Note: This is my translation of an essay by journalist and author Patrik Svensson published in 2012
And it came to pass in those days, that all the worlds' eels were born from mud, created from nothing, like a writhing slimy miracle.
So believed Aristotle. Yes, he actually had a theory about eels as well, he believed that they emerged altogether spontaneously out of the sludge on the sea floor, like a virgin birth. Today most believe differently. Today one believes that the so called European eel, Anguilla anguilla, is birthed deep down in the sea weed in the Sargasso Sea, in the western Atlantic, a little bit north east of Cuba. It is to begin with a small caterpillar-like being, flattened like a willow leaf and with an embarrassingly small head. This is the eels' first embodiment.
Like a thin little willow leaf, so it begins the journey across the Atlantic. For up-to three years it travels, escorted by the gulf stream, until it reaches the European coast where it undergoes its first metamorphosis and transforms itself into glass eel. That is the second embodiment. The glass eel is an almost transparent, long stretched and writhing being. Transparent like a virgin, as if neither sin nor color exists in its body. It looks "like pieces of thin glass rods, shorter than a mans finger", as the famous marine biologist and author Rachel Carson wrote. It was she who wrote Silent spring exactly fifty years ago, the book that is commonly attributed to the awakening of environmental consciousness. She would have mourned the eels' sad situation today.
When the glass eel reaches the European freshwater streams it undergoes its second metamorphosis and transforms into yellow eel. A muscular, slimy and snake-like fish with a wide jaw and small soft fins along the whole over- and underside of the body, colored in hues of yellow, brown and grey. It lives in small lakes, ponds, creeks and rivers above all in southern Sweden. It is solitary, it lives alone. It moves primarily in the dark. It embarks at dusk to hunt and it eats whatever it finds. Worms, caterpillars, frogs, snails, insects, fish.
So it lives most of its life, which can be very long. An eel that manages to avoid illness and misfortune normally lives for up-to thirty years in the wild. There is proof to be found of eels that has passed eighty years, and myths and stories about eels that has been well over a hundred years. The most famous one, in this part of the world, is Branteviksålen. Dropped into a well in Brantevik in 1859 by an eight-year-old boy named Samuel Nilsson, it should according to those who believe be alive to this day. In 2008 the TV show Mitt i Naturen investigated it and indeed found an eel in the muddy water in complete darkness under the well lid. It was pale and small, as if stunted, with much bigger eyes than normal. As if one hundred and fifty years of solitude had made it into a from the surrounding world and all other beings totally isolated, peculiar evolutionary transient.
At some point in its life, usually after twenty to thirty years, the adult eel eventually decides (as long as its not trapped in an Österlenian well) to reproduce. It then undergoes its third metamorphosis. The yellow eel becomes a silver eel, the sullen and nondescript yellow-brown disappears, the hues sharpen and becomes clearer, as if all of its being is colored by a new sense of purpose.
It begins traveling during dark autumn nights, through rivers and creeks towards the sea, then further the 7000 kilometers across the whole Atlantic. It moves at several hundred meters depth and during the whole trip it doesn't eat anything at all. Its mouth has grown shut, its digestive organs has stopped working and instead large amounts of milt or roe accumulate in its body. The eel becomes altogether subordinated the miracle of creation. After half a year of ascetic travel, under the Sargasso Seas swirling carpet of seaweed and alga, the eggs are finally inseminated. Thereafter the eel is finished, its story completed, and it dies.
Why was Aristotle interested in eels in particular? Well, because he was also interested in metaphysics. It is apparently so. It was Aristotle's texts that after his death gave metaphysics its name. The word "metaphysics" means roughly "what comes after the physical", that is what comes after the scientific knowledge about nature.
And the eel is like few other beings surrounded by mysticism and metaphysics. To understand the eel you have to go past the scientific knowledge about the eel. To interest oneself in the eel, one is to some extent at the mercy of faith. You can tell what the eel is not, but you can't fully tell what it is. Look at the eel and you see a question, not an answer.
Because all of the above about the eels life cycle is probably true, but we can't know for sure. No human has seen an eel impregnate another. We believe all the worlds' eels reproduce in the Sargasso Sea because we've found a lot of fry there. No one knows with certainty why the eel insists on reproducing there in particular. No one can completely understand the purpose of its metamorphosis. No one knows for certain how old an eel can become.
Im not a believer. I have no religious relationship to things around me. I want to make a distinction between faith, conviction and knowledge. But when it comes to the eel I become unsure.
It was my father that taught me how to fish eel. It belongs to my childhoods' strongest and most vivid memories. Dark nights by the river. The tall wet grass, the steep slope down towards the water. The silence and the starry sky, the distant humming sound from the rapid a few hundred meters away. The bats that silently flickered past like black, unintelligible signs. The train that suddenly, illuminated and roaring, swept past on the slope above, which got us to delightedly dive into the grass because we were poaching and someone on the train, according to my father, could see us and understand what was going on and possibly do something to put an end to it.
