The Scorpion and the Frog

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The frog carrying the scorpion across the river.

The Scorpion and the Frog is an animal fable which teaches that some people cannot resist hurting others even when it is not in their own interests. This fable seems to have emerged in Russia in the early 20th century.


A scorpion wants to cross a river but cannot swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog hesitates, afraid that the scorpion might sting it, but the scorpion promises not to, pointing out that they would both drown if the scorpion killed the frog in the middle of the river. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. The frog lets the scorpion climb on its back and begins to swim. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: "I couldn't help it. It's in my nature."[1][2]


The earliest known appearance of this fable is in the 1933 Russian novel, The German Quarter, by Lev Nitoburg.[3] The fable also appears in the 1944 novel, The Hunter of the Pamirs, and this is the earliest known appearance of the fable in English.[1] The Hunter of the Pamirs is an English translation of the 1940 Russian novel, Jura by Georgii Tushkan, but the fable does not appear in the original Russian. The fable appears in the final chapter of The Hunter of the Pamirs, but does not appear at the corresponding location in Jura.

In the English-speaking world, the fable was made famous by the 1955 movie, Mr. Arkadin. It is recounted in a soliloquy by Gregory Arkadin (played by Orson Welles).[4][5] In an interview, Welles mentioned that the fable is Russian in origin.[6]


The Scorpion and the Turtle[edit]

A 19th-century illustration of "The Scorpion and the Turtle", from the Anvaar Soheili, a Persian collection of fables.

A likely precursor to The Scorpion and the Frog is the Persian fable of The Scorpion and the Turtle. This earlier fable appears in the Anvaar Soheili, a Persian collection of fables written c. 1500 by Hossein Va'ez Kashefi.[7][a] The Anvaar Soheili is in part a translation of fables from the Panchatantra, a collection of Indian fables, but The Scorpion and the Turtle does not appear in the Panchatantra, which means it was added to the Anvaar Soheili by Kashefi and is thus likely Persian in origin.[2]

In the Scorpion and the Turtle, it is a turtle that carries the scorpion across the river, and the turtle survives the scorpion's sting thanks to its protective shell. The turtle is baffled by the scorpion's behavior because they are old friends and the scorpion must have known that its stinger would not pierce the turtle's shell. The scorpion responds that it acted neither out of malice nor ingratitude, but merely an irresistible and indiscriminate urge to sting.[8] The turtle then delivers the following reflection:

Truly have the sages said that to cherish a base character is to give one's honor to the wind, and to involve one's own self in embarrassment.[8]

The moral of this fable is thus stated explicitly, and not left to interpretation. An important difference with The Scorpion and the Frog is that, in this fable with the turtle, the scorpion does not expect to drown. In some later versions of the fable, the turtle punishes the scorpion by drowning it anyway.[9]


The Scorpion and the Frog is sometimes attributed to Aesop, but it does not appear in any collection of his fables prior to the 20th century.[2][10] However, there are earlier fables attributed to Aesop which teach similar morals regarding trust. These include The Farmer and the Viper and The Frog and the Mouse.[11]

Other possible precursors[edit]

A source, dating from 300 to 500 CE, for the concept of a frog carrying a scorpion across a river, although it points to a different moral lesson, can be found in Genesis Rabbah. In this Midrash the frog is unharmed when it ferries a scorpion across a river to fulfil the insect's mission of stinging a man in accordance with the will of God. The story is intended to highlight how every creature has its own part to play in this world.[12]


A common interpretation of this fable is that people with vicious personalities sometimes cannot resist hurting others even when it is not in their interests.[13]

The Italian writer Giancarlo Livraghi has commented that while there are plenty of animal fables which warn against trusting vicious people, in none of these other fables is the villain suicidal. The Scorpion and the Frog is unique in that the scorpion is irrationally self-destructive and fully aware of it.[10]

For Freudian psychoanalysts, "it seems like a textbook illustration of the death drive—are we not all, on some level, self-sabotaging scorpions?"[14] The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, by contrast, saw the scorpion not as a character structure but as a fictional character made a victim of circumstance: "his desire becomes fatal destiny owing to an unfortunate combination of contingent factors."[14] To a social psychologist, the fable may present a dispositionist view of human nature because it seems to reject the idea that people behave rationally according to circumstances.[15] The French sociologist Jean-Claude Passeron saw the scorpion as a metaphor for Machiavellian politicians who delude themselves by their unconscious tendency to rationalize their ill-conceived plans, and thereby lead themselves and their followers to ruin.[16] The psychologist Kevin Dutton saw the scorpion as a metaphor for psychopaths, whose impulsive and vicious personalities frequently get them into unnecessary trouble.[17]

