Fact Check

Scorpion and Turtle Folktale

Turtle who agrees to carry a scorpion across a river learns a fatal lesson about innate nature.

Published Jul 14, 2001

Claim:   Turtle who agrees to carry a scorpion across a river learns a fatal lesson about innate nature.



[Braude, 1965]

A scorpion, being a very poor swimmer, asked a turtle to carry him on his back across a river. "Are you


mad?" exclaimed the turtle. "You'll sting me while I'm swimming and I'll drown."

"My dear turtle," laughed the scorpion, "if I were to sting you, you would drown and I would go down with you. Now where is the logic in that?"

"You're right!" cried the turtle. "Hop on!" The scorpion climbed aboard and halfway across the river gave the turtle a mighty sting. As they both sank to the bottom, the turtle resignedly said:

"Do you mind if I ask you something? You said there'd be no logic in your stinging me. Why did you do it?"

"It has nothing to do with logic," the drowning scorpion sadly replied. "It's just my character."

[Collected on the Internet, 2001]

This girl finds a snake that pleads with her to place it in her winter coat because otherwise the snake will freeze. The girl goes "No your bite me blah blah blah". Anyway the girl eventually puts the snake in her jacket to keep it warm and she continues on her walk. Then she feels a sharp pain in her side, the snake drops out and begins to slither away. The girl say something like "Why? I took care of you, blah blah blah". The snake simply replies "You knew what I was when you found me".


Origins:   This tale isn't really an urban legend in that it is never passed along as a true story (how many talking scorpions are there, anyway?), but it is repeated often enough as an illustrative fable that it begs to be

included in our round up of critter tales. It is very old indeed, with this tale surfacing in ancient Sanskrit collections of folklore attributed to Bidpai. ('Bidpai' is a corruption of 'bidbah', the appellation of the chief scholar at the court of an Indian prince) first translated into English in 1570.

The fable is told in numerous ways, with a variety of creatures swapped in and out of its cast of characters.

When told in the forms quoted above, the story's moral is universal: Some creatures just are what they are. It matters not how gently they are treated; their innate nature will cause them to unleash grievous harm even upon those who have lavished loving kindness upon them. Versions featuring a river crossing make an additional element of this cautionary tale mightily clear: Such creatures will remain true to their blackhearted selves even when they know their actions will be their undoing as well as their victims'.

The story uses animals to impart a caution about human behavior: Some folks are wholly irredeemable, says the legend, and woe betide those who forget that some cannot be dissuaded from their evilness, no matter who undertakes the rehabilitative efforts or how they are carried out. Ultimately, blame is laid at the victim's feet for not accepting what he recognized and understood to be true but chose not to believe: "You knew what I was when you found me." The victim's arrogance in thinking he will be the one exception proves fatal, and his folly serves as a warning to others not to make the same mistake.

This parable often takes another form, one in which its moral is applied to a specific ongoing international conflict:

[Reader's Digest, 1967]

A story popular in Lebanon at the time of its bank crisis last fall tells of a scorpion on the bank of the Nile who asked a frog to ferry him to the other side.

"Oh no," the frog said. You would sting me."

"That's ridiculous," the scorpion replied, "because then I would drown."

Convinced, the frog took the scorpion on his back and began to swim the river. In midstream, the scorpion's lethal urge became too strong and he plunged his stinger into the frog's neck.

The sinking frog groaned, "Why, why?"

The scorpion gave his final shrug and replied, "This is the Middle East."

Here the moral has shifted from one warning the listener against believing individual leopards are capable of changing their spots to one showcasing the twin beliefs that casual violence is inevitable in the Middle East, and that the enemy is wholly without scruple. A condemnation often applied to heartless boyfriends thus finds expression as a description of an entire people -- Arab or Israeli, depending upon where one's sympathies lie.

Barbara "scorpioid paranoid" Mikkelson

Sightings:   On the third season finale of TV's Star Trek: Voyager ("Scorpion," original air date 21 May 1997), Chakotay relates this story to Janeway in the hopes of convincing her to rethink her plan to temporarily ally with the Borg. The story is also repeated by Jody, the victim-turned-accomplice, to Fergus, his IRA captor, in the 1992 movie The Crying Game and turns up in Oliver Stone's 1994 film Natural Born Killers and the 1989 film Skin Deep.

Last updated:   29 July 2011


    Brady, Thomas.

    Reader's Digest.   March 1967   (p. 36).

    Braude, Jacob.  
Human Interest Stories.

    Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965
  (p. 22).

    Cerf, Bennett.   Laugh Day.

    Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1965   (p. 431).

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