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Anybody know this Middle Eastern medieval myth? (Help!)

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I wanted to read more about a certain medieval idea of the universe as being held on the back of a huge creature (an elephant, a turtle?) and each thing in turn being held up by something else, going on and on. But, I've already returned the inter-library loan book in which I read about it. I searched google books, but that section of the book is not available. I've googled everything I can think of and can't find a single clue to this myth. Has anyone heard of this or know what I'm talking about? Did I dream it?  :duh
#1 - December 22, 2008, 12:08 AM


Are you thinking about the legend with the elephant who carries the earth who carries the Baobab tree etc??? I don't know the name of it either... but if I remember correctly, it was somehow mentionned in Antoine de Saint Xuperry's Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) A french classic - and so filled with meaning that I can read it over and over again. Ut oh... now I have to track it down so I can read it again.

Maude  :broccoli
#2 - December 22, 2008, 05:47 AM


There's a legend about the world being on the back of a turtle, but I don't believe it's Middle Eastern in origin. I believe it's Hindu.
#3 - December 22, 2008, 06:18 AM


Some native tribes have the myth of the earth on the back of a turtle.

Then there is the Hindu belief of the earth being supported by 4 elephants on the back of a tortoise.

Which has been used to Terry Pratchet's Discworld

Then there's this cool thing I just found about "turtles all the way down."

#4 - December 22, 2008, 06:23 AM


There is a North American Indian myth with turtle who carries the world on her back. But again, not middle eastern... hmmm... now I'll have to drag out my mythology books... bbs.

#5 - December 22, 2008, 06:24 AM

Hi Lenzi,

Are you referring to the Bertrand Russell turtle comment ? He said "It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject."

Bertand Russell was ill informed. It is a western idea that there is an eastern story about the world being supported on the back of a turtle. It may have started with a story from Hindu mythology of the one of the incarnations of Vishnu, Kurma the turtle, who supported a mountain on his back which the angles and demons used to churn the ocean of milk.

In fact Aryabhatta (5th century Indian mathematician) was the first astronomer to define a heliocentric, planetary model of the solar system. This was expanded by Brahmagupta and Bhaskara in the 7th and 12th century AD. Arabic and Latin translations of these were widely available since the 8th century. Yet the turtle myth persists, go figure!

my 2 cents
#6 - December 22, 2008, 06:30 AM
« Last Edit: December 22, 2008, 06:47 AM by nandini »
Red Turban White Horse (Scholastic India)
Starcursed (Red Turtle/Rupa India)


This makes me think of the Stephen Hawking writing "Our Picture of the Universe" . . . is it chapter 1 of A Brief History of Time?

"Everyone knows that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle!"
"What then, madam, is the turtle standing on?"
"You silly, silly man!  It's turtles all the way down!"
#7 - December 22, 2008, 07:27 AM


Disk World sits upon four elephants and they stand upon the back of the great turtle Atuan. Terry Pratchett, mythmaker without peer.

#8 - December 22, 2008, 07:40 AM


Not knowing the mythical creature's name is killing me - I looked through my "Dictionary of Ancient Deities" and couldn't find it... argh...

#9 - December 22, 2008, 07:42 AM


Or, if you like it a little less transmographied:  Chukwa the turtle bears Mahpudma the elephant who, in turn, bears the earth.

#10 - December 22, 2008, 07:43 AM


Sounds like the Scandinavian concept of the world snake/ serpent! Wish I could be more helpful . . . sounds right up my alley.
#11 - December 22, 2008, 08:20 AM


Sounds like the Scandinavian concept of the world snake/ serpent! Wish I could be more helpful . . . sounds right up my alley.

that would be Jortmungund.... hmmm... still no luck on the turtle deity...

Maude  :broccoli
#12 - December 22, 2008, 08:26 AM


Chukwa the turtle. Hindu myth.

#13 - December 22, 2008, 08:45 AM

Wow--thanks for all the input. I read about it in a book on medieval middle eastern life. I didn't think the story I read about was Hindu, but maybe it was.... I think I recall that it was just a story used to describe the wonderful infinite qualities of the universe. I wanted to have a story-teller in my novel (set in medieval Baghdad) mention it.... I may end up having him say it's a tale from a faraway land, because I really like the idea. Thanks for the links and information--I can probably find what I need from what you all have said. 
#14 - December 22, 2008, 09:24 AM
« Last Edit: December 26, 2008, 10:26 AM by Lenzi »

Lenzi, Your book sounds very interesting. My wip is a YA historical set in medieval India and I'm upto my neck in research for that period. I'm reading a lot of Arab travel accounts of India (Al-biruni, Ibn Battuta etc.) It's fascinating stuff.
#15 - December 23, 2008, 07:01 AM
Red Turban White Horse (Scholastic India)
Starcursed (Red Turtle/Rupa India)

Lenzi, Your book sounds very interesting. My wip is a YA historical set in medieval India and I'm upto my neck in research for that period. I'm reading a lot of Arab travel accounts of India (Al-biruni, Ibn Battuta etc.) It's fascinating stuff.

