Painting of a scorpion standing on the back of the turtle from the old Persian fable.

The Scorpion & the Turtle (Persian Fable)

The fable of The Scorpion and the Turtle comes from the Anvaar Soheili, a collection of fables from the 15th-century Persian scholar Husayn Kashifi. It’s been largely forgotten, replaced by the darker Russian version, The Scorpion and the Frog.

The moral of the story is strange and layered. What at first seems obvious can be peeled back several times, revealing a dark, festering wound at its centre.

As is tradition, this a retelling in my own words

The Fable

Once upon a time, in the Great Persian Jungle, a scorpion came to a turtle for help. “Dear friend,” the scorpion began, “I need to reach the other side of the river, but I cannot swim. Would you be so kind as to carry me across?”

The turtle hesitated. “But what if you sting me while we’re crossing? I could die.”

“Why would I do such a thing?” the scorpion scoffed. “If I stung you, we would both drown.”

The turtle was reassured, and she allowed the scorpion to climb upon his shell.

When they were midway across the river, the scorpion stung the turtle, but the turtle’s shell was thick, and the stinger could not get through.

The turtle was deeply troubled.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

The scorpion sighed, “It was not out of malice or ingratitude, my friend. It was an irresistible and indiscriminate urge to sting. It is in my nature.”

The turtle dove deep into the water, leaving the scorpion to drown.

The Moral & the Meaning

The first moral is that we shouldn’t blindly obey our animalistic urges. That’s true, though not particularly profound. The best fables always have layers of meaning, though, and this one has several.

Another interpretation is that some beings are good, others are evil, and there’s nothing we can do to change them. There are fables with that moral lesson. That’s a fair interpretation, but it still isn’t a particularly meaningful one. We can dive deeper.

Painting showing the moral of the old Persian fable, the Scorpion and the Tortoise.

The turtle looked past who the scorpion really was, pushing aside the warning signs, seeing only what she wanted to see. The turtle wanted to believe that if she treated the scorpion well, the scorpion would be kind in return. She then comforted herself with the knowledge that the scorpion would surely act in his own best interest.

Both of those assumptions were naive. The scorpion behaved as he always did, lashing out self-destructively.

The scorpion made the same mistake. He looked at the turtle and saw a victim he could take advantage of, but the turtle was strong, and she didn’t give the scorpion a second chance.

I think the real moral lesson is to see others for who they truly are. People are complex beings, and it’s easy to fixate on certain aspects of them. You need to see them in their entirety. Look to see if they have a stinger. Check to see if you have a shell.

Flaws don’t mean someone is unworthy of love or help. We don’t need to flee from the slightest imperfection. But true love isn’t blind. It sees both the good and the bad, and it loves the entirety.

In the end, the turtle is a hero. It misjudged the scorpion, but it learned its lesson, and it survived. Not everyone is so lucky. The Russian version has a grimmer ending.

Similar Fables

For a different perspective, there’s an old Indian fable about the dangers of making assumptions about another’s nature: the Mongoose and the Farmer’s Wife.

Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

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