Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/439

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EELS AND THE EEL QUESTION.

Latin for snake, Anguilla. Many English names of places are compounded of eel—witness Elmore, Ellesmere, and Ely. Of the latter Fuller, in 'Worthies of Cambridgeshire,' has this illuminating explanation: "When the priests of this part of the country would still retain their wives in spite of whatever the pope and monks could do to the contrary, their wives and children were miraculously turned into eels, whence it had the name Ely. I consider this a lie." Like other objects of popular interest which include elements of mystery, eels are the subject of the most extravagant tales. Some of these are quite analogous to the threadbare story of the live frog found in the interior of a solid rock. A New England paper some years ago heralded that 'a live and active eel, a few days since, was dug out from a depth of five feet in the soil of Exeter, New Hampshire.' Doubtless this eel is exhumed annually. The tenacity of life of frogs and eels affords the starting point for these legends. Likewise to the voracity of eels may we credit an ancient chronicle that in England a few of them were one dark night observed to consume entirely a stack of hay. It may be in a spirit of emulation that some German carp—importation of the Government—artificially transplanted to the pond of a western farmer, came out one night and ate up the crop of buckwheat on a neighboring field. Elvers are reported to climb trees and the tale might not be incredible, provided any imaginable reason for such conduct could be assigned, for by their persistence they sometimes ascend the perpendicular barrier of a dam a short distance. This they accomplish by the partial drying of those that first essay the ascent, which therefore stick to the boards and afford a slight foothold for the next comers, which wriggle a little higher and then in turn stick fast and perish.

These stories might be multiplied ad nauseam, but more interesting are a few facts about the symbolic significance of the eel. His slipperiness long ago passed into a proverb. Among the pictorial writings of the Egyptians the representation of an eel held by the tail denoted 'a man vainly pursuing a fugitive object. 'A Greek expression of similar import reads, 'You've an eel by the tail.' It is not so well known that an eel figures also in an emblem of quite opposite meaning—certainty instead of uncertainty. It is quite impossible to hold one in any ordinary clutch of the hand. The intervention of a fig leaf, however, makes the grasp secure, and the Egyptians depicted an eel rolled up in a fig leaf when they wished to express certainty regarding things that were a priori uncertain.