It’s all in the gonads

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It is, indeed, all in the gonads. Just ask Sigmund Freud.

For as long as mankind has been able to understand,   he has been baffled by this: where do eels come from?

Because no-one could do that spiel we do for our children when we explain how we are made. They couldn’t say, well, you get a mummy eel and a daddy eel, and they have a romantic candlelight dinner for two, and one thing leads to another, you know how it is, ahem.

Because no one could find mummy eels. Or daddy eels. Or baby eels. No reproductive organs whatsoever.

They could only find eels.

Aristotle pronounced they were born of earth worms which ‘grew from the guts of the wet soil’. Hermaphrodite, the scientists of old pronounced. As time wore on they found a likely culprit on which to pin the eels beginnings:  a fish called the eelpout.

In 1777, though, they were all to be confounded. For a chap called Carlo Mondini spent long enough dissecting eels to find their gonads.

Almost a century later, no-one was any the wiser. Which is where the father of psychoanalysis comes in; Sigmund Freud, at 21, was a penniless student. His professor of the time has been rooting about in eels for some time and found ovaries, and some tiny lobes (sorry, eel boys) which might answer to the name of testicles, but which carried no sperm.

So he gave Freud a bursary to verify the eels’ manhood.

Which, after manymanymany dissections, he did. And he published the seminal Observations on the configuration and finer structure of the lobed organs in eels described as testes’.

It was a Danish professor, Johannes Schmidt, who sent ships out into the ocean, discovering that as he travelled deeper the eel larvae captured got smaller and smaller. And eventually had come upon a version of truth which fits with our extraordinary observations.

Because eel swarming is legendary.

Born far out to sea, European eels migrate with the Gulf Stream, growing steadily, from the deep ocean to our coasts. And then they make their way up our rivers and streams.

Eels are strong. eerily, unsettlingly strong. Very little can stop them. If there are obstructions they pile up to overcome them; they can move across wet grass or dig through sand to reach water and pools.

And, as far as we know, they stay there to mature; and then migrate back to the sea.

Eels can be food. London was well-known for its partiality for eel pie. Look at Eel Pie Island.

And to eat eels, one must catch the wily serpents.

This is how they did it: they built eel houses over popular spawning rivers. The eel houses had small low bridges fitted with grating to trap the eels as they went on their way. And the eels would swim into the trap, and men would haul them out and set more and yet more traps, plundering the swarm.

It did not go well for eels,as you may imagine. Their numbers plummeted and these days they are a delicacy. The eel houses were abandoned, and began to fall into decay.

In Alresford, in Hampshire, a little way from Winchester, there is an old eel house on the river.

Yesterday, in blazing sunshine, I took the little path along the River Alres, an enchanted water-shimmering potter sharing the lazy sunlight with the dragonflies, to see the old eel house.

It has been renovated by The Alresford Society and it’s a strange little relic of history, that little red house that ended the epic journey of so many of these tiny water-serpents.

It was a lovely spot.

But I’m glad it is redundant.

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24 thoughts on “It’s all in the gonads

  1. Was it in Amsterdam in the 60s – people standing on the street corners buying fresh eel that they would immediately swallow…raw?! Ewwww.

    Imagine Freud finding the testes of that poor squiggly creature.

  2. As a little one, I remember eels swimming in tanks at the fishmongers! Nana used to have a “nice bit of eel” which was fine. But personally I was always saddened that they never danced the conga while we were in the shop! 🙂

  3. Eels are amazing creatures. James Prosek wrote a book about eels, which I own but have never read in its entirety. They all originate from The Caspian sea apparently. I love the photos of the eel houses, how times have changed. When I was a child I would catch eels on The Great Ouse in a traditional wicker trap, but it has holes in it now. There is no-one left who knows how to make these traps, at least not in the UK.

  4. I’ve been partial to eels for a long time. I was even honorary photographer to an Eel Appreciation Society back in Covent Garden in the 70’s. Here, eels are a central part of Vendeen food. As much of the area was a marsh, until Eleanor of Aqutaine drained it, all things marshy – frogs, snails, eels – have been staple foods here. Oddly, I like all of them.

    1. Your mention of Eleanor of Aquitaine draining marshes reminds me of the story of Henry I dying from eating ‘a surfeit of lampreys’, though this was in Normandy. The lamprey is, of course, an eel.

  5. When traveling in Asia I have often eaten eel. It can be prepared many different ways. However, it is not my favorite. Interesting pictures and story of how they would catch them.

  6. I once went deep sea fishing, Kate, if you can imagine, and caught an eel. They had to pry it from the line with a crowbar, such were its teeth and wild eyes. One of the scariest creatures I have ever met.

  7. I’ve never wondered where eels come from. Fascinating story, though. You do come up with the most interesting stories! Oh, and those of you who like them are welcome to my share of eels.

  8. Such an interesting post. The little eel houses and the bridges are cute. Eels, however, are not. Ever since I saw a picture of a lamprey in my high school biology book, I’ve been anti-eel. I’m glad to know they travel with the Gulf Stream, away from me.

  9. Sad that the Brits are no longer as well eeled as they used to be.
    I think that was a far more useful contribution by Sigmund than his later ones he is better known for!

  10. Of course.. Gonads and male heiarchy are only impotent.. Sorry, I mean Important… in Western Europe. There are cultures elsewhere that view the male as a necessary evil. In my Wife’s Shona culture the true head of the family is the eldest Lady. The men like to think that they make decisions but if Na Tete decides they have it wrong then it ain’t gonna happen 🙂 When we married some of the ‘men’ thought they could make some money from the ‘rich foreigner’ – Na Tete stamped on that idea! I’ve met a number of African powerhouse ladies and they deserve our utmost respect.

  11. It’s a rare person to sit down and research eels, Kate! You’ve done it again! The eel house is truly charming, and I can see why you’d be pulled to visit and just enjoy. I have obviously completely overlooked any interest in eels and find it totally fascinating to find a connection between Freud and the study of their reproductive capacity. One thing that keeps my tied to research on any topic is the way one little story or factlet opens up to more and soon there is a whole world you never previously considered. This really was oddly fascinating to me. 🙂

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