All the Way Down

Jan 10, 2022

Folk tales from traditions around the world posit that God created the Earth on the back of Mother Turtle. Why would God choose a turtle as the earth-bearer? (And who knew there were turtles before the world was even created?) The resumé of turtles makes them better candidates than most creatures for the job. They are steady, patient, and one-stumpy-foot-at-a-time creatures. They stay on task, are not picky eaters, and live long quiet lives. Longevity is a plus. Some of the oldest turtles on record have lived for hundreds of years. It’s an enchanting, if preposterous, picture to imagine the earth spinning counterclockwise on the back of a turtle.

In the first chapter of his book A Brief History of Time, cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recounts another oft-told turtle story:
“A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Scientists and theologians can contradict this story with the presumption of scholarship. But it is a beguiling image. Turtles ad infinitum, as far down as the eye can see and then still further down.  Are the turtles progressively bigger? Progressively smaller? Or maybe even all the same size or maybe a mixture of small on top of large on top of small. This bale of turtles is an unending line or tower or curve with the earth perched solidly or precariously on top.

I love this kind of story. It is not only playful, but it expands my visual and spiritual imagination. Stories in Scripture often seem preposterous –people running around naked in a garden, arks with pairs of every animal, burning bushes…. We can argue about whether these events actually happened or whether they are just meant to teach us about God’s magnificence and our presence in the scheme of things. In either case, I want to be able to picture the described scene. I want to see fruit and snake and flame and golden calf and giraffe dung. Those images lodge themselves in my brain for future use. So I love the swaying tower of turtles in my mind. It is not quite straight and kind of wavy but the turtles are infinite in number.

This turtle story poked its green and brown shell from the depths of my memory last Sunday in church when the preacher referred to John 1:14-16 in his sermon.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified to him and cried out,“This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

So my mind immediately went to summarizing John 1:16 and the sermon as a haiku. (I’ve been writing haiku almost daily for a year.)
No longer turtles,
But grace upon grace upon….
All of the way down.

The turtle trio photo is from the wikipedia page Turtles All the Way Down and in the public domain.


  1. Sybil – I love this post…. especially since I have lived in Michigan my whole life. One of our most beautiful destination spots in Mackinac Island, which lies at the tip of the “mitten” in the waters between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. I’m wondering if you’ve heard the Indian legend of this place:
    Native American legend has it that a turtle named Makinauk helped to create Mackinac Island. Makinauk let his animal friends rest on his back if they were cold or tired. Sometimes they would gather around Makinauk and listen to him tell stories. One of those stories was about how the Great Spirit of the Sky decided to build a lovely piece of land for animals to rest upon, but first, an animal needed to dive deep into the water, return with a handful of soil and place it upon Makinauk’s back. Loons, otters and beavers tried, but a muskrat was finally successful. Rocks, trees and colorful flowers grew from the soil the muskrat put on the turtle’s back, creating a special place surrounded by brilliant deep blue water. The outline of the island resembled Mackinauk’s large, round back, so the Native Americans called the special, peaceful place Michilimackinac Island, or “Land of the Great Turtle.”
    Thanks again for your post – I’ll think of it every time I visit the island!

    • Thanks for this, Pat. I have been to Mackinac Island 2 or 3 times and I never heard that story before. Now I know!

  2. So enjoy the way you have used the Native American story of creation. Nicely done

  3. You are absolutely incredible, Sybil!!! You have taken art and spirit and made them accessible in ways that no one has EVER done!!! And your wise words are beautiful, full of richness and depth rather than standardized comments full of rules and regulations. That is exactly why God shines through your work and it is all around the planet!!! I have been experimenting with watercolor and spirit, now your book has given me some more ideas as the way you use words is prayer. AMAZING!!! Have you ever tried with watercolor? Something about being such a fluid medium, it adds new layers. I also adore your perspective of Lectio Divina which is far more illuminating than just imaging oneself in a biblical story. THANK YOU AGAIN!!!!

    • Hi Barb. Well, this is a comment to make my day! Thank you. I am nudged by your watercolor invitation. I brought a little watercolor set with me to Jerusalem, but have not used it. Mostly when I have tried in the past, it just brings shame. I love abstract doodling, but my ability to paint or draw anything realistic is almost nonexistent, pre-school level. BUT, I have created a Desert path Lenten Calendar (should be posted this week.) It seems to call out for a more fluid, gentler palette, than my usual bright and geometric doodles. I will bring out the watercolors. Thanks for the invitation. God’s Peace, Sybil


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