The Crane, the Crab, and the Fish

Fables of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 231
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2020

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.


  1. The Cruel Crane Outwitted (India, The Jataka).

  2. The Heron That Liked Crab-Meat (India, The Panchatantra).

  3. The Heron and the Crab (India, The Book of Kalilah and Dimnah).

  4. The Crane and the Makara (India, The Kathá Sarit Ságara).

  5. The Booby and the Crab (India, The Hitopadesa).

  6. The Crane and the Fish (India).

  7. The Crane, the Crab, and the Fish (India).

  8. The Pelican's Punishment (Malaya).

  9. The Heron and the Crab (Sri Lanka).

  10. The Story of a Fish in the Pond (The 1001 Nights).

  11. The Fishes and the Cormorant (Jean de La Fontaine).

  12. The Heron, the Fishes, and the Crab (Leo Tolstoy).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Cruel Crane Outwitted

India, The Jataka

Long ago the Bodisat was born to a forest life as the Genius of a tree standing near a certain lotus pond.

Now at that time the water used to run short at the dry season in a certain pond, not over large, in which there were a good many fish.

And a crane thought, on seeing the fish, "I must outwit these fish somehow or other and make a prey of them."

And he went and sat down at the edge of the water, thinking how he should do it.

When the fish saw him, they asked him, "What are you sitting there for, lost in thought?"

"I am sitting thinking about you," said he.

"Oh, sir! what are you thinking about us?" said they.

"Why," he replied; "there is very little water in this pond, and but little for you to eat; and the heat is so great! So I was thinking, 'What in the world will these fish do now?'"

"Yes, indeed, sir! what are we to do?" said they.

"If you will only do as I bid you, I will take you in my beak to a fine large pond, covered with all the kinds of lotuses, and put you into it," answered the crane.

"That a crane should take thought for the fishes is a thing unheard of, sir, since the world began. It's eating us, one after the other, that you're aiming at!"

"Not I! So long as you trust me, I won't eat you. But if you don't believe me that there is such a pond, send one of you with me to go and see it."

Then they trusted him, and handed over to him one of their number -- a big fellow, blind of one eye, whom they thought sharp enough in any emergency, afloat or ashore. Him the crane took with him, let him go in the pond, showed him the whole of it, brought him back, and let him go again close to the other fish. And he told them all the glories of the pond.

And when they heard what he said, they exclaimed, "All right, sir! You may take us with you."

Then the crane took the old purblind fish first to the bank of the other pond, and alighted in a Varana-tree growing on the bank there. But he threw it into a fork of the tree, struck it with his beak, and killed it; and then ate its flesh, and threw its bones away at the foot of the tree.

Then he went back and called out, "I've thrown that fish in; let another come!"

And in that manner he took all the fish, one by one, and ate them, till he came back and found no more!

But there was still a crab left behind there; and the crane thought he would eat him too, and called out, "I say, good crab, I've taken all the fish away, and put them into a fine large pond. Come along. I'll take you too!"

"But how will you take hold of me to carry me along?"

"I'll bite hold of you with my beak."

"You'll let me fall if you carry me like that. I won't go with you!"

"Don't be afraid! I'll hold you quite tight all the way."

Then said the crab to himself, "If this fellow once got hold of fish, he would never let them go in a pond! Now if he should really put me into the pond, it would be capital; but if he doesn't -- then I'll cut his throat, and kill him!"

So he said to him, "Look here, friend, you won't be able to hold me tight enough; but we crabs have a famous grip. If you let me catch hold of you round the neck with my claws, I shall be glad to go with you."

And the other did not see that he was trying to outwit him, and agreed.

So the crab caught hold of his neck with his claws as securely as with a pair of blacksmith's pincers, and called out, "Off with you, now!"

And the crane took him and showed him the pond, and then turned off towards the Varana-tree.

"Uncle!" cried the crab, "the pond lies that way, but you are taking me this way!"

"Oh, that's it, is it!" answered the crane. "Your dear little uncle, your very sweet nephew, you call me! You mean me to understand, I suppose, that I am your slave, who has to lift you up and carry you about with him! Now cast your eye upon the heap of fish-bones lying at the root of yonder Varana-tree. Just as I have eaten those fish, every one of them, just so I will devour you as well!"

