The Talkative Tortoise

and other folktales of
Aarne-Thompson type 225A
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999


  1. The Talkative Tortoise (India, The Jataka Tales).

  2. The Disobedient Tortoise (India, The Panchatantra).

  3. The Boastful Tortoise (Tibet).

  4. The Tortoise and the Birds (Aesop).

  5. The Tortoise and the Two Ducks (Jean de La Fontaine).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's index of folklore and mythology electronic texts.

The Talkative Tortoise

The Jataka Tales

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the future Buddha was born in a minister's family; and when he grew up, he became the king's adviser in things temporal and spiritual.

Now this king was very talkative; while he was speaking, others had no opportunity for a word. And the future Buddha, wanting to cure this talkativeness of his, was constantly seeking for some means of doing so.

At that time there was living, in a pond in the Himalayan Mountains, a tortoise. Two young wild ducks who came to feed there made friends with him. And one day, when they had become very intimate with him, they said to the tortoise, "Friend tortoise, the place where we live, at the Golden Cave on Mount Beautiful in the Himalayan country, is a delightful spot. Will you come there with us?"

"But how can I get there?"

"We can take you, if you can only hold your tongue, and will say nothing to anybody."

"Oh, that I can do. Take me with you."

"That's right," said they. And making the tortoise bite hold of a stick, they themselves took the two ends in their teeth, and flew up into the air.

Seeing him thus carried by the ducks, some villagers called out, "Two wild ducks are carrying a tortoise along on a stick!"

Whereupon the tortoise wanted to say, "If my friends choose to carry me, what is that to you, you wretched slaves?" So just as the swift flight of the wild ducks had brought him over the king's palace in the city of Benares, he let go of the stick he was biting, and falling in the open courtyard, split in two!

And there arose a universal cry, "A tortoise has fallen in the open courtyard, and has split in two!"

The king, taking the future Buddha, went to the place, surrounded by his courtiers, and looking at the tortoise, he asked the Bodisat, "Teacher, how has it possible that he has fallen here?"

The future Buddha thought to himself, "Long expecting, wishing to admonish the king, I have sought for some means of doing so. This tortoise must have made friends with the wild ducks; and they must have made him bite hold of the stick, and have flown up into the air to take him to the hills. But he, being unable to hold his tongue when he hears anyone else talk, must have wanted to say something, and let go of the stick; and so must have fallen down from the sky, and thus lost his life." And saying, "Truly, oh king, those who are called chatterboxes -- people whose words have no end -- come to grief like this," he uttered these verses:

Verily, the tortoise killed himself
While uttering his voice;
Though he was holding tight to stick,
By a word he slew himself.
Behold him then, oh excellent by strength!
And speak wise words, not out of season.
You see how, by his talking overmuch,
The tortoise fell into this wretched plight!

The king saw that he was himself referred to, and said, "Oh teacher, are you speaking of us?"

And the Bodisat spoke openly, and said, "Oh great king, be it you, or be it any other, whoever talks beyond measure meets with some mishap like this."

And the king henceforth refrained himself, and became a man of few words.

The Disobedient Tortoise

The Panchatantra

In a certain pond there once lived a tortoise by the name of Kamburgriva (Shell-Neck). He had two friends who belonged to the goose family and who had grown very fond of him. One was named Sankata (Small) and the other Vikata (Large). They regularly came to the pond's bank where they told one another many stories about the wise ones among the gods, Brahmans, and kings. At sunset they would return to their nests.

However, in the course of time the pond began to dry up, due to the lack of rain. Pained by this misfortune, the two said, "Alas, friend, this pond has become nothing but mud. How will you stay alive? Our hearts are saddened."

Hearing this, Kamburgriva said, "I cannot live without water. Let us think of a solution! For it is said, 'The wise always rush to aid their relatives and friends in time of need.' Therefore fetch a strong stick and seek a pond that still contains much water. I shall grasp the stick which you will carry in your teeth from both ends and thus take me to the pond."

"Friend, that we will do!" the two replied, "but you must remain as speechless as a saint who has taken an oath of silence, lest you fall from the stick and break into pieces."

The tortoise said, "For certain. I promise to say nothing from now until we have landed at the pond."

They proceeded as planned, and from his flight Kamburgriva looked down upon the city beneath him, whose startled inhabitants were shouting, "Look! Look! Two birds are carrying something like a carriage!"

Hearing their cries, Kamburgriva began to speak. He wanted to say, "What are you shouting about?" but before he had half uttered the words, he fell earthward and was torn into pieces by the city's inhabitants.

The Boastful Tortoise


Once there were two egrets and a little tortoise who lived by a lake and became fast friends. They played together all day long, sunning themselves on the sand and swimming in the lake. They were very happy and would never be parted for a single day.

But that year there was a drought. In the whole five months from March till August, not a single drop of rain fell! All the rivers were dried up, and the land cracked into fissures. Of course the little lake could not escape the same fate. Day by day the water became less and less. The three friends did not know what to do, and sighed all day.

