It’s Turtles All the Way Down

Hindu turtle Earth
Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma who holds up the world.

I think I first saw the expression “Turtles all the way down,” when I read Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. He recounted it as a conversation between a Western traveler and an Oriental philosopher.

I don’t have that book handy, but it is also told in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which is on a nearby shelf (I have both the nicely illustrated edition, and the “in a nutshell” versions which I found easier to understand).

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the Sun and how the Sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

If you search a bit online, you’ll also find this called “The Infinite Turtle Theory” and find that it has found its way into a good number of cultural works. I myself have pinned the saying to several web pages I have online.

Although Hawking relates the anecdote more to point out something about ridiculous theories, others actually use it as a way to discuss an infinite regression belief about the origin and nature of the universe.

When I encountered it, I immediately thought of it as a variation of ancient beliefs that our world moves through the universe on the back of an animal. In many Native American creation myths, it is a turtle that holds up the world which is called “Turtle Island.”

I also found that it is similar to some Indian classical texts, including the myth that the tortoise Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma who holds up the world.

The reference to Bertrand Russell may be from a 1927 lecture he gave titled “Why I Am Not a Christian” during which he said:

“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

But you could go back to 1690 in John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” where he refers to an Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise “but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — something, he knew not what.”

A more modern allusion to it supposedly came from William James (father of American psychology) who supposedly had a conversation with an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle.

“But, my dear lady”, James asked, “what holds up the turtle?”
“Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.”
“But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?”
“It’s no use, Professor”, said the lady, avoiding a logical trap. “It’s turtles, turtles, turtles, all the way!”

Ah yes,  we will never get to the bottom of some things.

Infinite regressions. What existed before the universe existed?  If God created the universe, what created God?

It’s turtles all the way down.

Solstice Gods, Goddesses and Monsters

In researching the winter solstice, I found a number of good and bad characters that are associated with this time.

In the way that the solstice can be seen as the beginning of longer days and shorter nights, there are optimistic figures that include Tonantzin in Mexico, Cailleach Bheru in Scotland, Horus in Egypt and Spider Grandmother by the Hopi.


Mythological gods and goddesses associated with the winter solstice, also have optimistic stories of the Earth’s regeneration or rebirth. The goddess, Beaivi is associated with health and fertility. In Scandanavia, it was believed that she flew across the night sky in a structure made of reindeer bones to bring back the plants that the reindeer needed to eat. Reindeer were so important to them that she was worshipped during this time of year.

In Italian folklore, La Befana is a goddess who rides around the world on her broom during the solstice, leaving candies and gifts to well-behaved children. Placing a rag doll in her likeness by the front door or window entices her into the home.

But not all the myths have benevolent characters. In Finnish mythology, Louhi, the “witch goddess of the North,” kidnapped the Sun and Moon and held them captive inside a mountain, causing the darkness of winter. She was considered to be more wicked than other benevolent goddesses.

The Yupik peoples of Alaska and the Russian Far East tell the story of the Kogukhpak, subterranean monsters with bulbous bodies and frog-like legs who could only be killed by the Sun. On the winter solstice, the Kogukhpak emerged to hunt. When the people had found mammoth carcasses on the Arctic tundra, they were said to be the corpses of the Kogukhpak who stayed out too long and died when the Sun returned.

Similarly, the Kallikantzaros in Greek mythology could only be killed by sunlight, so they emerged during the solstice to wreak havoc. They were angry, hairy, gnome-like creatures who lived underground. They wanted to cut down the tree of life.

kallikantzaros – by Spencer Alexander McDaniel.

Looking For Mercury

Mercury – NASA

Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and the smallest planet in the solar system. All the planets out in space seem cold to us, but the average surface temperature on Mercury is 333 degrees Fahrenheit (about 165 Celsius). It’s hot.

Mercury has a large iron core that is much larger than Earth’s core. Mercury has almost no atmosphere. Its gray surface is covered with impact craters caused by asteroids and comets, so that it appears similar to our Moon.

It has a strong magnetic field, generated by a dynamo effect, in a manner similar to the magnetic field of Earth, resulting from the circulation of the planet’s iron-rich liquid core. Particularly strong tidal heating effects caused by the planet’s high orbital eccentricity would serve to keep part of the core in the liquid state necessary for this dynamo effect.

Because Mercury is small and is close to the Sun, it can be difficult to observe. The best times to see it with the naked eye are shortly before sunrise or right after sunset. The best time to catch Mercury is within a week or so of its greatest elongation. That is the time when Mercury appears to be at its farthest distance from Sun as seen from Earth. That happens about every four months.