"Ah! those fishes got eaten through their own stupidity," answered the crab; "but I'm not going to let you eat me. On the contrary, it is you that I am going to destroy. For you in your folly have not seen that I was outwitting you. If we die, we die both together; for I will cut off this head of yours, and cast it to the ground!"

And so saying, he gave the crane's neck a grip with his claws, as with a vice.

Then gasping, and with tears trickling from his eyes, and trembling with the fear of death, the crane beseeched him, saying, "O my Lord! Indeed I did not intend to eat you. Grant me my life!"

"Well, well! step down into the pond, and put me in there."

And he turned round and stepped down into the pond, and placed the crab on the mud at its edge. But the crab cut through its neck as clean as one would cut a lotus-stalk with a hunting-knife, and then only entered the water!

When the Genius who lived in the Varana-tree saw this strange affair, he made the wood resound with his plaudits, uttering in a pleasant voice the verse:

The villain, though exceeding clever,
Shall prosper not by his villany.
He may win indeed, sharp-witted in deceit,
But only as the crane here from the crab!"

The Heron That Liked Crab-Meat

India, The Panchatantra

There was once a heron in a certain place on the edge of a pond. Being old, he sought an easy way of catching fish on which to live. He began by lingering at the edge of his pond, pretending to be quite irresolute, not eating even the fish within his reach.

Now among the fish lived a crab. He drew near and said: "Uncle, why do you neglect today your usual meals and amusements?"

And the heron replied: "So long as I kept fat and flourishing by eating fish, I spent my time pleasantly, enjoying the taste of you. But a great disaster will soon befall you. And as I am old, this will cut short the pleasant course of my life. For this reason I feel depressed."

"Uncle," said the crab, "of what nature is the disaster?"

And the heron continued: "Today I overheard the talk of a number of fishermen as they passed near the pond. 'This is a big pond,' they were saying, 'full of fish. We will try a cast of the net tomorrow or the day after. But today we will go to the lake near the city.' This being so, you are lost, my food supply is cut off, I too am lost, and in grief at the thought, I am indifferent to food today."

Now when the water-dwellers heard the trickster's report, they all feared for their lives and implored the heron, saying: "Uncle! Father! Brother! Friend! Thinker! Since you are informed of the calamity, you also know the remedy. Pray save us from the jaws of this death."

Then the heron said: "I am a bird, not competent to contend with men. This, however, I can do. I can transfer you from this pond to another, a bottomless one."

By this artful speech they were so led astray that they said: "Uncle! Friend! Unselfish kinsman! Take me first! Me first! Did you never hear this?

Stout hearts delight to pay the price
Of merciful self-sacrifice,
Count life as nothing, if it end
In gentle service to a friend."
Then the old rascal laughed in his heart, and took counsel with his mind, thus: "My shrewdness has brought these fishes into my power. They ought to be eaten very comfortably."

Having thus thought it through, he promised what the thronging fish implored, lifted some in his bill, carried them a certain distance to a slab of stone, and ate them there. Day after day he made the trip with supreme delight and satisfaction, and meeting the fish, kept their confidence by ever new inventions.

One day the crab, disturbed by the fear of death, importuned him with the words: "Uncle, pray save me, too, from the jaws of death."

And the heron reflected: "I am quite tired of this unvarying fish diet. I should like to taste him. He is different, and choice."

So he picked up the crab and flew through the air.

But since he avoided all bodies of water and seemed planning to alight on the sun-scorched rock, the crab asked him: "Uncle, where is that pond without any bottom?"

And the heron laughed and said: "Do you see that broad, sun-scorched rock? All the water-dwellers have found repose there. Your turn has now come to find repose."

Then the crab looked down and saw a great rock of sacrifice, made horrible by heaps of fish-skeletons. And he thought: "Ah me!

Friends are foes and foes are friends
As they mar or serve your ends;
Few discern where profit tends.
If you will, with serpents play;
Dwell with foemen who betray:
Shun your false and foolish friends,
Fickle, seeking vicious ends.
Why, he has already eaten these fish whose skeletons are scattered in heaps. So what might be an opportune course of action for me? Yet why do I need to consider?

