnt tortoise shells some ten thousand years old have been found with questions written on the carapace. The petitioner would inscribe questions about the future, the shell would be burned and a shaman would interpret the markings.

The tortoise was also supposed to emerge from the Lo River in China with the Lo Shu square that unlocked the secrets of the Pa Kua. The tortoise carried the Lo Shu square of numbers on its back to Fu Hsi, said to be the first emperor of China. Fu Hsi (or Lao Tsi as some believe) is then said to have written the I Ching or Book of Changes, from which most feng shui theories are based. Some of course believe it is the Lady of the Nine Heavens who granted mankind knowledge of feng shui.

The tortoise is said to conceal within its shell patterns all the secrets of heaven and earth. The tortoise that swam towards Fu Hsi had nine numbers, in the form of dots, arranged in a three-by-three grid pattern. The numbers were arranged so that they added up to fifteen whether lengthways, sideways or diagonally. Fifteen is the number of days it takes for the moon to complete one waxing or waning cycle. The succeeding Lo Shu square became the basis of Taoist rituals. Two of feng shui's most powerful schools, the Eight Mansions and Flying Star schools, are based on the Lo Shu square coupled with knowledge about the Eight Trigrams, the Five Elements and compass directions.

The number of dots arranged on the tortoise's back are as follows when turned into numerals; 492, 357 and 816. Place the three digits in descending order and you get the Lo Shu square, with each line adding up to 15.

The Four Symbolic Animals Of The Four Quarters

A powerful creature is supposed to be the guardian of each of the four cardinal points of the compass. The Green Dragon looks after the stars that appear in the East at dusk in Spring. Those appearing in the West are under the domain of the White Tiger while those in the South belong to the Red Phoenix. The Black Tortoise is in charge of stars in the North.

Keeping Live Tortoises

Rearing live tortoises or terrapins at home is a great feng shui generator. As the Black Tortoise rules the Northern sector, it should be kept in the North of your home to bring maximum benefits.

Feng shui masters like Lillian Too are fervent believers of tortoises as bringers of great feng shui into the home. She believes keeping a tortoise will ensure the patriarch will live well past 80 years. The tortoise is also said to protect the entire family from adverse changes in the neighbourhood and usher in wealth and prosperity. In feng shui, the tortoise represents the protective mountains of the North and is thus a potent symbol of strength. It helps banish bad chi and deflect poison arrows.

As a general bringer of luck, the tortoise ranks as one of the best energisers you can have at home. It is so multi-dimensional it even helps children bring honours to the family, while safeguarding everyone from fatal diseases.

They also make great pets. They quickly recognise family members and can be very tame, chewing lettuce contentedly from your hands. If you are unable to keep live ones, a ceramic, realistic tortoise can suggest the same energies.

The Dragon-Tortoise

A hybrid between two of the most powerful creatures in feng shui, the Dragon-Tortoise, is revered for protection through the generations while bringing excellent luck. All feng shui experts advocate one such sculpture inside the home or office, preferably sitting on a bed of gold coins with the dragon further clasping an ingot in its mouth. When Lillian Too launched her inaugural collection of Auspicious Feng Shui Jewellery by OE, the first ring she created was the Dragon-Tortoise.

"The Dragon-Tortoise ring is my signature ring," she says. "It is one feng shui accessory we should not do without, as it combines the awesome power of the dragon with the shielding ability of the tortoise. The bravery, strength and majesty of the dragon is immeasurably enhanced with the wonderful descendants' luck of the tortoise, bringing luck to succeeding generations."

Unlike the typical coiling dragon, only the dragon's head appears in lieu of the tortoise's head. The rest of the body is that of the tortoise. On its back is a much smaller tortoise, perfectly formed, to signify a new, auspicious beginning. Naturally, the bed of gold coins represents incoming, permanent wealth.

The following article is taken from the "Feng Shui World (Sept/Oct 2004)". To subscribe, please click here.