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The Tortoise and The Geese is a fable that appears in the Panchatantra, a collection of Sanskrit tales believed to date back as far as the 3rd century BCE[1]. The story, about a tortoise being carried by two geese that falls because it cannot resist speaking, appears in the earliest English translations of the Panchatantra, dating back to 1570.

Like other fables, this one is known in a number of versions in many cultures, with different moral lessons.


Panchatantra version

The version which has arrived into the English language via the Panchatantra runs like so[2]:

A tortoise and her two geese[3] friends, lived in a lake full of fish to eat. However, a drought causes the lake to dry up, and the geese make ready to fly elsewhere to find food. The tortoise bemoans the fact that she cannot leave too, and wonders how she will survive. The geese suggest that they can hold a stick between them, in their beaks, and if the tortoise can keep her mouth shut no matter how much other birds taunt her, they can carry her to a new lake. Sure enough, as she is carried aloft, the other birds gather and hurl insults. Eventually the tortoise can stand it no longer and opens her mouth to reply - and falls. "So that condemning the good counsel was given her, or to say better because she would not believe them, she paid for her folly with death."[4]

The Talkative Tortoise

A second version called The Talkative Tortoise appears in the Jataka tales (originally as Kacchapa Jataka[5] [6]), traditional Buddhist stories of Buddha's past lives. It is believed that the Jataka tales and the Panchatantra share a common ancient origin.[7] In this version, a talkative king of Benares finds a tortoise that has fallen from the sky and broken in two in his courtyard. He asks his adviser (an incarnation of Buddha) to explain this. The adviser, seeing an opportunity to admonish the king, recounts the story much as in the Panchatantra, with the moral:

And now, O mighty master, mark it well.
See thou speak wisely, see thou speak in season.
To death the Tortoise fell:
He talked too much: that was the reason.

Recognising his own faults being described in the story, the king changes his ways.

The framing story of the king and the adviser is interesting in that it depicts the fable being composed to explain a real event.

The Flying Frog

A typical illustration of the story, from a school project.

Another version of the story exists as a Mongolian folk tale[8][9] with different animal characters. In this variation, a frog is jealous of geese discussing their coming migration. He complains that the geese are fortunate to be able to fly across the sky and stay in warmer climes in winter. The geese suggest the stick plan to the frog and they set off on the migration. The frog is delighted with how clever he is to be flying with the geese, and cannot resist shouting this to his fellow frogs below; the frog falls to its doom.

Other versions

The fable has been translated into many languages, often with variations. Some notable versions are:

  • Derenbourg[10] contains another translation of the Panchatantra, interesting for having two independent Hebrew sources.
  • La Tortue et Les deux Canards,[11] a French tranlsation of the Panchatantra.
  • Les deux oies et la tortue is a variation in the Avadanas, another tradition of Indian folk tales.[12]


Theodor Benfay[13] and Joseph Jacobs[14] note the strong parallels that exist between this and other fables:

  • The Tortoise and the Eagle, in Aesop's Fables, wherein the tortoise offers the eagle all the treasures of the world if the eagle will teach him to fly. The eagle says that this is a ridiculous idea, but is eventually persuaded to lift the tortoise into the air and drop it. The tortoise of course fails to fly. Benfay believed this story to be the origin of the Panchatantra variation; eagles are known to drop tortoises from the sky (see for example the death of Aeschylus), and the change to waterfowl of various kinds seems to have come later.
  • Aquila et Corvix and Aquila et Cornicula in the fables of Phaedrus describe a crow that persuades an eagle to drop the heavy tortoise it is carrying, which the crow then eats.[15][16]
  • Buddha and the 500 princes[17] is a story where Buddha gets a flock of birds to band together to carry other objects with twigs.
  • Benfay also mentions that a version of the tale appears in Abstemius[18]


  1. ^ Jacobs, page xv: "The latest date at which the stories were thus connected is fixed by the fact that some of them have been sculpted round the sacred Buddhist shrines of Sanchi, Amaravati, and the Bharhut, in the last case with the titles of the Jatakas inscribed above them. These have been dated by Indian archaeologists as before 200 BCE, and Mr Rhys-Davids produces evidence which would place the stories as early as 400 BCE. Between 400 BCE and 200 BCE, many of our tales were put together in a frame formed of the life and experience of the Buddha."
  2. ^ Jacobs, p170ff
  3. ^ Jacobs, North have 'two waterfowl' here. Swans, geese, and ducks appear in various other versions
  4. ^ Jacobs p175
  5. ^ T. W. Rhys Davids (1999). Buddhist Birth-stories: Jataka Tales. Asian Educational Services. pp. viii-xi. ISBN 8120613457. Retrieved 2008-03-05.   (originally published 1880).
  6. ^ literally, Tortoise Birth. Also known as Bahu-Bhani Jataka (Chatterbox Jataka - Rhys-Davids p56). Kacchapa Jataka is also used as the title of a number of other Jataka involving tortoises.
  7. ^ Jacobs p lxv
  8. ^ Hilary Roe Metternich; P Khorloo; Norovsambuugiin Baatartsog (1996). Mongolian folktales. Boulder, CO: Avery Press in association with the University of Washington Press. ISBN 0937321060.  
  9. ^ Carolyn Han; Jay Han (1993). Why Snails Have Shells: Minority and Han Folktales from China. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 082481505X. Retrieved 2008-03-09.  
  10. ^ Fable 82 in Joseph Derenbourg, Deux versions Hébraïques du livre de Kalilah et Dimnāh (Paris, 1881), as cited by Jacobs and Benfay.
  11. ^ A. C. M. Robert (1825). "La Tortue et Les deux Canards" (in French). Fables inédites des XIIe, XIIIe et XIVe siècles, et Fables de La Fontaine. II. Rignoux. pp. 252. Retrieved 2008-03-06.  
  12. ^ translated from Chinese by Stanislas Julien (1859). "XIV. Les deux oies et la tortue" (in French). Les Avadanas. 1. pp. 71ff.  
  13. ^ Theodor Benfey (1859) (in German). Pantschatantra: Fünf Bücher indischer Fabeln, Märchen, und Erzählungen. F. A. Brockhaus. pp. 241. Retrieved 2008-03-06.  
  14. ^ Sir Thomas North. Joseph Jacobs. ed. The earliest English version of the fables of Bidpai: The morall philosophie of Doni. London: D. Nutt. Retrieved 2008-03-06.  
  15. ^ Phaedrus (1847). Phaedrus construed. The fables of Phaedrus construed into English. Retrieved 2008-03-06.  . An edition with a translation of Aquila et Cornicula at II, 6.
  16. ^ Phaedrus (1838). Christian Thomas Dressler. ed (in Latin). Phaedri, Augusti Liberti: Fabulae Aesopiae. Budissae. Retrieved 2008-03-06.   this edition contains both Aquila et Corvix at II, 7 and Aquila et Cornicula at VII, 14.
  17. ^ Robert Spence Hardy (2008-03-06). A Manual of Budhism, in Its Modern Development. pp. 309. Retrieved 2008-03-06.  
  18. ^ Fable 109 in Hecatomythium by Laurentius Abstemius, 1495. Most editions of this collection, such as the translation by Roger L'Estrange, are heavily abridged and only print 100 fables.

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