Man is bidden to chastise
Even elders who devise
Devious courses, arrogant,
Of their duty ignorant.
Fear fearful things, while yet
No fearful thing appears;
When danger must be met,
Strike, and forget your fears.
So, before he drops me there, I will catch his neck with all four claws."

When he did so, the heron tried to escape, but being a fool, he found no parry to the grip of the crab's nippers, and had his head cut off.

Then the crab painfully made his way back to the pond, dragging the heron's neck as if it had been a lotus-stalk.

And when he came among the fish, they said: "Brother, why come back?"

Thereupon he showed the head as his credentials and said: "He enticed the water-dwellers from every quarter, deceived them with his prevarications, dropped them on a slab of rock not far away, and ate them. But I -- further life being predestined -- perceived that he destroyed the trustful, and I have brought back his neck. Forget your worries. All the water-dwellers shall live in peace."

And that is why I say:

"A heron ate what fish he could, . . . .
and the rest of it."

The Heron and the Crab

India, The Book of Kalilah and Dimnah

The Jackal:

It is said that in a certain marshy lake was a heron. And there were many fishes in the lake. [But in time the heron got too old to catch any,] and became very hungry, and his soul languished.

A certain crab seeing him from afar, approached him, saying: "Why is your soul distressed, and why are you sad?"

The Heron: And how should I not be sad who until today have lived on these fishes, but this day have seen two fishermen, one of whom said to the other: "Let us not catch (all) these fishes at one time," his companion replying: "I have seen another lake in which there are plenty of fishes. Let us go and catch them (first), and then we will come and catch all these in a twinkling.'"

I know that when they return from their journey, they will not leave anything in this lake, and I shall utterly perish from life!

Then the crab spoke to the fishes. And all the fishes gathered to the heron, and said to him: "Although you are an enemy to us, because we are your food and you feed on us, still he who has the fear of God, in time of trouble does not refuse what is right, or profane the emblem of the faith. Lo! we are all knocking at your door, that you may hearken to us and ease the distress of our soul, and counsel us what to do in this distressful time."

The Heron:To do battle with the fishermen I am not able, and expel them from this region I cannot. But I know of a certain pool in which there is water abundant, fresh and clear. And there are green reeds in it. If you could remove thither from here, you would gain advantage to yourselves.
The Fishes:But how is it possible for us to do so without your help?
The Heron:I will do what you wish and consent to you. But I am sore afraid of those fishermen, lest they come hastily. But I will begin to carry some of you every day, as many as I can, until I have exhausted (you and taken) you all away from here.
And he began to carry off one or two every day, and to convey them to a certain region, and to eat them there; the others being ignorant of it.

It came to pass one day (that) the crab said to the heron: "I too find this place unpleasant. Pray carry me off too and convey me with my companions."

So the heron carried off the crab. When he reached the place where he had eaten the fishes, the crab beheld and saw the bones of his companions. And he perceived that the heron had done this wickedness, and was about to devour him too.

And the crab said within himself: "He that goes forth to battle and encounters his enemy wherever it may be, if he knows that his enemy will not hesitate to destroy him if he can, whether he make war with him (the enemy) or remain at peace with him, he ought to fight for himself strenuously, and not destroy himself for want of exertion. For if he is vanquished and perishes, still his honour goes with him, and his glory (remains) on his head."

Then the crab grasped the heron's throat with his pincers, and kept gripping him with his claws, until he throttled him and took away his life. So the crab escaped from slaughter. And he went little by little until he got (back) to the fishes, whom he acquainted with the story about the heron.

The jackal said to the raven: "This parable I have related to you, [that you may know] that when a man engages in fraudulent plans and transactions and schemes, his wickedness returns on his own head, and he himself perishes by his own artifices."

The Crane and the Makara

India, The Kathá Sarit Ságara

Of old time there dwelt a crane in a certain tank rich in fish; and the fish in terror used to flee out of his sight.

