Totems: EEL, Part 1 of 2

by Cie Simurro- Thunderbird Starwoman

What exactly are you trying to hold onto, dear one? The more fear you have, the more you try to control things to make yourself feel safe, but safety will never come that way. It will elude your grasp just as trying to catch me will fail, for I AM EEL, and I can slip right out of any trap. What has you trapped? Is it your compulsion to be recognized, respected, accepted? Will lots of money make you feel safe? You may be surprised to have your fear of scarcity return after Money’s initial rush wears off. Are you worried about losing love? Then first and foremost, give love and unconditional acceptance to yourself. That attracts all kinds of abundance. You may think that I sacrifice everything, but I am following my heart, my instinct, and my passion, so it is not sacrifice.

EELS – Ewww! Yucky, slimey!
No, wait. Eels are biologically fascinating, aquatic super-heros, and awe-inspiring Medicine for these times. I promise. Wait and see. They look like snakes, but they aren’t. They move like snakes, but they’re not. There are enough species that you’d think they would be more familiar to us, but they’re not, because they hang out deep in the ocean or freshwater bottom. They’re fish actually, and they are everywhere there is water, from as far north as Iceland, to New Zealand in the southern hemisphere. American eels are the only species of freshwater eel found in North America on the east coast of Canada and New England. And though most species of American eels live the major part of their lives in fresh water, they all end up in salt water, traveling many thousands of miles, when it’s time for them to spawn. You see, American eels are catadromous, meaning they spend most of their lives in freshwater, but they spawn in salt water.

Now, being a mother myself, I understand a bit about parental love inspiring Herculean efforts, but the sacrifice that eels make is prodigious. No matter where they are in the world, whether in the stream behind your house or at the bottom of a lake in Northern Europe, when the migratory instinct arises, and a female freshwater eel is ready to lay eggs, she begins swimming downstream, and eventually to the Sargasso Sea, which is way out in the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and Puerto Rico. No one seems to know why or how this happens. In fact, until recently, no one knew much of anything about eels, except indigenous people of course. In western civilization, it was only in 1817 that Charles Lesueur, a French naturalist, artist, and explorer, first described an eel.

Before the female freshwater eel heads for the ocean, this long-distance swimmer exhibits some very unique behavior. She will fatten up, and then absorb her digestive tract! (I warned you – Lol). She will also transform herself by enlarging her eyes, so she can see in the great depths where she will breed. Additionally, she will turn metallic silver on her ventral side, and black on her back, reducing her visibility to predators in open ocean waters. Rachel Carson observed that the eel is a “lover of darkness” and indeed, eels swim in depths where there is little light. There are many behavioral, physiological and morphological changes that take place for eels to go from a freshwater inhabitant to an ocean-going one.

What triggers eels to travel immense distances to and from their spawning grounds? Is water temperature a factor? (The Sargasso Sea has the warmest water in the mid-Atlantic and by the way, could it have anything to do with being so near the Bermuda triangle, which many feel is where Atlantis sank?) After hatching, is it perhaps the chemistry of freshwater, or its unique odors that draw eels to the home streams where they will dwell for many years? Is some primal memory of how to reach their birth site, turned on by some biological switch? What kind of intense desire makes American eels travel from, and then back to, the Sargasso Sea? New research proposes they may use magnetic signals. Whatever the reason or reasons, one thing is sure. People with this totem have a strong inner compass and need to listen to their inner promptings, no matter the cost.

Upon arriving at bays or estuaries, males and females join together to begin the journey back to their birthplace. This can take a long time. And although she has been a voracious eater all her life, the female won’t eat during the journey. Once a female freshwater eel arrives at the Sargasso Sea, she dives about 1,000 feet down through the Sargassum seaweed-choked surface to lay her eggs. Research has turned up figures as diverse as 5-20 million eggs – GULP! – but no one is really sure. Any way you look at it, it’s a lot of eggs that get released – but not before the courting begins. Courting eels open their mouths wide and wrap their bodies around each other for hours. They separate only when the female has laid her eggs. Then a male spreads milt (fish semen) over the eggs. AND THEN THEY DIE. You read that right. Believe it or not, all that effort ends in death.

But life continues. It takes about a week after fertilization for the newborn eels, known as leptocephali to hatch. After hatching in spring, they are in the larval stage. They don’t look like the adults; they’re small, transparent and leaf-thin, but they have large teeth. They drift until they catch the Gulfstream current heading north. This can take a very long time, depending on the whim of the prevailing ocean current. It takes American eels (Anguilla rostrata) about a year to reach their destination up the East coast of America, but it takes European eels (Anguilla vulgaris) almost three years to cross the Atlantic, only to arrive in the very same state of development as the American eel. So, if eel has appeared to you in a dream, or crossed your path in another context, you may have an extensive journey in your near future. Will that journey be moving from one place to another, or will it be a spiritual journey that brings you closer to self-realization? Whichever it is, there is major transformation afoot.
As they drift toward the continental shelf, the larvae transform into miniature eels called glass eels. They’re still transparent. They feed on particles of biological debris called marine snow. Ultimately, glass eels leave the open ocean to enter freshwater estuaries, and reach a river. Yessiree bob, they make the same trip mom and dad made – in reverse (a few species of male eels stay close to the sea). After a few months in fresh water, the eels become juveniles, known as elvers.  Those elvers that escape the commercial fisherman’s net grow into yellow eels, which is when they become either male or female. Before that, they are hermaphrodites. Interestingly, differentiating sexually as male or female is influenced by their environment. In southern areas where warmer temperatures lead to faster growth, and where densities of eels are higher, more become male. Males are smaller. In northern climes, lonelier, but cleaner headwaters and remote lakes seem to produce more females. Northern females are also larger.

As they continue to work their way upstream, the maturation process proceeds – and now they are ravenous. They’ll eat fish, worms, clams, snails, aquatic insects, and plants. But the more amazing thing is that they’re like some super hero out of a Marvel comic. To reach their destination, young eels will clamber up and over waterfalls, surmount small dams and other vertical barriers, swim and wriggle through sewers and pipelines, and head upstream like they were salmon. They persist despite most obstacles and challenges. That’s a pretty powerful Medicine to have, especially in these times. Ask eel totem for some of that.

The average life span of an eel is anywhere from six to thirty years, although a few reports exist of captive eels living to 100. When they become sexually mature in five to eight years, the adult female is known as a silver eel and sometime after that will begin the same trip her mother originally made. Yeah, she will lay her own 5-20 million eggs. Eels are nocturnal, so on a night heavy with dew or a light drizzle, they might travel overland, slithering like snakes. How can fish do that? Well, they are able to slither because … wait for it … they have a thick layer of really, really slimy mucus all over their bodies, so they don’t dry out. This enables them to squirm their way over mud or wet grass. Also, they can swim both forward and backward.

Predators vary according to what stage of growth eels are in. Turns out older eels prey on incoming glass eels. Other species of fish also prey on them, as well as bald eagles, gulls and other sea birds. And as yellow and silver eels are considered a delicacy in parts of Europe, the U.S. ships to the EU market. BTW, if you are thinking of eating eel (Ewww again), you should know that eel blood has a neurotoxin that is toxic enough to kill you, and has to be cooked thoroughly.

Look for Part II of Eel Totem in the next issue of Wisdom

 Cie Simurro- Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for 45 years; author of this column for 19 years. For Healing for you or your animal, or to buy a print or e-version of Totems for Stewards of the Earth, go to, or send $22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370.

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