The Scorpion and the Frog

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An 1847 illustration of "The Scorpion and the Turtle" from the Persian Kalilah and Dimna

The Scorpion and the Frog is an animal fable that seems to have first emerged in 1954. On account of its dark morality, there have been many popular references since then in popular culture, including notable films, television shows, and books.[1]


A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that no change can be made in the behaviour of the fundamentally vicious. It is this moral that is also illustrated by Aesop's Fables of The Farmer and the Viper and also the similar The Snake and the Farmer [2] where a farmer saves a snake which bites its benefactor as soon as it has recovered. The farmer's last words are "I am rightly served for pitying a scoundrel" and the moral is "The greatest kindness will not bind the ungrateful." .


The earliest verifiable appearance of the fable is in the 1954 script of Orson Welles' film Mr Arkadin.[3] Although there are similarities between this story and Aesop's fable of The Frog and the Mouse, the story here has more in common with later variants upon Aesop's fable which emerged in Asia during the Middle Ages in which a scorpion appears.

Various claims have been made that the fable is of Arab or of West African origin. A study published in a German journal in 2011,[4] can find no connection between the fable and the Indian tradition of the Panchatantra. Whereas the original Sanskrit work and its early translations do not contain any fable resembling The Scorpion and the Frog, an earlier version of it, The Scorpion and the Turtle, is to be found as an interpolated fable in post-Islamic variants of the Panchatantra.[5] The study suggests that the interpolation occurred between the 12th and 13th century in the Persian language area[6] and may offer a new starting point for further research on the question of the fable's origin.

The image of a scorpion carried across a river by a frog occurs at an earlier period, in the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), though with a different outcome and purpose. The scorpion crosses the river and stings a man, killing him. This is said to illustrate how God's will is fulfilled in seemingly impossible ways.[7] A genuine Arab variant is found in a Sufi source from the 6th century that illustrates divine providence with the tale of a scorpion that crosses the Nile on a frog's back in order to save a sleeping drunkard from being bitten by a snake.[8]

Neither of the above carry the moral that developed in the 20th century. However, The Lady Frog and the Scorpion was published in 2010, claiming that it is a 'traditional' Nigerian folktale, although it seems not to have been previously recorded.[9]

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