Turtles of Penghu

Fifteen days after the start of the lunar year, on the evening of the Lantern Festival, Penghu residents crowd into temples around the islands and offer sacrificial turtle-themed offerings to the deities. They pray for prosperity and give thanks for the good things that happened to them the previous year. The sea turtles that migrate through the coastal waters off Penghu have a special meaning to the islanders, who believe that they represent longevity and fortune. Rice cakes and dough are formed into the shape of turtles and offered to temple deities. Sacrificial turtles are also made from gold coins, noodles, sponge cakes and sometimes offered live. Turtles can be offered to any of the gods or goddesses, though Matsu seems to be the local favourite. During the festivities, parades are held with men carrying giant palanquins down the streets bearing local gods and goddesses, accompanied by singing, dancing and plenty of fireworks.

Some of the beliefs about turtles come from ancient Chinese myths about the reptiles being special conduits between heaven and earth and capable of divining the future through marks on their shells. The turtle, along with the dragon, chimera and phoenix, were considered the four sacred beasts in the ancient times and they were thought to possess magical powers.

Unfortunately, there are more rice-cake turtles in Penghu now than the real things. Once dispersed throughout Taiwan's coastal regions, sea-turtle nesting sites are now found only on Penghu, Lanyu and the Taitung coastline.

For more on the plight of the green sea turtle and efforts to revive its numbers visit the Green Turtle Tourist Conservation Centre on Wang'an Island.