Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Taken from
Frank G. Speck’s "Delaware Big House Ceremony (1931)”

“Outlined in particularly high relief is the tortoise. In the latter creature we have the symbol of life, of perseverance, longevity and steadfastness. As the Delaware patriarch says, "The tortoise is the earth; is life." In the procession of time and among the elemental nature forces the direction of movement is from east to west, according to Delaware belief. So moves the tortoise with measured pace across the earth and through the Big House, carrying out the mythical allegory. At the end of his journey at the "western door," meaning where the sun sets at the edge of the earth, night will come to an end as does the ceremony after the twelveth night. Thus the tortoise "brings the ceremony." His shell in the form of the rattle is carried by the participants who take the part of leaders in the recitations and dances and move in the proper westward direction in the Big House. The saying is, as the ceremony is opened, and after the intervals of pause, "The tortoise is bringing us the worship and we are now ready to touch it again."
The tortoise, moreover, is "he who carries our mother's body" - the latter being a metaphor for the earth. The tortoise being a "grandfather" thus becomes more ancient than the earth. The prominence of this mysterious creature in Delaware religious belief has long been noted by writers dealing with the tribe.
As early as 1670 the Delawares are recorded as declaring that all things came from the tortoise, that it brought forth the world, that from it's back a tree had sprung upon whose branches men had grown, that it had a power and a nature to produce all thing such as earth, and the like; that it brought forth what the supreme divinity wished through it to produce.
Zeisberger mentions the world-flood myth in which it is related that some human survivors took refuge on the back of a turtle whose age was so great that his shell was mossy. And the turtle represents the earth. His rounded back is to the Delawares the earth dome.
Another indication of a belief in the latent potency of the magical powers of this remarkable creature is met with in the esteem paid to the yellow color-pattern on the upper shell of the animal. Face paint patterns of a dignity appropriate to the men taking part in the Big House Ceremony are copied from these markings. The men wearing these patterns are adopting the symbol of the creature who "carries our mother's body."
The creature that typifies the earth bearer designated as taxko/ xkc (fused together) in Delaware, and whose symbol exists in the form of the shell rattle, is the Box Turtle (Cistudo Carolina). This reptile is by the rulings of precise taxonomy not a tortoise but a connecting link between the aquatic turtles, or terrapins, and the terrestrial forms, the true tortoises. For the Box Turtles, of the genus Cistudo, deriving their name from the well known structure of the hinged plastron which permits the animal to withdraw the soft parts of it's body completely within the protective cover of the shell, have partially webbed feet, which places them nearer to the Turtles than the Tortoises. Yet to distinguish the reptile of Delaware tradition from the semi-aquatic American turtles, I have adhered to the designation of tortoise in the text and discussion.
Perhaps certain remarks offered by the informant will, in conclusion, add something to our idea of another side of the character of this knowing and potent reptile, so important to the religious sense of the Delaware.

"The turtle is in its way an evil thing, yet not so evil as a snake which is controlled by the Evil Spirit and also has human face-paint patterns. The Turtle can hurt human beings. Once a boy caught a water-turtle and turned him on his back. The Turtle got mad; raised himself on his legs stiffly. The Turtle raised himself, and launched himself through the air and struck the boy on his head and nearly killed him. The Turtle has a weapon in the sharp frontal plates." (Pgs.44-47)
He also adds:
The Delaware also point out the occurrence of thirteen plates in the carapace and twelve in the plastron of all members of the American tortoises and turtles, bordered by the twelve marginal plates on each side. Another evidence in native thought of the tortoise as being a living symbol of the Universe. (Pg. 62)"

Frank Speck in "Delaware Big House Ceremony" 1931

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