The greatest elongation west is when Mercury is farthest from the Sun in the morning sky and its greatest elongation east is when the two bodies are farthest apart in the evening sky. The greatest elongation east (night sky) occurs on December 21, 2022. So the next few nights are a good time to look for Mercury after sunset.

You can check out tonight’s sky here.

In Roman mythology, most people today think of Mercury as the winged-foot god associated with speed. That is probably closer to the Greek god Hermes who is the equivalent of the Roman Mercury.

To the Romans, he was the god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication (including divination), travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery, and thieves. He was also the guide of souls to the underworld.

My Doppelgänger

Doppelgängers who discovered each other coincidentally on a flight.

I met a man for the first time this past week and in our brief conversation, he asked me if I had spent any time in New Mexico. “I’ve never been there, ” I told him. “You look exactly like someone I went to college with at the University of New Mexico back in the 1970s.”

He has the right time period but the wrong person. But it made me think about the doppelgänger, which is a person who is the identical twin, but not a biological twin, or who very closely resembles a living person.

The word itself goes back to German folklore where it was believed that all living creatures have a spirit double who is invisible but identical to the living individual. They are not ghosts which in legend only appear only after someone’s death. Doppelgänger come from the German  doppel-, meaning “double,” and –gänger, meaning “goer.” “Specters” is one synonym for them.

The term was created by German writers who used them in fiction and sometimes described them as the spiritual opposite or negative of their human counterparts and generally as a harbinger of bad luck.

I hope that my New Mexico doppelgänger is the evil twin and not me.

In modern times, the doppelgänger often just means any person who physically strongly resembles another living person, such as a doppelgänger for President Joe Biden. You would not consider someone who looks very much like President John F. Kennedy to be a doppelgänger.

Nowadays, the term “twin stranger” is sometimes used instead of doppelgänger. I only had a brief conversation with the man who thought I was a doppelgänger and I didn’t dig deeper to get a name or any information about my twin stranger. Actually, I’m not sure how I would feel about meeting him.

There are some websites where you can upload a photo of yourself and by using facial recognition software attempts to match you with your twin stranger. Of course, that person would also have to be a user who has uploaded their photo, so it would be a rather limited database.

I have read stories of a number of celebrity “lookalikes” and a few cases of real-life accidental meetings of twin strangers, but I haven’t met mine and I don’t know anyone who has met theirs.

Have you been told you have a doppelgänger or have you actually met your doppelgänger? I’d love to hear some real stories.

The Pomegranate


The pomegranate is a very odd fruit. Its juice has become popular and is often attributed with almost magical powers.

The name “pomegranate” derives from Latin pomum (‘apple’) and granatus (‘seeded’). The pomegranate’s botanical name, Punica Granatum, means “seeded fruit growing from a shrub or small tree.”

Jewish scholars believe that the pomegranate was the original “forbidden fruit” of the Garden of Eden. It has been a symbol in many religions and cultures since Biblical times. Moses promised his followers that they would find the fruit in the Promised Land.

I has been a cultivated fruit since ancient times, but it was native to the region that is today’s Iran to northern India. In the 18th century, Spanish sailors introduced it to the southern United States and it is now cultivated widely in California and Arizona for juice production.

I remember my mother bring one home from the store when I was a child. It was strange. The skin is leathery. Inside are hundreds of edible seeds encased in a gelatinous sack of sweet, juicy pulp. The seeds and surrounding pulp (called arils) is colored from white to deep crimson. Unlike many fruits, we eat the seeds, though the juice is what is most prized these days.

As symbolic objects pomegranates sometimes have cultural or religious significance, as a symbol of life and fertility because of the many seeds. It is also a symbol of power (imperial orb) and blood and even death.

They meant fertility, beauty and eternal life in Greek and Persian mythology. The Ancient Greeks also saw it as a symbol of fertility and associated it with Demeter, Persephone, Aphrodite, and Athena.

In the Bible, it is only mentioned in the Old Testament. Pomegranates play a role as a symbol of righteousness in Judaism. It was believed that they contain 613 seeds, which correspond to the 613 commandments of the Torah. At Rosh Hashanah, some Jews eat this fruit one seed at a time, for each is a wish that may be fulfilled.

In Buddhism, pomegranates, peaches and lemons are considered three blessed kinds of fruit.

The Koran also mentions a pomegranate as a symbol of  the good things created by God, and is sometimes referred to as the “apple of paradise.”

In the Middle Ages, the resemblance between a pomegranate and an imperial orb made it a symbol of power, probably a relic of Ancient Germanic representations.

Albrecht Dürer’s- Portrait of Maximilian I with a pomegranate

Pomegranates have been seen as an aphrodisiac and are an ingredient of many love potions.

