Eels and feels

6 April 2017

Image of Ruth Garde
Ruth Garde

For Georgian Londoners, the allure of electric animals was both intellectual and sensual.

 Guillaume Rondelet, a 16th century naturalist, had observed the torpedo’s stupefying faculty in this study of marine life.
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Guillaume Rondelet, a 16th century naturalist, had observed the torpedo’s stupefying faculty in this study of marine life.

Of all the strange and fearful weapons with which Nature has endowed some of her creatures to aid them in the struggle for existence, perhaps the most wonderful is the electrical discharge. Impalpable, it strikes at a distance like a flash of lightning, but if it takes its proper victim unawares… it has this element of compensation and even of mercy, that it probably kills without pain.

James Munro, The Romance of Electricity, 1893

By the time James Munro wrote these words, scientific investigations into the electrical properties of torpedo fish and electric eels had been underway for over 200 years. His observations emphasise how their fascination, stretching back to antiquity, was still bound up with their mysterious and sinister potential to harm. The fearsome power of the torpedo inspired poetic disquisitions by classical writers such as Claudian:

Who hath not heard the dire Torpedo’s fame,
The strength, the power denoted in its name?
What though its form is tender, and its pace
Scarce leaves upon the sands a languid trace,
With subtle poison Nature arms its sides;
Throughout its frame a freezing influence glides,
Which binds all life and heat in icy chains,
And native winters dwell within its veins.

‘Torpedo’ by Claudian, transl. Jacob George Strutt, 1814

Until the 18th century, electric fish were still thought of in more or less fantastical terms. Seen as both wonderful and dreadful, these fish were thought to possess occult properties. Artemidorus Daldianus, a second-century Greek diviner, wrote that dreaming of a torpedo fish was a bad omen, indicating imminent danger and connivance. In Medieval and Renaissance accounts, electric fish were to be found in bestiaries alongside such monstrous animals as dragons, griffins and basilisks. After Franklin’s discovery that lightning was another form of electricity, the interest in ‘torporific fish’ was renewed, and they began to be scrutinised through a scientific lens.

Electric fish exerted a powerful hold on natural philosophers, who were faced with intriguing conundrums: how could creatures generate, store and discharge electricity without doing themselves harm and, moreover, in an aquatic (and therefore conductive) environment? Naturalists such as the American Edward Bancroft and the Prussian Alexander von Humboldt travelled to South America to study electric eels in their native environment. The exoticism and mystery of these creatures was only enhanced by their origins: Guyana, a Dutch colony whose rivers and ponds were home to electric eels, was also believed to be the site of the mythical El Dorado, a city built entirely of gold.

 The electric eel was a centrepiece of electricity demonstrations in 18th century London.
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The electric eel was a centrepiece of electricity demonstrations in 18th century London.

By the 1770s the first electric eels were being shipped to North America and London, where public demonstrations of their electrical properties were immensely popular (for anybody who could afford the prohibitive entrance fees). Advertisements for the displays offered the sensational opportunity to experience “electric strokes” at first hand. One experiment involved several audience members joined by the hands while one touched the eel with an iron rod, thereby transmitting a violent shock to the whole group.

 Edward Bancroft’s essay on the natural history of Guiana (for which this is the frontispiece) features his study of “torporific eels”.
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Edward Bancroft’s essay on the natural history of Guiana (for which this is the frontispiece) features his study of “torporific eels”.

Eel impresario George Baker held his exhibitions in Piccadilly, near other exotic animal attractions and menageries, attracting elite visitors including the Duke of Devonshire, George III, and his wife, Queen Charlotte. The popularity of Baker’s spectacles led to him being “obliged to draw the spark or vivid flashes from [the] fish but three times a week… on account of the danger of their being exhausted by the too repeated experiments of every day”.

If audiences were enthralled by the displays of sparks and the experience of physical shocks from these exotic creatures, they were also titillated by an erotic undercurrent which prompted a slew of near-pornographic literature where the electric eel was once again centre stage.

A connection already existed between the electrical ‘spark’ and sexuality. The erotic potential of the electric eel as a phallic stand-in was too conspicuous for writers and satirists to ignore. Unsurprisingly, the more sinister aspect of the eel’s erotic charge was offered up by the infamous Marquis de Sade, who deployed the electric eel as an instrument of torture on female victims in his 1795 work Philosophy in the Boudoir.

The English poet James Perry took humorous advantage of the eel’s suggestive symbolism in several extremely lewd, satirical poems, almost certainly inspired by contemporary scientific experimentation and public demonstrations. The electrical eel, or, Gymnotus electricus tells the story of Eve’s seduction by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The poem’s ribald sexualisation of the eel is none too subtle:

Till from the pond the lengthen’d Eel,
Bewitch’d, began her pow’r to feel,
And from the mud he grew.
He grew erect – he won her eyes,
Both by his sleekness and his size…
Th’electrick fire soon warm’d her heart,
The fire to all she did impart,
And nature own’d the feel:
From that gay period up to this,
The Wife, the Matron, and the Miss,
Hallow’d th’Electrical Eel.

The Gymnotus electricus was a staple in the 18th-century craze for electrical demonstrations, but natural electricity was by no means the only draw. A wide variety of entertainments featured artificial electricity: flying boys attached to electrostatic machines, necromantic cats emitting sparks from their tails, and electrifying kisses. All provided similar thrills for a public both hungry for spectacular sensation and willing to put their own bodies into the limelight.

Image of Ruth Garde
Ruth Garde
Ruth Garde is a freelance curator and writer, focusing on the fields of history, art, architecture and heritage. Over the past fourteen years she has worked extensively with Wellcome Collection, writing and curating a variety of projects encompassing history, human health, art and science.