Then the crane, not being able to catch the fish, told them a lying tale: "There has come here a man with a net who kills fish. He will soon catch you with a net and kill you. So act on my advice, if you repose any confidence in me. There is in a lonely place a translucent lake, it is unknown to the fishermen of these parts; I will take you there one by one, and drop you into it, that you may live there."

When those foolish fish heard that, they said in their fear: "Do so, we all repose confidence in you."

Then the treacherous crane took the fish away one by one, and, putting them down on a rock, devoured in this way many of them.

Then a certain makara dwelling in that lake, seeing him carrying off fish, said: "Whither are you taking the fish?"

Then that crane said to him exactly what he had said to the fish.

The makara, being terrified, said: "Take me there too."

The crane's intellect was blinded with the smell of his flesh, so he took him up, and soaring aloft carried him towards the slab of rock. But when the makara got near the rock, he saw the fragments of the bones of the fish that the crane had eaten, and he perceived that the crane was in the habit of devouring those who reposed confidence in him. So no sooner was the sagacious makara put down on the rock, than with complete presence of mind he cut off the head of the crane. And he returned and told the occurrence, exactly as it happened, to the other fish, and they were delighted, and hailed him as their deliverer from death.

The Booby and the Crab

India, The Hitopadesa

A certain booby after having devoured fish of every size and quality, at length is killed from his attempting a crab out of mere gluttony.

"How was that?" demanded Chitra-Varna; and his minister related the following story:

In the country of Malava there is a lake distinguished by the name of Padma-Garbha, where lived an old booby, who, being deprived of his former abilities, stood and feigned to appear like one who was troubled in mind; in which situation being observed by a crab at a distance, the latter asked him why he stood there, and did not look for food.

"You know," replied the booby, "that fish is what I live upon; and I know for certain that fishermen are coming to catch them all; for, as I was looking about the skirts of the next village, I overheard the conversation of some water-men upon that subject; so this being the case, I have lost my appetite with reflecting that, when our food is gone, death will soon follow."

This being overheard by all the fish, they observed to one another that it was proper to look out for assistance whilst they had time; and, said they, "Let us ask the booby himself what is best to be done; for: One may better form a connection with an enemy who will render one assistance, than with a friend who would do one an injury. These two should rather be distinguished according to the good or injury they do to one."

Accordingly, the fish accosted the booby, and said, "Pray, master booby, tell us what means can be devised for our safety upon this occasion?"

"There is one way to be safe," replied the artful booby, and that is, going to another pond, whither I am willing to transport you."

The fish, in the greatness of their fears, consented to this proposal, and their treacherous deliverer devoured them all one by one as he took them out of the water.

At length, the crab asked him to take him also; and the booby, although he had never before had any inclination to taste one of his species, took him up with great marks of respect, and carried him ashore.

When the crab seeing the ground covered with the bones of the fish which the booby had destroyed, cried to herself, "Alas, how unfortunate! I shall certainly be killed too, unless I can contrive some means of escaping. Let me try immediately what the occasion requires. They say:

In times of danger it is proper to be alarmed until danger be near at hand; but when we perceive that danger is near, one should oppose it as if one were not afraid.

When one attacked beholdeth no safety for himself, if he be a wise man, he will die fighting with his foe.

It is also said, that:
As out of battle death is certain, etc.
The crab having come to this resolution, he seized the opportunity, when the booby stretched out his neck to devour him, to tear open his throat with the pincers of his claws.

Wherefore I repeat: "A certain booby after having devoured fish of every size and quality, at length is killed from his attempting a crab out of mere gluttony."

The Crane and the Fish


Lake Vimalavati has been occupied from time immemorial by large numbers of fish. Once upon a time, a crane, which happened to pass by, conceived the idea of preying on them, and stood on the brink of the lake.

But it saw the fish going away from it shaking with fear, and so it said: "I very much regret your going away from me in the belief that birds of my order make you their prey, and that I would do the same. But I have not come here with such an object in view. I, following others of my kind, have killed a good many fish, and become a sinner, but I am now grown very old, and have renounced the world. I am come here to perform penance. Fear not any harm from me. You may roam anywhere you please."