In modern Turkey today, families might throw a pomegranate on the floor and “crack” it on the New Year’s Eve to have a plentiful new year.

pomegranate seeds

The ancient Persians recognized the beneficial effect of pomegranates. Theophrast and Pliny recounted the different varieties and their medicinal properties. Modern day science has shown that pomegranates contain antioxidants, large quantities of flavonoids that have important functions for cell regulation. Pomegranates also contain potassium, vitamin A, C, E, calcium and iron.

The pomegranate plant is evergreen and so is associated with immortality and the soul. of the soul. In time, the many seeds in a single fruit have come to stand for prosperity.

Sacred Apples

apple tree pixabay
Image by suju from Pixabay

Apple trees – their wood and fruit – have had meanings in the folklore and mythology of many cultures for centuries.

In Norse tradition, the apple is the tree of immortality. The Goddess Idunn was the keeper of the apples, which she fed the Norse Gods and Goddesses to keep them forever young. Apple wands were also used in Norse love rituals as apples represented long life, wisdom, and love.

JK Rowling seems to have borrowed from Norse folklore in her Harry Potter series. The applewood wand holder is described as being “well-loved and long-lived.” Since apple tree branches are knobbly and twisted, a  wand made from an apple branch is not likely to be perfectly straight, but rather would have twists.

The apple (or similar fruit) plays a big role in the Bible story of Adam and Eve and represents knowledge. Fairy tales, such as Snow White, use apples symbolically. Sir Isaac Newton was said to have had gravity revealed to him by an apple that fell on him.

The symbolism of the apple varies but in many cultures, it has symbolized knowledge, prosperity, love, jealously, and temptation.

apple pentagram

In mythology, Kore/Persephone’s sacred fruit is the apple. When an apple is cut through its equator, both halves will reveal a near-perfect pentagram shape at the core, with each point on the star containing a seed.

Pagans and Roma cut apples to show the pentagram and sometimes refer to the core as the Star of Knowledge. The pentagram is one of the most widely used religious symbols in the world and has been used by Wiccans, Pagans, Israelites, and Christians.

A pentagram is a five-pointed star with one point aligned upwards (when surrounded by a circle, it’s known as a ‘pentacle’) and its name derives from the Greek words penta (five) and gamma (letter).

Pentagrams were used symbolically and had magical associations in ancient Greece and Babylonia. Today they are used as a symbol of faith by many Wiccans, much in the way that the cross is used by Christians. Christians once commonly used the pentagram to represent the five wounds of Jesus. The pentagram has been used in Judaism since at least 300BCE when it first was used as the stamp of Jerusalem and to represent justice, mercy, and wisdom.

The pentagram is featured on the national flags of Morocco and Ethiopia.

The pentagram was originally a symbol of the goddess, Kore, who was worshipped thousands of years ago from the British isles to Egypt by different names (Cara, Ceres, Carnak, Core, Car, Karnak, Persephone).

Five is an often significant or magical number. In Ireland, there are five great roads, five provinces, five paths of the law and the fairy folk count in fives and wear fivefold cloaks.

Wiccans use the pentagram for healing circles and wear the symbol. They interpret the five points as the five elements- earth, air, water, fire, and spirit. Some see the five as the four directions plus the direction of the spirit.

Apples are also used for divination, especially in matters of love. Some use a count of the apple pips (seeds) which vary from five to less than ten. To divine who a girl might mary, pips are each given a potential man’s name and then burned watching to see the first to explode in the fire. You could also throw an apple peeling over the left shoulder to see what initial of an individual it forms when it lands. Putting an apple under your pillow supposedly allows you to dream of your sweetheart.

Shamans and magicians have used apples when undergoing transformations or Otherworld journeys. When I studied the Arthurian legends I learned that one of these Otherworlds is Avalon. It is the Apple Vale, a mythical paradise where hills were clothed with trees bearing flowers and fruit together. Merlin told Arthur about it and an orchard that was brought there by the Enchanter.

celtic apple

The Ogham system connects the apple to the unfearing spiritual warrior. The warrior journeys to the Otherworld which can cause madness and returns. In Celtic society, madness was believed to be a gift and a rare ability and it could link them to the Otherworld knowledge and insights.

Earlier, I wrote about Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire in which he used John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) to illustrate how the apple’s sweetness and its use in making an alcoholic cider made it appealing to settlers moving west. That brought the apple tree West.  (Pollan also points out that our manipulation of apples has made the modern varieties require more pesticide than any other food crop.) I also wrote about a local apple-based alcoholic brew – Laird’s 100 proof apple brandy and Applejack which is 35% apple brandy and 65% neutral spirits. That’s not necessarily spiritual, but it is spirits.

apple blossom pixabay

The Noble Apple
The Botany of Desire
Applejack and Jersey Lightning