Ask any astronomer about the position of Earth in space and they will bore you to tears with some nonsense about gravity. Ask a folklorist, and he’ll regale you with tales of monstrous megafauna that dutifully support the Earth on their backs at the behest of some wacked out deity with little to no notion of animal cruelty. This is why astronomers can’t get dates. Folklorists can’t get dates either, but at least they’ll entertain you with a good yarn as they drink away their sorrows. You would think that if we were to hypothesize that the earth doesn’t just hurtle off into space because it’s balanced on a gargantuan space beast, any old culturally appropriate animal would do. For instance, one would not be shocked to discover that the Mayans had a great cosmic llama or the Mongols had an interstellar steppe pony or Americans have an astronomical freedom fry. One would be mistaken. Supporting the weight of the world seems to rely heavily on monstrously large snakes, turtles, and fish across many mythologies. This seems to be due to the fact that snakes, turtles, and fish exhibit qualities that are not of this world, not in the ancient aliens fanboy sense, rather that they lead an existence entirely divorced from human experience, unlike most mammals. I mean, we get furry critters, since their lifestyle is not dissimilar to our own. I’m not saying that thermophysiological factors and birthing live young automatically disqualify you from a position of cosmological significance. Okay, I am actually saying that, but the salient characteristics of the snake, turtle, and fish that seem to lend themselves to world-supporting activities appear to revolve around the fact that they exist merrily in mediums that humans find inhospitable to the point of fatality, are missing even the suggestion of an anatomy that we can relate to, and that neither of these things seem to bother them in the slightest. For the better part of human history, it seemed a little ludicrous to assume that the earth just floated about unsupported in infinity. Until those annoying pre-Socratic philosophers like Animaxander came along and offered non-mythological and mechanical versions of cosmology, but nonetheless said equally strange things like the earth hangs “in the same place because of its indifference”, which still led to the science of astronomy despite being incredibly depressing, most of mankind was fairly confident that a considerate snake, turtle, or fish was comfortably swimming in a cosmic ocean with our humble planet on its back. Freaking philosophers ruin everything. Sometimes you just wish they would get a job. Its only courteous to give credit where credit is due by examining the public services of cosmological creatures such as Bahamoot the Fish (Arabic), Ao the Turtle (China), Shesha the Snake and Kurmaraja the Turtle (Hindu), the Great World Turtle (Algonquin), and Jörmungandr the World Serpent (Norse), as the relative stability of the Earth depends on them.
Fish are weird. You think you know what a fish is. What you really know is what a fish is not. Basically, a fish is not a tetrapod (amphibian, reptile, bird, or mammal), can’t breathe outside water, lacks limbs with digits, and doesn’t regulate its own temperature (cold-blooded, that is), and therefore biologists don’t even consider the notion of “fish” as a phylogentic category. The logic goes like this. If we are all genetically descended from fish (since fish were here first before anybody had the good sense to make a mammal), any taxonomic categorization of fish that relies on grouping genetic descendants by ancestry also includes the tetrapods, of which fish are not. Confused? That’s okay. You’re not a fish. This probably has less to do with your stunning ability to evolve than the fact that you don’t taste very good when fried. Anyhow, the important point is that fish are pretty much the complete reverse image of our humdrum Homo sapien existence. They live in water and die in the air. We live in the air and drown when submerged for any length of time. Please don’t test this. I guarantee it holds true. The drowning part at least. I can’t guarantee the fact that you’ll survive in the air, particularly if you live in Los Angeles, Bejing, or Athens. What I can assure you of is that you are in no way like a fish, unless you are a mermaid, and I have it on good authority that mermaids do not have access to the internet and are outside the demographic likely to be reading this. What fish are particularly good at, besides getting caught and fileted, is swimming around in the ocean. Once you start meandering down the existential road that leads to questions about why the Earth exists, how everything doesn’t fall off of it, and what prevents it from plunging into deep space, an obvious conclusion is that the cosmos is some kind of ocean, and what better to keep one afloat in the ocean than a fish. I’m not particularly pro-fish. In fact, I barely consider them a food group unless heavily breaded or safely contained in sushi, but the fact that they are specialists in maintaining their position is the sea is undeniable. Thus it is no surprise that one hypothesis is that the world is supported on the back of a giant fish named Bahamoot, as suggested by Arabic mythology.
A particularly fascinating aspect of world-supporting monsters is that the monster at the base generally seems to have been put there by deities who tried a few other creatures first, and found them to be insufficiently stable. This is wonderfully illustrated in Arabic mythology about Bahamoot. God put the world on the back of an angel first, but angels are all uppity and don’t work out, so God had to put the angel on a rock. Unfortunately, there was nothing to put the rock on, so he made a huge bull, which still didn’t have anything to stand on, leading to the creation of a giant fish that could float on the waters of the cosmos and provide a good base for the angel, rock, and bull. One can imagine the whole process could have been shortcut by putting the Earth directly on the back of Bahamoot, but most gods don’t have degrees in structural engineering, so they have to experiment a little.