One day the two egrets took to the air to see how things were, and came back in the evening saying, "Brother Tortoise, everyone is moving to the Heavenly Lake, even the moles. I think we had better move too. If we stay here we shall die of hunger and thirst."

The tortoise shut his little eyes, as small as green beans, and wept. "Oh, you can fly or hurry as fast as you want, and get to the Heavenly Lake. But I can neither fly nor walk fast. Within three days men will be able to pick up my empty shell! I would never have thought that you would leave me behind, when we have been friends for so long."

The tortoise wept so pitiably that the egrets, unable to hold their own tears back, did not have the heart to leave him behind. So they decided to stay back themselves for the time being. Perhaps, after all, the rain would come in a few days!

But the weather promised no change. Clear stars dotted the sky at night, and the sun beat down mercilessly by day. The little lake was nearly dry. The egrets said again they thought they must go. The tortoise knew that he could not insist on staying any longer, so he pleaded with them, saying, "We have been friends for so long! Can't you think of a way to take me along?"

They put their heads together. After some time the egrets said, "Brother Tortoise, we have a plan, but we are not sure whether it will work...."

The tortoise couldn't wait for them to finish but interrupted eagerly, "What is it? What is it?"

"We'll hold two ends of a stick in our beaks, and you can hang on to the middle. Then we can fly, carrying you between us. What do you think of the idea?"

The little tortoise was so happy that he nearly hopped. "Yes, yes! That's a fine idea! Let's start at once!"

The egrets were very pleased, too, but they had to give him a warning. "You must be very careful not to open your mouth on the way."

"Of course not. I'll keep it tight shut, even if someone tries to pry it open with a knife."

So they had their last dinner, a specially sumptuous one, and early next morning said good-bye to their home. The egrets held the two ends of the stick, and the tortoise gripped the middle in his jaws. They flew and flew and flew, over dark forests, glittering snow-covered mountains, temples with golden tiles, and vast grasslands.

Down on the earth, some people, painfully trying to irrigate their fields, pointed to them and said, "Look, what a clever tortoise! He holds the stick in his jaws and lets the egrets carry him." The egrets went on as if they had heard nothing, but the tortoise glowed with pride. Everyone was praising him, ha, ha!

They flew on and on. Children, herding cattle on the mountain, shouted at them, "Look, how clever the egrets are! They carry the tortoise to the very sky."

The egrets paid no attention to it but concentrated on flying, but the tortoise felt very hurt. "Stupid fools! Saying that it was the egrets who carried me! Why, to all intents it was I who thought out this plan! I must let them know which of us is the cleverer."

So with all his might he began to shout at them, "Hi...."

But as soon as he opened his mouth, he fell head downward and tail up, straight towards a big black stone.

The Tortoise and the Birds


A tortoise desired to change its place of residence, so he asked an eagle to carry him to his new home, promising her a rich reward for her trouble. The eagle agreed, and seizing the tortoise by the shell with her talons, soared aloft. On their way they met a crow, who said to the eagle, "Tortoise is good eating."

"The shell is too hard," said the eagle in reply.

"The rocks will soon crack the shell," was the crow's answer; and the eagle, let fall the tortoise on a sharp rock, and the two birds made a hearty meal off the tortoise.

Never soar aloft on an enemy's pinions.

The Tortoise and the Two Ducks

Jean de La Fontaine

A tortoise once, with an empty head,
Great sick of her safe but monotonous home,
Resolved on some distant shore to tread;
It is ever the cripple that loves to roam.
Two Ducks, to whom our friend repaired
To gossip o'er her bold intent,
Their full approval straight declared;
And, pointing to the firmament,
Said, "By that road -- 'tis broad and ample --
We'll seek Columbia's mighty range,
See peoples, laws, and manners strange;
Ulysses shall be our example."
(Ulysses would have been astounded
At being with this scheme confounded.)

The tortoise liking much this plan,
Straightway the friendly ducks began
To see how one for flight unfitted
Might through the realms of air be flitted
At length within her jaws they fitted
A trusty stick, and seizing each an end,
With many a warning cry -- "Hold fast! hold fast!"
Bore up to heaven their adventurous friend.

The people wondered as the cortege passed,
And truly it was droll to see
A tortoise and her house in the Ducks' company.
"A miracle!" the wondering mob surprises:
"Behold, on clouds the great Queen Tortoise rises!"

"A queen!" the tortoise answered; "yes, forsooth;
Make no mistake -- I am -- in honest truth."

Alas! why did she speak? She was a chattering dunce:
For as her jaws unclose, the stick slips out at once,
And down amidst the gaping crowds she sank,
A wretched victim to her claims to rank.

Self-pride, a love of idle speaking,
And wish to be for ever seeking
A power that nature ne'er intended,
Are follies close allied, and from one stock descended.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's index of folklore and mythology electronic texts.

Revised May 11, 1999.