Totems: EEL, Part 2 of 2

by Cie Simurro- Thunderbird Starwoman

Humans are predators of eels in more ways than one: If habitat loss hasn’t gotten them before they begin their migration to the Sargasso, heavy metals, pollutants and chemicals in waterways tend to accumulate in eel bodies, which have a high fat content. Also, since largemouth and striped bass seem to prey on elvers and small yellow eels, it turns out that fishermen, along with fisheries, use them as bait; at least they used to, as fishing for them is more regulated now. American eel populations have declined by as much as 99% in the last twenty years due to hydropower plants, dams, and over-fishing. Reproductivity success depends heavily on free passage downstream to complete migration. Hydroelectric dams are particularly damaging as adult eels get caught in the turbines.

However, the good news is that eel recovery may have recently gotten a boost in my own backyard. Turner’s Falls, MA is testing what promises to be the first truly effective device. Their “Conte Airlift Bypass” is a pipe that’s inserted vertically on the upstream side of a dam and infused with air. The bubbles create a flow that attracts the bottom-hugging eels and carries them up past the turbines and safely over the dam. Power companies love the idea because the water gets recycled for generation. At first, there was concern that eels wouldn’t like the bubbles, but they don’t mind them at all. Also, if scientists can ascertain that most eels tend to leave for the ocean on a few specific nights, in certain conditions (rain, high-flowing rivers, new-moon dark ness), managers can shut down hydroelectric turbines on those nights to spare the eels. 

So, if eel is your totem, you are probably one who travels a lot, and possibly to far-off places. You work hard to get where you want to go. You are graceful, but you probably give new meaning to the word tenacious! Here’s another fascinating fact about eels. They usually find their prey by smell, not sight. People with this totem have an extra-sensory sense of smell. Since their environment is harsh, with low temperatures and light, and very little food, eels have adaptations: they can detect pressure waves from swimming animals, in order to compensate for poor vision. Some species also develop light organs, or their eyes can become relatively huge.

Eels are bottom dwellers that hide in burrows, masses of plants or rock crevices. They seem to prefer brackish, muddy water and they burrow under the mud, entering into a state of torpor (going in and out of hibernation) when the temperature gets really low. Tagging studies show that European eels swim more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) to the Sargasso Sea. Most of them begin their migration between August and December. They don’t all spawn at once. The migratory timing and speeds of eels vary, so that only the fastest arrive in time for peak spawning in the spring while others arrive much later, only to breed the following season.

A few more places in the world have been observed as spawning areas for eels: Japanese eels spawn near the Mariana islands, and their leptocephali are transported westward to East Asia by the North Equatorial current. Four species of freshwater eels begin life in the Indian Ocean, north of Madagascar; then spend most of their lives high up in the rivers of Southern Africa and come down to spawn in the Indian Ocean again where they began life.

Moray eel habitat is coastal rock and reef in tropical waters. In fact, scientists have identified morays as almost half the carnivorous biomass on tropical reefs. Get this: they tie their bodies in knots to anchor themselves when tearing at food. Undulating through the water, a Moray is easy to recognize by its bold coloration, its snakelike body, and one continuous fin that runs along the length of its body. The moray will rarely come out to hunt during daylight hours, which is good for folks who dive, because they can give a nasty bite with their razor-sharp teeth. Good thing they’re not venomous – predatory, but not venomous.

Morays will allow groups of Pacific cleaner shrimps and wrasses to groom them by picking off parasites and damaged skin. This shows a capacity for discretionary judgment when it serves their purposes, and folks with this totem are also capable of such distinctions. The Medicine for these folks is to learn when to let go. When a moray eel bites, it won’t let go – ever! If the prey pulls on it, the moray will just tear off more of its flesh. You would have to cut its head off to get it off you, and even then, you would have to break its jaws after it is dead to get out of its grasp. Fortunately, they are usually pretty shy, that is, unless you initiate attack. Don’t be like the Moray eel. Let go of things, events, and past trauma that doesn’t serve you, or that creates clutter.

One Moray eel I just heard about though, reversed the reputation these eels have. I was talking with Steffi, a Microsoft tech rep, who was so great at helping me, that when I found out she likes animals, I steered her toward Eel, Pt.1. She then told me about her friend Valerie Taylor, an Australian diver, who literally made friends over the years with an Indonesian Moray eel. Check out the video at

The Electric eel is a South American freshwater fish found mainly in the Amazon River basin. Special organs along the sides of the eel’s body produce its electric charge. This eel uses the electric charge, which can be stronger than 500 volts, against its predators and to catch prey.

Just when you think you know for sure that adult eels live solitary lives, you find out that some Conger eels spend their entire juvenile and adult lives in colonies, permanently embedded in substrate. Thousands of individuals with tails down and heads waving feed on plankton. 

Adult eels were once a significant food source for the ancestors of the Wabanaki and Penobscot people. A few Native American cultures have eel clans. These include the Cayuga, Onondaga, and Tuscarora. There is also a sub-clan of the Mohegan Turtle Clan called the Yellow Eel Clan. A Mi’kmaq legend, unflattering to eel portrays a giant eel as a monster that pushes all the fish and all the fresh water into the bay. Eel is fought by Lobster, and is killed. The legend ends by saying that the battle still continues twice a day in Kluscap Bay, Nova Scotia Canada,  which seems to depict a mythology behind tides.

Celtic legends have many stories about eel, and the Book of Kells mentions eels many times, as shapeshifters that can change form by growing legs and walking on land for great distances, only to shift back into their familiar snake-like form and return to the sea. Eels are often portrayed with a mysterious aspect or a tone of elusiveness. For many indigenous people throughout the Polynesian Islands, eel is a god, replacing the archetypal snake in creation myths.

If you think about its shape, it should come as no surprise that in some cultures, eels are associated with the male sex organ. And it’s pretty clear that an eel’s mating urges are pretty strong, since those urges cause them to travel thousands of miles. People in the sphere of eel’s Medicine may also feel strong sexual urges, normally unfamiliar to them. If this applies to you, choose with discretion. If you are in a relationship with someone who has eel as a totem, don’t take them at face value. Sometimes they have hidden agendas. Honest and open communication should be put in place right from the start. Folks with this totem can sometimes use their strong sexual and life force energy to accomplish their desires, so it would behoove you, if this is your totem, to always act in accordance with your highest values. On the other hand, sexual energy is part of the trifecta of the kundalini – the snake-shaped energy that coils up the spinal column. That energy can manifest sexually, creatively or spiritually. It’s a choice. How will you channel your kundalini energy?

A lot has been learned about the eel since Johann Schmidt spent 15 years tracking and observing them in the early 1900’s, but there is still much that remains mysterious about these fishes. This power animal is elusive, inscrutable and hard to hold onto. One thing is for sure … when there is a mystery to solve, eel totem people will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of things. In order to protect eels, we have to know more about them. Then we can develop long-term strategies for their continued health and well-being. For one thing, no one has ever identified an adult freshwater eel enroute to their breeding grounds. It turns out that the sex organs of eels become enlarged with eggs and sperm only after the adults leave the mouths of rivers for their oceanic spawning grounds, and on the way there, they swim far below the surface of the water. Besides that, no one knows how eels die after spawning! Yes, you with this totem are quite enigmatic. To whom will you reveal your secrets?

For Part I, go to

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.

Phone: 413 625-0385 or email: