Perhaps the most famous fable of all time is The Tortoise and the Hare, which is typically attributed to Aesop, a slave and storyteller believed to have lived in Ancient Greece sometime between 620 and 564 BCE. While not much is known about Aesop himself, his stories have survived through centuries and have become ingrained in the minds of the modern world.
Indeed, everyone knows the story of The Tortoise and the Hare, and you’d probably be surprised how many other of Aesop’s stories you’ve heard at one point or another. For example, one story that many people are familiar with is The Scorpion and the Frog, which is sometimes attributed to Aesop (or at the very least has a very similar moral to several stories of Aesop’s).
While the exact origins of The Scorpion and the Frog are relatively unknown, the story has become popular in recent times and has appeared all over pop culture. People often reference this fable today in casual conversation, using it to make a statement about their perception of humanity and our behaviors and instincts.
The moral of The Scorpion and the Frog is a dark and pessimistic one, but one that seems to, unfortunately, ring true in many aspects of human society. Still, the fable can teach us caution and healthy skepticism and give us better insight into how to navigate a world where not everyone is out to be your friend.
No, The Scorpion and the Frog is not going to brighten your day, but it might help you to think twice before trusting the wrong people (which is an important skill in a cutthroat, capitalist society). And while this fable may have appeared even thousands of years ago, the lessons from this story seem to still be equally applicable today. Let’s take a look at this fable, where it came from, and what it means.
The Scorpion and the Frog Synopsis
As the story goes, there was once a scorpion who lived in a mountain. One day he decided that he wanted to change where he lived, so he climbed through the vines and the rocks until he came to a river. The river was wide and the water was running fast, and so the scorpion had to reconsider his decision. He checked all up and down the river, but he couldn’t see any way that he could possibly get across. At that point, the scorpion was thinking that he might have to turn around.
Suddenly, the scorpion noticed a frog sitting in the plants on the opposite banks of the river. He decided to ask the frog for help getting across the river. But, when he asked the frog for a ride across the river on his back, the frog was skeptical. “How do I know that if I give you a ride, you won’t just try to kill me?” The frog asked.
The scorpion replied by saying that if he killed the frog, then he too would die because he could not swim. This seemed logical to the frog. But then something else occurred to the frog. “How do I know that you won’t just kill me once we get to the other side of the river?” the frog asked. The scorpion replied by saying that he would be so grateful for the ride across the river that he couldn’t possibly kill the frog.
So, the frog decided to trust the scorpion and take him across. The frog swam to the other back, settled in the mud, and waited to pick up his passenger. Once the scorpion was on his back, he began to swim across the river. In the middle of the river, the frog suddenly felt a sharp pain in his back and looked behind him to see the scorpion pulling his stinger out of his back. The frog began to feel a numbness come over his whole body and he began to drown.
Before the frog went under the water, he asked the scorpion why he would doom them both to death. The scorpion did a little dance on the back of the drowning frog and said, “I could not help myself. It is my nature.” Then, both the scorpion and the frog sank into the muddy waters of the river.
Origins of the Scorpion and the Frog
The first known appearance of this fable was in a Russian novel from 1933 called The German Quarter by Lev Nitoburg. The first known appearance of the fable in English was in the 1944 novel The Hunter of the Pamirs, which is a translation of the 1940 Russian novel Jura by Georgii Tushkan. However, at least in the English-speaking world, the fable only really made its way into the collective consciousness with the release of the 1955 film Mr. Arkadin in which the fable is recounted in a soliloquy by Orson Welles.
While these are some of the first appearances of The Scorpion and the Frog, there were likely some fables that heavily inspired this story. One of these fables is The Scorpion and the Turtle, a Persian fable from a collection of fables called the Anvaar Soheili that was written around 1500. In this story, the turtle survives the scorpion’s sting because of its shell. But still, the scorpion claims that it could not resist trying to kill the turtle. In this fable, the moral of the story is also much more explicitly stated than in The Scorpion and the Frog, in which the moral is left more ambiguous.
Some also claim that Aesop may have been responsible for the earliest inspirations for The Scorpion and the Frog. Two of his fables, The Farmer and the Viper and The Frog and the Mouse, have very similar morals about trust.
The Scorpion and the Frog Interpretation
The basic takeaway from The Scorpion and the Frog is that it’s better never to trust people of malicious character because they’ll do harm to others even when it’s not in their own best interest. Everyone has compulsions that they can’t control, and it’s important to understand what someone’s base instincts and compulsions are before deciding to trust them.
On the other side, the frog is far too naive and willing to trust the scorpion. It seems pretty evident from the story that, even if the scorpion did not kill the frog in the middle of the water, he would have killed the frog once he got across the river. In this way, the frog ensured his own doom by being overly willing to trust the scorpion.
There’s also another way to look at the story, though. Maybe the scorpion was actually willing to let the frog live and was being truthful when he said so; however, when it came down to the critical moment, he was unable to break free from his past ways, thus ensuring his own doom and the death of his frog companion. This interpretation offers a much more sympathetic view of the scorpion, who is more of a slave to habit than a deliberately malicious actor.
The fable of The Scorpion and the Frog differs from many other fables that comment on the vicious nature of people in that the villain in this fable is self-destructive, even suicidal, and fully aware of it. This touches on one of the most tragic parts of human nature, a part that Sigmund Freud might call the “death drive.”
Some people can be fully aware that their actions are harming others, harming themselves, and yet they cannot stop themselves from continuing these behaviors. These kinds of behaviors are hard to explain and certainly tragic, but they are very real in a very large number of human beings.