Earth Readings: The Turtle Path

Erick Beltrán, 3 Dimensional Movements [Turtle Shell Movement], 2012, vinyl prints 3D map models and other localization signs from 1st to n dimension. Courtesy of the artist

Then the quarrelsome turtle, he of the troublesome way, said: "I am going to pick a quarrel with the heron, the heron! I, the turtle, am going to pick a quarrel with the heron! I, whose eyes are snake's eyes, am going to pick a quarrel! I, whose mouth is a snake's mouth, am going to pick a quarrel! I, whose tongue is a snake's tongue, am going to pick a quarrel!

(Excerpts from The heron and the turtle)

The story of 'The heron and the turtle' resides amidst a significant array of Sumerian animal fables found on clay tablets—used as pre-historic literature documents and administrative records, dating as early as 3000 BC. These tales (in the incomplete avatar that we receive them today) are particular in their modes of address between the animal characters. In no way chronicles on ‘the victory of good over evil’—more often than not, they are personified debates on greed, foolishness, competition, as well as the framing of the earth—with no straightforward fortuitous ending.

Both protagonists: the heron and the turtle, are linked with the Sumerian god Enki, who was symbolic of the earth, waterways and a master alchemist meant to have fashioned plant forms, irrigation systems and the first humans raised from ‘clay and blood.’ When the malevolent turtle destructs the heron’s nest, tipping out her fledglings, Enki responds to the heron’s complaint by building a sluice or gate that would protect her in the future. In a later struggle, this earth god creates a vegetable from dirt under his fingernail and thus, arrives the flax plant, whose fibers became useful to weave linen and hunting nets. 

In Beltrán’s map he states, “For the Delaware Indians of North America and in Asian cosmogony the earth rests on the back of the turtle, and further the turtle is the earth itself.” Moreover, through his diagrammatic constellation we get to know that the turtle frequently recurs as a divine symbol of longevity and knowledge—its back has served as a moon calendar and proto I-ching. The Romans emulated its morphology and movements in a battle formation of shields. As Zeno of Elea has stated in his ancient paradoxes, even the mighty Achilles never quite manages to take over the turtle. Artist, Erick Beltrán is also interested in the arrival of forms, their organic life and its technological circulations. He surveys mythical resonances and figurations of the turtle within transhistorical exercises in conceiving "maps of maps". His series ‘3 Dimensional Movements’ (2012—ongoing) exhibited within The Museum of Rhythm treats the shell of a turtle as a composition device for imaging the world, calendric time and movements of cosmological order.  

By constructing methodologies to read images simultaneously as belief-systems, knowledge deposits, and rhythmic impulses, the series traces sympathetic paths across mapping cultures that privilege tactile geographies over dominant regimes of cartographic perception. Maps are projections that have spatial as well as temporal connotations but Beltrán studies another crucial aspect: the map as a machine of dimensional shifts. And therein plots matrices of "place" that traverse from synchronicity to asynchronicity—between material history, geomorphology, cultural knowledge, and the imagination.

There is a Chinese legend, which mentions that a family trapped in a cave was able to survive for several years by observing and imitating the posture of a turtle that was also confined with them. Here lies yet another evocative instance of Beltrán's research on the turtle as an emblematic knowledge-object, as well as the mimetic potential of world-bodies / bodies-in-the-world.


Black, J.A., The Literature of Ancient Sumer, Oxford University Press (2006)

Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (, Oxford (1998)