The poor fish believed the wily words of the crane, especially as the crane did not interfere with them at all, though they approached it. After some time had thus elapsed, the crane appeared to be very much dejected and melan choly. The fish approached it, and asked it what the matter was.

To which the crane replied: "What shall I say? A twelve years' famine will very shortly visit the land. Not a drop of water will then remain in this lake. I am able to know this by second sight, and, as you are my close friends, I cannot resist the temptation of informing you, lest you die when the famine comes."

The fish were exceedingly joyed at the humane nature of the crane, and requested it to save them from the impending peril. The crane thereupon informed them, that there was a lake a few yards further off, which would never dry, and that it would be a very happy refuge for the fish. The latter requested the former to take them up and leave them there.

The crane thereupon took them up one by one and left them in the sun on a mountain-top, and slowly devoured them.

Moral: We should never, therefore, believe the words of our natural enemies.

The Crane, the Crab, and the Fish


A crane that had long coveted the fish in a pond, one day stood on the bank in a melancholy mood.

"Sir Crane," said the fish in a shoal, "why are you sad today?"

"My dear fish," said Sir Crane, "I am so sorry that the fisherman is to come tomorrow with his net and take you all away."

"Oh, what shall we do?" cried the fish.

"Why," said the crane, if you would only listen to my advice, you will all be saved."

"Do help us, by all means, Sir Crane; we will be so thankful to you," said the fish.

"Well, it may be a source of some trouble to me, but that is immaterial; when one can do a kind turn, he ought to do it. I shall take up as many of you as I can at a time, and carry you to a pond at some distance in a forest, where no fisherman can molest you."

So saying, he carried each time a number of fish, and dropped them on a great piece of stone. There he made a hearty meal on as many as he could eat at a time, and left the remainder to dry in the sun.

It came to the turn of the crab to be carried. While the crane was flying in the air, the crab saw fish all the way, dried and drying. He cut asunder the neck of the crane with his sharp feet, and, falling into a pond, saved himself and the remaining fish in the pond he had left.

The wicked and the oppressor will find their doom in the end.

The Pelican's Punishment


Undan the pelican, being hungry, told Ruan the fish that his pool would shortly dry up, and offered to carry himself or any members of his family to another pool to see how they liked it. To this Ruan agreed, and Undan carried him over to the pool and back again as stipulated, and the fish, liking it, informed all his relatives.

Then Undan carried the fish back again to the new pool and returned to fetch the rest of his family. But instead of putting them into the pool, Undan sat in a tree and ate the fish till his droppings reached to the lower branches.

By this time there were no more fish to be eaten, and Undan commenced in like manner to cheat the family of Ketam the crab. But as soon as ever Ketam caught sight of the droppings, he saw through the trick and pinched Undan's neck so that he died.

The Heron and the Crab

Sri Lanka

There is a great big mountain. On the mountain there is a rock-hole [containing water]. In it there are some small fishes. At all other places a heron eats the small fishes. In this rock-hole the heron cannot eat the small fishes; he goes along [in the air], above the rock cave.

On account of it, the heron puts on a false appearance. "I am indeed an ascetic," he said. "I do not kill living creatures," he said.

Thereupon the small fishes came for a talk. After they came he said, "Being in this hole ye cannot go up and down," he said. "Because it is so, I will take you and put you in a river possessing length and breadth," he said.

After that, having taken them one by one he ate them. At the time when he was taking the crab which remained over from them, the crab took hold of the neck of the heron. While on the way, when the heron was preparing to kill the crab, the crab getting to know of it, cut the neck of the heron with his claws and killed it.

The Story of a Fish in the Pond

The 1001 Nights

Once a great number of fish lived in a pond that was filled only by rainwater. It happened that one summer very little rain fell. The pond grew ever smaller, and the declining water level greatly concerned the fish.

They said to one another: "What will become of us? What can we do? Who can give us advice?"

Then the oldest of them came forth and said: "We can only turn to God and to the crab, the wisest of all water-dwellers."

The other fish all agreed, and they presented themselves before the crab, who was lying peacefully at the door of his nest. He knew nothing of the fishes' problem.

