The Mythology Behind ‘Turtles All the Way Down’

Moiya McTier, PhD of the PBS series Fate & Fabled explained the mythology behind the phrase “turtles all the way down”, noting that it originated with a Hindu myth of three elephants balancing the Earth while standing on the back of a turtle.

Several mythologies from around the world imagined that the world sits on the back of a turtle. Centuries later, we end up with the whimsically iconic phrase “it’s turtles all the way down.” Let’s explore the origins of the phrase…

These particular elephants were ignored when a preacher in 1852 complained of heathens who believed the world stood on the back of a turtle and when questioned as to what that turtle stood on, their infinitely regressive response was “turtles all the way down”.

By the mid 19th century, the myth seems to have been conflated with a folktale about some woman who responds to a lecture by claiming that the Earth sits on a stack of rocks all the way down. In 1854, a preacher wrote about the heathens who believed that Earth rested on the back of a turtle with another turtle underneath that one, and so on, all the way down.

Turtles All the Way Down
Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.