Tortoise and Snake


© Gabi Greve
Tsurukame - Crane, Tortoise and Daruma for Good Luck 鶴亀とだるま


The Beard of Daruma was painted in the form of a snake (rather "Dragon"「蛇=龍」) in the beginning. Why did it change to a tortoise?

The picture on the left below dates from 1777 and shows a Tumbler Doll Daruma with Saigyoo Hooshi (a famous poet). This is probably the oldest picture of a Daruma Doll. From then on Daruma became a popular theme.

The picture in the middle shows the face of this Daruma. His eyebrows are in the form of a crane and the beard clearly shows the form of a snake, or rather a wild dragon.

The picture on the left shows a modern classical Daruma Doll and as we can see the beard looks like a tortoise lifting its head. "The crane lives 1000 years, the tortoise 10.000 years" as a Japanese proverb goes. Both animals are symbols of longevity.

But why was it a snake in the beginning? And for what purpose did it change into a turtoise? And what about the combination with a crane? Maybe the tortoise is the painted version of the deformation of the snake's head and the scales?

Tortoise and Snake  亀と蛇

I have checked out about the connection of Turtoise-Snake first and the story brings us back to ancient China.

In Chinese culture, especially under the influence of Taoism (道教) the turtoise is the symbol of heaven and earth, its shell compared to the vaulted heaven and the underside to the flat disc of the earth. The tortoise was the hero of many ancient legends. It helped the First Chinese Emperor to tame the Yellow River, so Shang-di rewarded the animal with a lifespan of Ten Thousand Years. Thus the turtoise became a symbol for Long Life.

It also stands for immutability and steadfastness. We often see stone grave steles on a stone tortoise or reliquiaries standing on it.

The tortoise is also regarded as an immortal creature. As there are no male tortoise - as the ancient believed - the female had to mate with a snake. Thus the turtoise embracing a snake became the protector symbol of the north, but since the word "tortoise" was taboo in Chinese, it was referred to as the "dark warrior" (genbu 玄武 ) and finally became one of the protector gods of the four areas, Zhenwu in Chinese Taoism.

Read more in the LINK given at the top of this page.

You can find out more about Taoism and Zhenwu in the magnificent catalog about "Taoism and the Arts of China".


Daruma Museum, Japan


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