The Scorpion and the Frog
The Scorpion and the Frog is an animal fable. On account of its dark morality, there have been many references since then in popular culture, including notable films, television shows, and books.
A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, they would both drown. Considering this, the frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When the frog asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.
The fable is used to illustrate that fundamentally vicious natures cannot change, that some people will be vicious even if it is self-destructive, or perhaps more broadly, that people and creatures cannot change fundamental aspects of their character.
The origin of the fable is somewhat uncertain. One of the earliest known appearances of the fable is in the 1954 script of Orson Welles' film Mr Arkadin. Although there are similarities with the fable of The Frog and the Mouse, the story here has more in common with later variants in which a scorpion appears that emerged in Asia during the Middle Ages.
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 found no connection between the fable and the Indian tradition of the Panchatantra. However, an 1898 issue of Dante Studies analyzing a number of related fables, noted:
"In the Anvar-i Suhaili a friendly tortoise carries a scorpion across a river; the scorpion stings the tortoise, which reflects that to cherish a base friend is to sacrifice oneself. This tale was put in the place of another that appears in the Panchatantra; and Benfey suggests that it may have been influenced by the Aesopic fable of the Frog and the Mouse."
Whereas the original Sanskrit work and its early translations do not contain any fable resembling The Scorpion and the Frog, a later fable, The Scorpion and the Turtle, is to be found interpolated in post-Islamic variants of the Panchatantra. In The Scorpion and the Turtle, the turtle drowns the scorpion after the scorpion tries but fails to sting the turtle through its hard shell. The study suggests that the interpolation occurred between the 12th and 13th centuries in the Persian language area and may offer a new starting point for further research on the question of the fable's origin.
John Malcolm, in his 1827 Sketches of Persia, from the Journals of a Traveller in the East relates another version of "The Scorpion and the Tortoise," very similar to the modern-day "Scorpion and the Frog." In this version, in which the scorpion attempts and fails to sting its friend over a stream; afterwards, the tortoise remonstrates with the scorpion:
"When [the tortoise] had placed [the scorpion] safe on the opposite shore, he turned to him and said, 'Are you not the most wicked and ungrateful of reptiles? But for me you must either have given up your journey, or have been drowned in that stream, and what is my reward? If it had not been for the armour which God has given me, I should have been stung to death.' 'Blame me not,' said the scorpion, in a supplicatory tone, 'it is not my fault; it is that of my nature; it is a constitutional habit I have of stinging!'"
- Babylonian Talmud
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. 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. Neither of the above, however, carry the moral apparent in the 20th century version.
The Greek storyteller Aesop told a fable with a similar lesson, The Farmer and the Viper, wherein a farmer saves a snake which then 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."
- Scorpion's "Nature"
The parable relies to a significant extent on the idea of a creature's nature, which in the case of the scorpion, is presumed to be either vicious or perhaps just to sting. This concept of the scorpion's vicious nature is considerably older than the mid-20th century Orson Welles reference. In 1825, Oliver Goldsmith dedicated a chapter to the scorpion in A History of the Earth and Animated Nature. Here he described the scorpion:
"It is certain that no animal in the creation seems endued with such an irascible nature. ... [T]heir unnatural malignity ... Such is the terrible and unrelenting nature of this insect, which neither the bonds of society, nor of nature can reclaim: it is even asserted that, when driven to an extremity, the scorpion will often destroy itself."
- See Giancarlo Livraghi's 2007 footnote to his book The Power of Stupidity (2004)
- The Lady Frog and the Scorpion (Phantom Books 2010, ISBN 978-1-4609-0609-5) claims to be a 'traditional' Nigerian folktale, although it seems not to have been previously recorded
- Takeda, Arata (2011) "Blumenreiche Handelswege: Ost-westliche Streifzüge auf den Spuren der Fabel Der Skorpion und der Frosch", Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, Volume 85, Issue 1, pp. 124-152
- Kenneth McKenzie (West Virginia University), "Dante's References to Aesop" (1898), published in Dante Studies, Volumes 16-25 (p.11) (public domain scan available at Google Books at https://books.google.com/books?id=-q5EAAAAYAAJ). McKenzie cites to Theodor Benfey, Pantschatantra, Leipzig, 1859, Volume I, p.223.
- Takeda (2011), pp. 140-142.
- Takeda (2011), p. 142.
- John Malcolm, Sketches of Persia, from the Journals of a Traveller in the East (Murray: 1827), public domain scan available at https://books.google.com/books?id=evRAAAAAcAAJ.
- Malcolm, Chapter XIV, p.3.
- Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), Women (Seder Nashim), Vows (Nedarim), Chapter IV p. 41
- Oliver Goldsmith, A History of the Earth and Animated Nature, 1825, published T. Kinnersley, pp.761-762. Public domain work available at Google Books.