The earth was, it is said, originally unstable; therefore God created an angel of immense size and of the utmost strength, and ordered him to go beneath it [i.e. beneath the lowest earth] and place it on his shoulders; and his hands extended beyond the east and west, and grasped the extremities of the earth [or, as related in Ibn-El-Wardee, the seven earths] and held it [or them]. But there was no support for his feet: so God created a rock of ruby, in which were seven thousand perforations, and from each of these perforations issued a sea, the size of which none knoweth but God, whose name be exalted ; then he ordered this rock to stand under the feet of the angel. But there was no support for the rock: wherefore God created a huge bull, with four thousand eyes and the same number of ears, noses, mouths, tongues, and feet; between every two of which was a distance of five hundred years’ journey; and God, whose name be exalted, ordered this bull to go beneath the rock; and he bore it on his back and his horns. The name of this bull is Kuyoota. But there was no support for the bull: therefore God, whose name be exalted, created an enormous fish, that no one could look upon on account of its vast size, and the flashing of its eyes, and their greatness; for it is said that if all the seas were placed in one of its nostrils, they would appear like a grain of mustard seed in the midst of a desert : and God, whose name be exalted, commanded the fish to be a support to the feet of the bull. The name of this fish is Bahamoot. He placed, as its support, water; and under the water, darkness: and the knowledge of mankind fails as to what is under the darkness (Lane, 1883, p106-107).
As you might imagine, stability has a lot of significance when trying to imagine the sort of creature that would patiently lounge about with a planet on its back, which is to some extent why the turtle is especially popular as a cosmological platform. “According to ancient conceptions of the people in Asia and the Americas the reptile carries the pivot of the cosmos, represented by a tree, a lotus, a column, an island, a mountain, a man or a god. The motive of the tortoise/turtle, bearing the whole cosmos with its body, is derived from the hard and protective shell of the animal together with its strong and short legs, which show perseverance, solidity, and strength as well as invulnerability. In addition a tortoise’ slow movements and indolence led to the idea that the reptile is responsible for the ‘stability and immovability’ of the world and guarantees the order in space and time” (Rappengluck, 2006, p.224). Plus, where fish are completely alien, turtles are just baffling, what with carrying a house around on their back and manifesting a completely different sense of time. Legends of the “world turtle” in China date at least to the 4th century B.C. and are reported in the classic Shan Hai Jing (“Classics of the Mountains and Seas”). Notably, most Chinese mythology agrees that the Earth was relatively stable, until a god named Kung Kung (sometimes Gong Gong) bashed his head against a structurally important mountain, causing the heavens, earth, and waters to crash together, and the creator god Nuwa was forced to enact some hasty repairs involving cutting the legs off a turtle and setting the Earth on top of it.
Fu Hsi was succeeded by Nu Kua, who like him had the surname Feng. Nu Kua had the body of a serpent and a human head, with the virtuous endowments of a divine sage. Toward the end of her reign there was among the feudatory princes Kung Kung, whose functions were the administration of punishment. Violent and ambitious, he became a rebel, and sought by the influence of water to overcome that of wood [under which Nu Kua reigned]. He did battle with Chu Jung [said to have been one of the ministers of Huang Ti, and later the God of Fire], but was not victorious; whereupon he struck his head against the Imperfect Mountain, Pu Chou Shan, and brought it down. The pillars of Heaven were broken and the corners of the earth gave way. Hereupon Nu Kua melted stones of the five colours to repair the heavens, and cut off the feet of the tortoise to set upright the four extremities of the earth. Gathering the ashes of reeds she stopped the flooding waters, and thus rescued the land of Chi, Chi Chou [the early seat of the Chinese sovereignty] (Werner, 1922, p81-82).
Algonquin (as well as several other Native American) mythologies, similarly place the Earth on the back of an indulgent turtle.
The turtle was connected, in various ways, with the mythological notions of the upper Algonquins. According to Charlevoix and Hennepin, the Chippewas had a tradition that the mother of the human race, having been ejected from heaven, was received upon the back of a tortoise, around which matter gradually accumulated, forming the earth.’ The great turtle, according to Henry, was a chief spirit of the Chippewas, the “spirit that never lied,” and was often consulted in reference to various undertakings. An account of one of these ceremonies is given by this author. The island of Michilimakanak (literally, great turtle) was sacred to this spirit, for the reason, probably, that a large hill near its centre was supposed to bear some resemblance, in form, to a turtle. The turtle tribe of the Lenape, says Heckewelder, claim a superiority and ascendancy, because of their relationship to the great turtle, the Atlas of their mythology, who bears this great island (the earth) on his back (Beach, 1877, p26).