Thanks! I'm intrigued--I look forward to reading your book.
#16 - December 25, 2008, 01:14 AM

After much insane googling, I did find two online references to the story I was talking about. It sounds like it's from the "Sahih Hadith," which are deeds of the Prophet. BUT the problem is that the two sites that referred to it were very anti-Islam and were poking fun at the story, so I don't know what to think. I couldn't find any reference to it anywhere else. I don't want to use these sites as my references, of course, so I'm trying to figure out if the story is indeed part of the Sahih Hadith. Basically, it says that the many layered earth is atop the horn of a cow which is on a giant fish that is swimming, etc. etc. I love this story. But I want to know more about its background and context before I use it in my novel.

Has anyone heard of this story, or know a legitimate site I can find information about it? I did re order the library book, but it will take a long time.....
#17 - December 25, 2008, 09:28 PM

Martha Flynn

USC has a searchable hadith and qur'an:

You may want to add the following terms to your search in general which may be used in place of cow and fish:
Nun (the fish)
Balam (the ox)

I think the mythology originates from Al Tabari and Ibn Kathir's commentaries on Qur'an 68.1 - the Pen. 

You can also read a bit on this myth in Moses in the Qur'an and Islamic Exegesis by Brannon Wheeler, director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies and Visiting Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at the United States Naval Academy
Click on Preview This Book.  Scroll to the bottom of page 13.  That should get you through to some decent references.
#18 - December 25, 2008, 11:03 PM

Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. I had come across the searchable hadith, but wasn't able to find the passage. I used the terms you mention with no luck, either. I'm not sure why. This is much more difficult than I had anticipated.

I looked up the book you mention, but page 13 isn't offered. Ha--just my luck.

But I will try to get a hold of the book if I can and I'll keep a-looking. Thanks again, Martha.
#19 - December 26, 2008, 12:39 AM

Martha Flynn

How funny!  I get to preview the book until pg 17

I'll do a quick retype for you.  This passage deals primarily with the interpretations of Q18.61-65, passages which also mention the fish.

(begin preview)
Another possible allusion to the fish in Q18.61 and 63 is the fish upon which it is said that God created the Earth.  There are a number of reports found in al-Tabari and ibn al-Jawzi.  The report of al-Suddi given by Ibn al-Jawzi is an example of this story.

al-Suddi reported on the authority of his teachers that: smoke emerged from the water.  It was high above the water so it was called the sky.  Then the water was caused to dry up and it was made into a single land mass.  It was rent into pieces and made into seven land masses.  The land mass was created upon the fish (hut), fish (nun).  The fish is in the water and the water is on top of some stones, the stones on top of an angel, the angel on top of a rock, and the rock is the wind.

The association of the fish in this story with the creation of the world and in particular with the rock and the water could be seen as parallels to the forgetting of the fish on the rock and the meeting place or origin of the waters mentioned in Q18.60-65. 

In several of the versions of this story given by al-Tabari, the word for fish is given as nun as an allusion to the letter nun at the beginning of surat al Qualam (Q 68.1), the "pen".  This allusion is designed to explain the existence of the letter nun at the beginning of the surah, being that both the fish and the pen were involved in the creation of the world.  The version cited above, transmitted by al-Suddi and, in another version by Musa b. Harun al-Hamdani, however, uses the word hut to refer to the fish upon which the world was created.  The term is not uncommon but it is used in the Quran only in relation to the fish that takes Jonah and in relation to the fish with Moses.

(end preview)

I'm totally breaking copyright law, aren't I???  AGH!  Hopefully not since this *was* available as a preview on my end.

None of these guys, however, is Sahih al-Bukhari, so you may not be able to find this origin story in his hadith (not sure where you got the original link re: this).  I'd focus more on the volumes from al-Tabari and the others mentioned in the passage.

Good luck!!

#20 - December 26, 2008, 08:28 AM


That's so kind of you to type all that for me! I really appreciate it. I think it's okay that you have it here, since you've cited the source, and it's not terribly long.

By the way, my husband looked up the googlebook and his preview started at page 35--weird, huh.

You've been unbelievably helpful. Thanks, Martha!
#21 - December 26, 2008, 10:17 AM


Hey Lenzi...I don't have the answer, but some sources that might help (or a combination of these sources!) place to ask the same question, I think-

And depending on what you find-a couple of good places to read/search primary sources, orginal texts. You may already know about these, but just in case...

Happy researching!

#22 - December 26, 2008, 10:27 AM

Meg Wiviott

Hello all -
I don't know anything about this myth, but it was fun to read all the posts and learn something!

#23 - December 26, 2008, 10:39 AM


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