An Asian Bestiary | Turtle
SHADOW PUPPET, TORTOISE
Catalog No: 70 /10077
Shadow theater is a popular, centuries-old form of entertainment and political engagement in China. This puppet is from the famous play The White Snake, which tells the story of a snake spirit who, disguised as a woman, defies nature by falling in love with a human. The tortoise is a background character, one of many water creatures in the drama. Meant to imitate an actor dressed in a costume, the puppet possesses human-like arms and legs. The puppet’s elongated neck and dragon-like face indicate that it is a supernatural tortoise. In Chinese mythology, tortoises symbolize longevity and the North Star, and they are also closely associated with dragons and snakes. Such supernatural subjects are perfectly suited for shadow puppetry, which manipulates light and color to depict flight, growth, shrinkage, hiddenness, and other magical illusions.
MODEL, SEA TURTLE NET
Catalog No: 70.0/ 3508
This is a model of a djarik, or a ceremonial net used by the Mentaweian peoples of the Pagai Islands in Indonesia for hunting sea turtles. The net has anchors on the bottom and wooden floaters on the top to keep it in place in the ocean. Although sea turtles were not a regular part of the Mentaweians’ diet, hunting them was a central component of Mentaweian religious festivals in the early 1900s when ethnologists described them. The djarik was a sacred ritual object used only for such occasions. The Mentaweians believed that if they did not treat the net with great care both in its storage and use, then the hunt would be unsuccessful. For example, fisherman were forbidden from becoming angry while using the djarik because this would make the djarik angry, and then it might refuse to catch turtles.
 
LAMP, TURTLE-SHAPED
Catalog No: 70.2/ 7911
This lamp would have been used during the Hindu ritual of arathi in which devotees worship a deity through material offerings such as food, flowers, and incense. This lamp would have held seven cubes of flaming camphor, symbolizing the passage from inner darkness into enlightenment. The shape of the lamp references the Hindu myth that the world rests on the back of a tortoise. Earthquakes are said to be the result of the creature shifting its feet. Tortoises are also believed to be the first creatures ever created and the ancestors of gods and men. The god Vishnu, the protector of the universe, takes the form of a tortoise in some Hindu stories.
NETSUKE, GROUP OF EIGHT TURTLES
Catalog No: 70.3/ 499
The turtle was a popular subject for netsuke because it represents longevity in Japanese folklore. In one well-known story, a fisherman rescues a sea turtle, which transforms into the princess of an undersea kingdom. After staying with her for three years, the fisherman returns to land only to discover that 300 years have passed. A turtle netsuke would have been widely recognized as a reference to the turtle’s legendary immortality, communicating its wearer’s desire for a long life or the good wishes of someone who may have bestowed the netsuke as a gift.
 
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