One time we had put out backor. It is an old, simple fishing method for eel in particular. On a sharpened wooden stick a few decimeters long you tie a nylon line a few meters long. On the line a hook and a heavy weight, my father made them himself from a sawed off iron pipe filled with molten lead. On the hook a fat worm. The stick is stuck into the ground and the line is thrown into the water. Then you wait, in the darkness, usually for hours.
Before dawn we walked along the river to empty the traps. An eel had bitten on one of them. How long had it been there? We couldn't possibly know, but possibly for several hours. Anyhow it had stuck to the hook and after that in some kind of desperate manoeuvre spun itself into the line, several meters of thick nylon line was spun around the fish, so the actual body had lifted out of the water, up into the air. So when we got there the eel was hanging a decimeter or so above the water surface, completely still. We took it off, carefully unwrapped the line and felt the limp, cold body in our hands. The line had cut into the eel and left bloody stripes along its whole body, as if it had been whipped. The eyes were cold and glass-like, the gaze dead.
We carefully picked out the hook and put the lifeless fish body in a black bucket with water that we had taken from the river. Then we stood silently and waited. The eel floated quietly in the water with the belly up. A couple of seconds, maybe ten, maybe twenty, then it turned around suddenly and started to slowly swim round, round in the bucket.
To kill, gut and skin an eel is a cruel art of biblical proportion. A common method is to nail it to a plank. You beat a thick nail straight through the eels head, down into the plank, let it hang there like a crucified. Then make a cut with a knife through the skin right behind the head, grab a pincer and with a smooth, swift move pull the skin off it. You cut the head off with a knife and left on its cross sits only the head, with the cold dead eyes, while the skinless body continues to wriggle around as if it still had something to escape from.
The virgin birth, the suffering and the resurrection. The eel has always been the fishes' anointed one. You can talk about nerves that continues to send signals to the muscles after the heart has stopped beating, or metabolic processes and oxygenation, but he who has seen an eel die and then resurrect knows that such explanations isn't really sufficient. An eel can die and then begin living again. That is no matter how you decide to view it a kind of miracle.
What unites almost all religions is the miracle, the secretive, what lies past language and sensation. Christianity's actual prerequisite is the miracle. That is the core meaning of the annunciation to the shepherds. The virgin birth and the star. That is also the point of the resurrection. If Christ hadn't risen from the dead he wouldn't have been Christ. If Christ hadn't resurrected, the annunciation would have been empty. Paulus writes about it in the first epistle to the Corinthians. Without the Resurrection faith is meaningless, because if faith was only concerned about this life, it would be nothing to keep. Faith has to reach beyond life, beyond what we with scientific understanding can see and comprehend. Faith has to in some way fight death. It is when Jesus shows himself to the people, three days after his own death, that the faith emerges, for them and for everyone that has followed their testimony.
I believe, somewhat mundanely, that one finds what one wants to believe in when one needs it. It is not meant to diminish faith, it's just a way to try to understand it. Even if I don't personally believe in the resurrection of Christ I can believe in the core meaning of these testimonies. You can learn something from them, something essential about things like life and death and meaning and loss.
During my whole upbringing I fished eel down there by the river. Always only me and my father. In the late summer we did it several times a week. The eel was our communion. We had our own stories about eels that had been caught or managed to escape. About metaphysical experiences down there in the silence by the river. Experiences beyond the scientific understanding of nature, stories we never found in any book or newspaper and never really managed to explain to any outsiders.
Then I grew up, moved away from home and it became more and more irregular. Eventually not at all. When we several years later reunited around the eel it was in a different place and in a completely different way. It was by a lake where we, perfectly legally and without roaring trains nearby, were permitted to fish. We began talking about how you could catch eel there. Everything pointed to that there should be eel in the lake. We had heard that there was. There has to be, my father said. But no matter how we tried we never got one, never saw the smallest hint of eel. We tried for several years but it was gone, disappeared from our lives, and it was... well, a mystery, but also a disappointment, we felt in some way abandoned.
My father passed away almost four and a half years ago. Way too early. It was in the summer, at the beginning of July. It was warm and silent. Some weeks later, after the funeral, I sat by that lake again. I had thrown in a fishing-rod, with a small hook and a worm on, to catch some common roach or small perch. I had put down the fishing-rod to do something else when it suddenly began moving. The whole rod was pulled through the grass towards the water and I ran over, caught it just before it disappeared into the lake. It was evidently a strong fish. It fought back and swam in among the water lilies, almost got caught below some large rocks next to the waters’ edge, moved swiftly and violently down into the dark water.
I know it was an eel because I saw it, right next to the edge the wriggling, pale grey body came up to the surface. For a short second it showed itself, looked at me as if to make sure that I had also seen it, before it came off the hook and disappeared down into the darkness again.
"The last enemy to be destroyed is death", Paulus wrote in the first epistle to the Corinthians. I don't believe in much of what is written in the Bible, but I believe in that. I saw an eel and that was the first time I understood that my father will be with me even when he's gone.