Hindu cosmology mixes it up a little bit, and includes both a turtle and a snake. Now as a species, we tend to have a deep-rooted and pathological fear of snakes. We don’t particularly like snakes because they don’t even live in the same number of dimensions as the rest of us, which clearly offends our sense of propriety. “The most fundamental difference between serpents and the rest of animal world, including reptiles, is the lack of limbs. This lack makes them one dimensional creatures, embedded into two (three) dimensional surrounding world. They belong, in a sense, to a different space, more precisely to a subspace of our physical world. What makes them difficult to cope with, both for ‘geometrical’ and ‘kinematical’ reasons. Further, the lack of limbs has resulted in a very peculiar way of moving, which appears a fascinating undulatory, wavelike motion (some desert snakes move by rotating their helicoidal configuration), which produces net translational drift” (Grujic, 2007, p40). Because snakes are so dimensionally weird to us mammals, they make the perfect candidate for a cosmological support system, since they transcend our traditional mode of existence. Again, we see those crazy deities trying a few other animals first, before ultimately deciding on a turtle, snake, or fish, although the inclusion of elephants in the Hindu version is now generally regarded as a mistranslation of Vedic literature (confusing the snakelike qualities of the elephant trunk with a snake itself).
In the Old World, the Tortoise Myth belongs especially to India, and the idea is developed there in a variety of forms. The Tortoise that upholds the earth is called in Sanskrit Kurmaraja, ” King of the Tortoises,” and the Hindoos believe to this day that the world rests upon its back. Sometimes the snake Sesha bears the world on its head, or an elephant carries it upon its back, and both snake and elephant are themselves supported by the great tortoise. The earth, rescued from the deluge which destroys mankind, is set up with the snake that bears it resting on the floating tortoise, and a deluge is again to pour over the face of the earth when the world-tortoise, sinking under its load, goes down into the great waters. When the Daityas and Danavas churned the Sea of Milk to make the amrita, the drink of immortality, they took the mountain Mandara for the churning’ stick, and the serpent Yasuki was the thong that was wound round it, and pulled back and forwards to drive the churn. In the midst of the milky sea, Vishnu himself, in the form of a tortoise, served as a pivot for the mountain as it was whirled around (Tylor, 1865, p332-333).
The Vikings never met a monster they didn’t like, particularly if they could cut off its head and claim bragging rights. Grendel was just a bit of a momma’s boy, after all. But even the Vikings went with the serpent motif in the form of Jormungandr, but just to point out how awesome Vikings are, Thor at some point goes fishing for the world serpent, which seems ill advised as he’s awfully busy circling the Earth.
The Midgard Sea, which is a sea of death, and at a still earlier time must have been a river of death, is personified in the Midgard worm, the serpent Jormungandr, who lies curled at the bottom with his tail in his mouth, encircling the world. He ever waxes in length, and his tail grows into his inwards; and this, as we noted before, is in exact analogy with the Greek Oceanus, which returns to flow into itself. If rivers are ever typified by serpents, then the greatest river of all, the earth stream, is typified by the mightiest of serpents, by this Jormungandr (Keary, 1882, p277).
Now, I’m a big fan of physics, but the impersonal force of gravity just doesn’t give me the same warm, fuzzy feeling as the notion that a mythological monstrosity has been tasked with making sure that the Earth maintains its orbit. That said, I don’t want any old animal set to the job. That’s just asking for trouble, as many mythological beings quickly discovered. You definitely want something more ontologically suited to the eternal role of a universal coffee table than some mercurial mammal. Physical forces are blind laws and one can no more put faith in them than they can in the United Sates Congress having your best interests at heart. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There is an orderliness in the universe, there is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives. It is no blind law; for no blind law can govern the conduct of living beings.” That’s why it’s decidedly more comforting to imagine that its turtles (or snakes or fish) all the way down.
Beach, William Wallace. The Indian Miscellany: Containing Papers On the History, Antiquities, Arts, Languages, Religions, Traditions And Superstitions of the American Aborigines; With Descriptions of Their Domestic Life, Manners, Customs, Traits, Amusements And Exploits; Travels And Adventures In the Indian Country; Incidents of Border Warfare; Missionary Relations, Etc. …. Albany: J. Munsell, 1877.
Grujic, Petar. “Cosmology and Mythology: A Case Study”. European Journal of Science and Technology 3:3 (Sep), p37-51, 2007.
Keary, C. F. 1848-1917. Outlines of Primitive Belief Among the Indo-European Races. New York: C. Scibner’s sons, 1882.
Lane, Edward William, 1801-1876. Arabian Society In the Middle Ages. London: Chatto and Windus, 1883.
Rappengluck, Michael A. “The Whole World Put Between Shells” The Cosmic Symbolism of Tortoises and Turtles”. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 6:3, p223-230, 2006.
Tylor, Edward B. 1832-1917. Researches Into the Early History of Mankind And the Development of Civilization. London: J. Murray, 1865.
Werner, E. T. C. 1864-1954. Myths & Legends of China. London [etc.]: G. G. Harrap & co., ltd, 1922.