Orson Welles felt that the scorpion's lack of hypocrisy gave it a certain charm: "I will always like a man who admits to being a bastard, a murderer, or whatever you want, and tells me: 'I killed three people'. He is immediately my brother, because he is frank. I think that frankness does not excuse the crime, but it makes him very attractive, it gives him charm."[6]

Other contexts[edit]

Since the fable's narration in Mr. Arkadin,[4][5] it has been recounted as a key element in other films, including Skin Deep (1989),[18] The Crying Game (1992),[19] Drive (2011),[20] and The Devil's Carnival (2012).[21] In addition, references to the fable have appeared in comics,[22] television shows,[23] and in newspaper articles,[24] some of which have applied it to the relationship between big business and government[25] and to politics,[26] especially the bitter nature of Middle Eastern politics such as the Arab–Israeli conflict[27][28] and in Iran.[29]


  1. ^ Anvaar Soheili (Persian: انوار سهیلی‎)
    Hossein Vaez Kashefi (Persian: حسین واعظ کاشفی‎)
  1. ^ a b Tushkan (1944). The Hunter of the Pamirs, p. 320.
  2. ^ a b c Takeda (2011)
  3. ^ Nitoburg (1933). The German Quarter.
  4. ^ a b The scene in Mr Arkadin where Orson Welles recounts the tale of the scorpion and the frog on YouTube. Retrieved August 2, 2016.
  5. ^ a b Richard Brody (March 30, 2010). "DVD of the Week: Mr. Arkadin". The New Yorker. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  6. ^ a b Bazin et al. (1958). "Interview with Orson Welles", pp. 24-25: French: "Primo, la grenouille est un âne! [...] Rien au monde de plus charmant qu'une crapule admettant qu'elle est une crapule. [...] L'histoire du scorpion, elle, est d'origine russe.", lit.'Firstly, the frog is an idiot! [...] Nothing in the world is more charming than a scoundrel who admits he is a scoundrel. [...] The story of the scorpion is Russian in origin.'
  7. ^ Ruymbeke (2016). Kashefi's Anvar-e Sohayli, p. 292.
  8. ^ a b Eastwick (1854), pp. 133–134
  9. ^ Dutton (1908). The Tortoise and the Geese, pp. 12-13.
  10. ^ a b Giancarlo Livraghi (March 2007). "The Scorpion and the Frog". Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  11. ^ James (1852). Aesop's Fables. A New Version, Chiefly From Original Sources, p. 14.
  12. ^ Genesis Rabbah 10.7
  13. ^ Takeda (2011): German: Die Moral der Fabel besagt: Manche Menschen handeln von Natur aus mörderisch und selbst-mörderisch zugleich., lit.'The moral of the fable says: Some people act naturally murderous and self-murderous at the same time.'
  14. ^ a b Schuster (2016). The Trouble with Pleasure, p. 70.
  15. ^ Lasine (2012). Weighing Hearts, p. 110.
  16. ^ Passeron (2001), section VI, paragraph 101.
  17. ^ Dutton (2012), chpt. 1
  18. ^ Wasson (2011). A Splurch in the Kisser, p. 296.
  19. ^ Norman N. Holland. "Neil Jordan, The Crying Game, 1992". A Sharper Focus. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  20. ^ Peter Canavese (September 16, 2011). "Review: 'Drive'". Mountain View Voice. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  21. ^ Lenika Cruz (August 17, 2012). "How the Creators of The Devil's Carnival Said 'Screw You' to Hollywood and Gained a Cult Following". LA Weekly. Retrieved July 23, 2020.
  22. ^ As Grimm Fairy Tales #39 (June 2009). Zenescope Entertainment.
  23. ^ 1997's "Scorpion" episode of Star Trek: Voyager; 2005's episode 1, Season 6 of Gilmore Girls; 2006's episode 2, Season 2 of How I Met Your Mother; 2016's episode 5, Season 4 of Motive; 2017's episode 8, Season 13 of Supernatural; 2019's episode 10, Season 2 of Teen Wolf.
  24. ^ Maurice Saatchi (May 29, 2007). "Google data versus human nature". Financial Times. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  25. ^ Ryan Ellis (April 24, 2015). "The Scorpion And The Frog: A Tale Of Modern Capitalism". Forbes. Retrieved March 20, 2020.
  26. ^ Murray Forseter (June 9, 2017). "GOP Effort to Control Trump Is the Embodiment of the Fable "The Scorpion and the Frog"". HuffPost. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  27. ^ Anon. "Compromise is still seen as surrender". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on February 26, 2016. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  28. ^ Patrick Kiker (July 16, 2006). "...Because It's The Middle East". CBS News. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  29. ^ United Nations (June 29, 2017). "Accord on Iran's Nuclear Programme Remains on Track, Political Affairs Chief Tells Security Council". United Nations, SC/12894. Retrieved March 19, 2020.