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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/432

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POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

EELS AND THE EEL QUESTION.
By M. C. MARSH,

U. S. COMMISSION OF FISH AND FISHERIES.

HISTORY recites an incident in which eels played the part of an executioner. The sentence a rich Roman, Vedius Pollio, passed upon his offending slaves was, 'Away to the Murænæ.' Slave-fattened eels were a Roman delicacy, and there was probably more gastronomy than justice in this edict. Ever since, and long before, for that matter, eels have occupied a unique and conspicuous place in popular interest. For the antiquity of their history, for the diversity of rôles they have played, for the many-sidedness of their career and in their importance, eels rival any group of animals below the sons of Adam.

If one were to follow eels—meaning here the common eel and not the lamprey, the Muræna, or the conger, which have histories of their own—backward in literature, the journey would probably reach the dawn of history. It would be difficult to say where they first entered written records, but that they have ever been the subject of curious attention is apparent. While they doubtless first engaged man's interest by way of his stomach, they were early found worthy of his intellect. Aristotle, wise man of the first European civilization, who explained all things, discoursed wisely and ponderously of eels, and the eel question may be said to have begun with him and his contemporaries. Three thousand years have passed, Aristotle is gone, but the eels and the eel question are still with us and the wise men of our century still concern themselves with both.

What is here called the eel question is one upon which the last word will not be said for some time to come. But it has changed its form and we have it upon a rather firmer foundation than that of the ancients. It began in the mystery attaching to the generation of eels. They were as the leaves of the trees for numbers; but the course of nature in reproducing other creatures each after its own kind did not seem to be exemplified in eels. Hence the mystery. 'Eel-spawn' was of the same material as a mare's nest and pigeon's milk.

The teachings on the subject were various. They were the offspring of Jove. This belief, however, originated in the humorous reflection of a Greek poet to the effect that as children of uncertain paternity were ascribed to Jupiter, he must be the progenitor of eels. They were said to be bred of the mud; of decaying bodies in the water; from dew,