The oldest of them approached him, and after greeting him, said: "You need not concern yourself with our sad situation, o wise and learned crab."

The crab asked: "Just what is your problem then?"

They told him about the lack of water and of their approaching downfall, then asked him for advice and support.

The crab was silent for a while, thinking: "These simple fish have but little trust in God. But I shall set them at ease. God's will shall then transpire."

Then he said to the fish: "Don't you fish know that the year has just begun. There is still plenty of water. It will rain again. Trust in God. Pray to him often, for he hears the prayers of his creatures. Let us wait until winter when it will rain as usual. If not we shall flee from this pond to wherever God leads us."

The fish expressed approval of the crab's opinion, thanked him, and went on their way.

A few days later a great rain fell from heaven and filled the pond even higher than normal.

The Fishes and the Cormorant

Jean de La Fontaine

No pond nor pool within his haunt
But paid a certain cormorant
Its contribution from its fishes,
And stock'd his kitchen with good dishes.

Yet, when old age the bird had chill'd,
His kitchen was less amply fill'd.
All cormorants, however grey,
Must die, or for themselves purvey.

But ours had now become so blind,
His finny prey he could not find;
And, having neither hook nor net,
His appetite was poorly met.

What hope, with famine thus infested?
Necessity, whom history mentions,
A famous mother of inventions,
The following stratagem suggested:

He found upon the water's brink
A crab, to which said he, "My friend,
A weighty errand let me send:
Go quicker than a wink --
Down to the fishes sink,
And tell them they are doom'd to die;
For, ere eight days have hasten'd by,
Its lord will fish this water dry."

The crab, as fast as she could scrabble,
Went down, and told the scaly rabble.
What bustling, gathering, agitation!
Straight up they send a deputation
To wait upon the ancient bird.
"Sir Cormorant, whence hast thou heard
This dreadful news? And what
Assurance of it hast thou got?
How such a danger can we shun?
Pray tell us, what is to be done?"

"Why, change your dwelling-place," said he,
"What, change our dwelling! How can we?"
"O, by your leave, I'll take that care,
And, one by one, in safety bear
You all to my retreat:
The path's unknown
To any feet,
Except my own.
A pool, scoop'd out by Nature's hands,
Amidst the desert rocks and sands,
Where human traitors never come,
Shall save your people from their doom."

The fish republic swallow'd all,
And, coming at the fellow's call,
Were singly borne away to stock
A pond beneath a lonely rock;

And there good prophet cormorant,
Proprietor and bailiff sole,
From narrow water, clear and shoal,
With ease supplied his daily want,
And taught them, at their own expense,
That heads well stored with common sense
Give no devourers confidence. --

Still did the change not hurt their case,
Since, had they staid, the human race,
Successful by pernicious art,
Would have consumed as large a part.

What matters who your flesh devours.
Of human or of bestial powers?
In this respect, or wild or tame,
All stomachs seem to me the same:
The odds is small, in point of sorrow,
Of death today, or death tomorrow.

The Heron, the Fishes, and the Crab

Leo Tolstoy

A heron was living near a pond. She grew old, and had no strength left with which to catch the fish. She began to contrive how to live by cunning.

So she said to the fishes: "You fishes do not know that a calamity is in store for you: I have heard the people say that they are going to let off the pond, and catch every one of you. I know of a nice little pond back of the mountain. I should like to help you, but I am old, and it is hard for me to fly."

The fishes begged the heron to help them.

So the heron said: "All right, I will do what I can for you, and will carry you over. Only I cannot do it at once, -- I will take you there one after another."

And the fishes were happy; they kept begging her: "Carry me over! Carry me over!"

And the heron started carrying them. She would take one up, would carry her into the field, and would eat her up. And thus she ate a large number of fishes.

In the pond there lived an old crab. When the heron began to take out the fishes, he saw what was up, and said: "Now, heron, take me to the new abode!"

The heron took the crab and carried him off. When she flew out on the field, she wanted to throw the crab down. But the crab saw the fish-bones on the ground, and so squeezed the heron's neck with his claws, and choked her to death. Then he crawled back to the pond, and told the fishes.

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Revised March 24, 2020.