The Snake, the Farmer, and the Heron fable, illustrated by Juan Artola Miranda.

The Snake, the Farmer & the Heron (African Fable)

The Snake, the Farmer and the Heron is an old African folktale from the Hausa tribe, told throughout the northern regions of Nigeria and the southern areas of the Niger. It’s a story about how water doesn’t flow uphill. That’s a bit cryptic, I know. I’ll explain it at the end.

It’s one of my favourite fables. I’ve translated the fable into English and retold it in my own words.

The Video

If you’d rather listen than read, here’s a video of me reading out the fable. It’s the same as the story below. So far, this is the only video I’ve made. If you want more, let me know.

The Fable

Long ago, in a faraway village, perhaps in Northern Nigeria (though who can say for sure) a farmer was walking home after a long day of tending to his fields. As he walked along the dusty path, he came across a snake freezing to death in the cold evening air.

The piteous snake pleaded with the farmer, begging to be let into his warm stomach, where it could curl up cozily and rest until it had regained its strength. The farmer thought himself a kind man, so he let the snake slide into his mouth and down into his stomach.

Once inside, the snake quickly regained its strength. But when the farmer asked the snake to leave, it refused. Terrified, the farmer sought the counsel of a wise heron.

The heron listened quietly. It, too, fashioned itself a kind creature. It agreed to help him. It slid its long, slender beak down the farmer’s throat and deftly pulled the snake out, dashing it against the ground before it could strike.

The farmer was grateful for the heron’s help, but he couldn’t shake the fear. Something still felt off. Perhaps the treacherous snake had left venom in his stomach.

The heron knew much of poisons. It advised the farmer to consume white meat, which would strengthen his constitution and cure him of any foulness that yet lingered in his stomach.

As the farmer considered the heron’s advice, he realized the heron itself was made of white meat. He seized the heron, stuffed it into a yuca sack, and headed home.

When the farmer arrived home, he recounted the day’s events to his wife. His wife was a kind woman, and she was disheartened that her husband had betrayed the heron. She decided she would set the heron free.

But as she opened the bag to release the frantic bird, it gouged out her eyes with its talons before flying away into the night.

Painting explaining the meaning of the Snake, the Farmer, and the Heron fable.

The Moral & Meaning

Whenever you see water flowing uphill, someone is repaying a kindness.

The moral of the Snake, the Farmer, and the Heron is that water doesn’t flow uphill. It means that kindness flows onwards, perhaps helping someone else further downstream but rarely coming back up the river. We can give kindness, we can pay it forward, but we shouldn’t expect to be paid back.

There’s a second, much darker way to interpret the story. Not only is kindness not repaid, but it’s punished. The man is kind to the snake, but the snake will not leave. The heron is kind to the man, but the man traps him. The wife tries to free the frantic heron, but it hurts her.

Maybe there’s truth in that. Perhaps you lend a friend some money, but all they do is ask for more. Perhaps you’re polite to a man in the park, but he grows bolder, and he follows you home. Perhaps you take a starving dog off the street, hoping to nurture it back to health, but a life of hardship has made it fearful, and it bites you.

Kindness does not always beget kindness. Or, at least, that’s what the fable teaches.

Similar Fables & Folktales

This story is part of a long tradition of dark fables with harsh moral lessons. If you liked this one, here are a few more of my favourites:

Or you can browse our entire collection of fables, folktales, myths, and legends.

If you have any thoughts or questions, leave a comment below.

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.

4 Comments

  1. Jiya on January 10, 2024 at 6:48 am

    Thank you for the story, it is good. Your page and art are fabulous.

  2. Tary on April 6, 2024 at 2:27 am

    That was… so sad haha. I was not expecting that plot twist , man.

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