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18 july 2016

A couple of years ago I was staying in an old house in the south of France. As I was going downstairs to bed one night, I saw a lovely ornament on the wall, in the shape of a small scorpion. Except it hadn't been there earlier, which meant that it was a small scorpion. I didn't sleep exceptionally well that night.

You laugh, because of course it was just a Euscorpius flavicaudis, the common yellow-tailed scorpion of the Mediterranean – all but harmless. Scorpions, as Louise Pryke notes in her piquant new book from Reaktion, are all venomous, meaning that even the most harmless have to be qualified as "all but." I didn't get stung by a Euscorpius flavicaudis when I was in Provence and I am on the whole pleased with that outcome. I must say that the little guy was fairly beautiful. I'd go back there. I think.

In Scorpion, Pryke stresses the ambivalence with which world cultures have treated these poisonous little arachnids. Scorpions are worse than nuisances: they are more dangerous, per unit venom, than just about any other class of animal. Thousands of people die every year, worldwide, from the stings of scorpions. As a result, when cultures want images of implacable, lethal, relentless creatures, they adopt scorpions.

Yet scorpions are also good mothers (carrying their children on their backs), and on the whole are very unaggressive. You have to go after a scorpion with some provocative intent to get stung. Hence the cultural appropriation of the "protective scorpion," the no-nonsense superhero, shielding its own with its potent tail raised. They are even said to be noble Romans when it comes to lost causes, fearlessly stinging themselves to death rather than experience dishonor. This is probably a projection on the part of human observers, but it's an inspirational one.

Scorpions can be erotic, too. Their mating "dance" can go on for a whole day, and has sex-and-death overtones: if the male is not careful, the female will sting him to death after the act. Yet it seems not to be her intention all along, as is perhaps the case with female spiders; nor does the male scorpion expire naturally after mating. It's just in the female scorpion's nature to sting, even to sting her boyfriends. Pryke makes much of the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog throughout her book. In this famous beast story, the frog agrees to ferry the scorpion across some body of water. Why would the scorpion sting him in the process? they'd both drown. Yet the scorpion stings the frog anyway, and they do drown. There's no malevolence in the act; it's just the scorpion's nature.

Pryke moralizes that "the dominance of our animal instincts can at times outweigh what is perhaps in our best interest" (154), which seems to convey much of the tale's impact. There's also the sense that the scorpion is as good at logic as any other creature. He weighs up the counterproductiveness of the sting in advance. And then he does it anyway. You don't have to know much about human nature to realize how much we are like scorpions in this respect – or, at least, how clever an anthropomorphization the story entails.

Another theme in Scorpion is the indestructibility of the creature. Scorpions are hard to crush. They shrug off pesticides. They don't eat bait, so you can't poison their food. They are happy in hyper-extreme heat, they can go for a year without eating or drinking, they have antifreeze for blood … actually I am collating a super-scorpion out of several outlier species that Pryke adduces, but some scorpions really do have these features. When the French set off nuclear weapons in the African desert, they found that the only creatures near ground zero to survive were scorpions. The future proverbially belongs to cockroaches, but that may just mean dinner for scorpions.

Scorpions don't figure much in literature, or aside from small emblematic placements, in the high canon of Western art, either. They are prominent in myth, from the frog fable retold above to the legend of Orion and the Scorpion, who now occupy opposite positions in the night sky. Pryke takes the Zodiac associations of Scorpio as seriously as a cultural-studies expert should. She is even stronger on manifestations of scorpions in popular movie series and in video games. I was especially happy to see a discussion of Hank Scorpio, wannabe Bond villain and Homer Simpson's dream boss. In fact, the Simpsons drew Scorpio from the continual reappearance of scorpions in James Bond films, where they represent the most inveterate of threats to our hero.

Scorpions are hard to catch or kill, as I've noted, and one wouldn't think they could be easily endangered. Yet habitat loss encroaches on them as on most wild animals. And many scorpions are captured for the exotic-pet trade (seriously?), the most venomous being among the most attractive. Pryke also notes that scorpions are used as food in many countries, particularly Thailand and China. She prints photos of baskets of fried scorpions, and of scorpions-on-a-stick. Thankfully, there are no recipes at the end of the book.

Pryke, Louise M. Scorpion. London: Reaktion, 2016.