Myths in a Half Shell

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Author’s Note: This is the first in a new weekly long form blog post (to go along with our more frequent short form posts on pop culture, writing, music, and comics) that will come from Zach or myself. Each week you will get a post from one us us regarding mythology, archetypes, monomyths, and all the things that, well, interest us.We are having a ball thinking about them and writing them, and we hope that you will enjoy reading them!

I don’t want to brag, but I once wrote some pretty badass Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan fiction. I was around ten, and my mom loved it. When I was a kid I loved getting my hands on anything TMNT. I had video cassettes of the old cartoon show, I saw all the movies on opening day and then owned them all on VHS, and I had every toy I could get (even the bad-ass van that weaponized pizza into deadly throwing disks). There was some inescapable force that those mutated, talking turtles held over me.

I want to start by saying that I’m not going to go into the mythology of TMNT. There are better places to find that. And also, I’m not going to dissect the individual movies or cartoons too much, there are much better places where you can find that. What I am going to write on is where TMNT finds itself in the wider world of mythology.

Talking animals are not something new. It’s not something that the creators of TMNT made up on an acid trip whim. Talking animals, animals made human—here I will refer to them as anthropomorphic—have been around for a long while. Throughout mythology and religion we see them at every turn. The deities of Egypt, the end of days of Ragnorok, dragons of ancient Europe and China; they can be seen everywhere. In literature and popular culture they can be seen as well: Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Sesame Street, even the ill fated Taco Bell Chihuahua advertising campaign. Anthropomorphic animals are everywhere around us. It’s easy to put our human ideas and emotions onto animals. When we see our pets lounging around it is easy to call them lazy, when we see a dog panting it is easy to say they are smiling, and we love to put pets up to their owners and say how much they look alike.

I’m not going to go on a long winded tangent about the whole history of anthropomorphic animals. That would be insane. It would take an entire lifetime’s amount of words just to crack the surface of what anthropomorphic animals mean to us. No, instead I am going to focus on one instance of humanized animals. I am going to focus on the world of anthropomorphized animals where the Teenage Mutant Turtles find their roots: the world of reptiles.

There are really two classical interpretations of the reptile that I am going to focus on, both come in the form of the serpent, and neither could be any different from the other. According to Paula Nielson, PhD, “[t]hroughout the world the serpent may symbolize opposing qualities to different peoples.” This is no more true than the way that the serpent is seen in Western mythology, specifically in Judeo-Christian roots, and the way that the serpent is seen in the eastern world, specifically in Chinese mythology.

The most recognizable form of the serpent from the western tradition is found in Genesis. It is the serpent that tempts Eve into eating the apple of knowledge. This serpent is devious, manipulative, the messenger of satan, and, above all, he is evil. All of the terrible things that will befall humans in the future will be because of the original sin that this serpent helps to foster.

From the New International Version of the Bible:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

God will then discover that Eve and Adam have both eaten from the forbidden fruit. Eve will let God know that the serpent “deceived” her, and God will punish the serpent, as well as Adam and Eve. With the creation of original sin came the fall of man, but also, we get a keen eye on how serpents are treated in western mythology. The serpent in this story is evil, and later on become ubiquitous with Satan. Yes, there is the argument that this serpent also represents fertility, as he is part of the reason that Eve must now give birth, but that fertility comes as a punishment. In the ancient world (and I’m sure to many in the modern world, as well), birth is a laborious and painful process. This, coupled with the fact that man and woman are kicked out of eternal paradise because the snake convinces them to eat from the forbidden fruit, paints the snake as a negative character who does evil deeds and bring misfortune upon mankind.

The same depiction of the snake as an evil character can be seen in Greek mythology. Apollo must defeat a snake and Medusa, with her hair made from snakes, is a temptress who must be beheaded. There is the obvious connection between the snake and femininity. Eve, the woman, is convinced by the snake and then convinces Adam in turn. Medusa is a temptress woman who will turn you to stone. And Apollo must defeat the snake that represents Gaia—earth mother. Throughout mythology the role of woman is often seen as one of evil and one of temptress, and it is no wonder that femininity is also entwined with the serpent. However, whether a feminine aspect is added onto the serpent or not, the serpent is still a forbidding and evil figure in western mythology.

That’s what got me thinking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though.

With Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, we see a reptile that follows in much more of the eastern mythology than the western**. Although, as we will see, they may not even match 100 percent with eastern mythology either. The most well known representation of reptiles in Chinese mythology is that of the dragon, where “they [tend] to be . . . positive figure[s] (Leeming 106).” In Chinese mythology dragons represent guardians, protectors, and emperors. They are the great lords of the four seas (north, south, east, and west), emperors are the descendants of dragons, and “[b]ecasue they had power over they rain, offerings were made to dragons during droughts (Cotterell and Storm 468).”

Many of these traits can be seen in the Ninja Turtles: they are protectors, they are guardians, and they bring justice to those who need it. In the first TMNT movie a drought has hit the city in the form of a crime wave. The people need justice, and in the tradition of Chinese mythology “dragons,” in the form of the Turtles, have come to aid the city in its time of need. They have, as it were, come to bring a “reign” of justice.

The turtles have a certain amount of wisdom (yes, they are led by an incredibly wise and old rat, but they still have wisdom on their own). They are friendly to the people that they protect, although they often keep themselves hidden from the outside population. The characters that we see in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies and cartoons share many of the same characteristics with the dragons of Chinese mythology. They are wise, helpful, and powerful. The people who see them respect them rather than fear them.

Which is an odd contradiction.

It’s because the snakes and reptiles that we see in western culture, even in modern day popular culture, are evil and ominous. Anaconda, Lake Placid, and Attack of the Giant Killer Turtle.

All are examples of reptiles attempting to kill and destroy us. So why do the Ninja Turtles act in the opposite, and work so well in western culture?

Perhaps it is the use of martial arts. Perhaps it is their love of pizza. Perhaps it is their integration into nearly every aspect of popular culture possible. What do I think?

I think there are two causes. The first is that of commercialization. Creators of TV and toys have been able to sell war in the form of toys and 30 minute TV blocks in the form of GI Joes. They can turn talking cats who fly planes and sharks who swim the streets into easy profit makers. Why not shouldn’t they be able to take talking turtles and turn them into a cash machine, too?

But I think that there is another reason, as well. I think the idea of non-evil anthropomorphized reptiles is not all that foreign to us.

There’s a common theme when applying old myths to new interpretations. The archetypes of the myths can remain much the same, the turtles being wise guardians as with Chinese mythology, but they can be applied to new areas. Just as the idea of a fertile snake was pulled from Egyptian and Babyloninan mythology and applied to Judeo-Christian mythology, the Chinese mythology regarding reptiles has been applied to talking ninja turtles in the Western world.

It’s change and adaption, it’s what myths and archetypes do. They intwine themselves within our shared mythologies and appear in different places as different things. The Ninja Turtles are not so much an oddity as they are another piece of culture that was taken from pervious mythologies to become something old in a new place.

 

 


 

**As an aside: Again, I want to come clean in saying that I am making a judgement call in tying turtles in with serpents. There are only a few useful, concrete examples of turtles in mythology. However, there are some commonalities between turtles and serpents. Both turtles and snakes can be seen as universal beings, in Indian mythology it is a serpent “on whose back the god Vishnu sleeps before creation (Leeming, 350).” And in Chinese mythology the legs of the sea turtle Ao are used in order to prop up the heavens, in addition to the turtle being one of the four points of the Chinese constellations. The point I am making here is that these reptilian myths are intertwined and often times the myths are used similarly and interchangeably.

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