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 vicious 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 it would drown if it killed the frog in the middle of the river. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. 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 am sorry, but I couldn't resist the urge. It's in my nature."[1]


The earliest known appearance of this fable is in the 1933 Russian novel, The German Quarter by Lev Nitoburg.[2] 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.[3] 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 film Mr. Arkadin. It is recounted in a soliloquy by the movie's villain, 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]

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

A likely precursor to this fable is the Persian fable of The Scorpion and the Turtle. This earlier fable appears in the Anvaar Soheili, a collection of fables written c. 1500 by the Persian scholar Husayn Kashifi.[7] The Anvaar Soheili contains fables translated from the Panchatantra, a collection of Indian fables written in Sanskrit, but The Scorpion and the Turtle does not appear in the Panchatantra, which suggests that the fable is Persian in origin.[8]

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. 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."[9]

The moral of this fable is thus stated explicitly, and not left to interpretation. Another important difference is that the scorpion does not anticipate drowning. In some later versions of this fable, the turtle punishes the scorpion by drowning it anyway.[10]


The Scorpion and the Frog is sometimes attributed to Aesop as its true author is unknown, though it does not appear in any collection of Aesop's fables prior to the 20th century.[8][11] However, there are a number of ancient fables traditionally attributed to Aesop which teach a similar moral, the closest parallels being The Farmer and the Viper and The Frog and the Mouse.


A common interpretation of this fable is that people with vicious personalities cannot resist hurting others even when it is not in their interests.[12]

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 irrationally self-destructive and fully aware of it.[11]

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.[13] 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.[14] The psychologist Kevin Dutton saw the scorpion as a metaphor for psychopaths, whose impulsive and vicious personalities frequently get them into unnecessary trouble, often hurting the people they depend on, such as their own families.[15]

When the villain of the movie Mr. Arkadin recounts this fable, he uses the word "character" in lieu of "nature", and he concludes by saying "let's drink to character". For director Orson Welles, the word "character" had two meanings: it could mean one's natural instincts, but also how one chooses to behave. The scorpion couldn't resist its natural urge to sting, but it also chose to be honest about it to the frog. Orson Welles believed that this frankness gave the scorpion a certain charm and tragic dignity.[16]

Other contexts[edit]

Since the fable's narration in Mr. Arkadin,[4][5] it has been recounted in other films, such as Skin Deep (1989),[17] The Crying Game (1992),[18] Drive (2011),[19] and The Devil's Carnival (2012).[20] In addition, references to the fable have appeared in comics,[21] television shows,[22] and in newspaper articles,[23] some of which have applied it to the relationship between big business and government[24] and to politics,[25] especially the bitter nature of Middle Eastern politics such as the Arab–Israeli conflict[26][27] and in Iran.[28]


  1. ^ Paraphrased from a number of sources, including The Hunter of the Pamirs and Mr. Arkadin. The movie Mr. Arkadin uses the word "character" in lieu of "nature". Russian versions of the tale tend to use the word "характер" (kharakter).
  2. ^ Nitoburg (1933). The German Quarter [Немецкая слобода], pp. 232-233.
  3. ^ Tushkan (1944). The Hunter of the Pamirs, p. 320.
  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. ^ Bazin et al. (1958). "Interview with Orson Welles", p. 25: French: "L'histoire du scorpion, elle, est d'origine russe.", lit.'"The story of the scorpion is of Russian origin."'
  7. ^ Ruymbeke (2016). Kashefi's Anvar-e Sohayli, p. 292.
  8. ^ a b Takeda (2011)
  9. ^ Eastwick (1854), pp. 133–134: "The Scorpion answered, ‘God forbid that sentiments like these should approach my mind in the whole course of my life or should have ever done so! It is nothing more than this, that my nature instigates me to sting, whether I wound the back of a friend or the breast of a foe.
    The tortoise reflected thus, ‘Truly have the sages said that to cherish a base character is to give one's own honor to the wind, and to involve one’s own self in embarrassment.’"
  10. ^ Dutton (1908). The Tortoise and the Geese, pp. 12-13.
  11. ^ a b Giancarlo Livraghi (March 2007). "The Scorpion and the Frog". Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  12. ^ 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.'
  13. ^ Lasine (2012). Weighing Hearts, p. 110.
  14. ^ Passeron (2001), section VI, paragraph 101.
  15. ^ Dutton (2012), chpt. 1
  16. ^ Bazin et al. (1958). "Interview with Orson Welles", p. 24: French: "Le but de cette histoire est de dire que l'homme qui déclare à la face du monde: je suis comme je suis, c'est à prendre ou à laisser, que cet homme a une sorte de dignité tragique. [...] J'aime toujours qu'un homme avoue être un salaud, un meurtrier, ou tout ce que vous voudrez, et me dise: j'ai tué trois personnes. C'est immédiatement mon frère, parce qu'il est franc. Je pense que la franchise n'excuse pas le crime, mais elle le rend très attirant, elle lui donne du charme."
  17. ^ Wasson (2011). A Splurch in the Kisser, p. 296.
  18. ^ Norman N. Holland. "Neil Jordan, The Crying Game, 1992". A Sharper Focus. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  19. ^ Peter Canavese (September 16, 2011). "Review: 'Drive'". Mountain View Voice. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ As Grimm Fairy Tales #39 (June 2009). Zenescope Entertainment.
  22. ^ Star Trek: Voyager, "Scorpion" (Season 4, Episode 1, 1997); The Sopranos, "Bust Out" (Season 2, Episode 10, 2000); Gilmore Girls, Season 6, Episode 1 (2005); 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.
  23. ^ Maurice Saatchi (May 29, 2007). "Google data versus human nature". Financial Times. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  24. ^ Ryan Ellis (April 24, 2015). "The Scorpion And The Frog: A Tale Of Modern Capitalism". Forbes. Retrieved March 20, 2020.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Anon. "Compromise is still seen as surrender". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on February 26, 2016. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  27. ^ Patrick Kiker (July 16, 2006). "...Because It's The Middle East". CBS News. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  28. ^ 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.