The Marriage of the Electric Eel

By: Wm. C. Farabee

Originally Published in 1918

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In the discussion of the art of the Amazon it was stated that the realistic figures had no social nor religious significance, but that they were used for decorative purposes only, expressing nothing more than the ideas of animate objects and giving pleasure by the interpretation of the forms.

Pictures are usually employed as aids to stories and are very important, because they tell the whole story at a glance. When the story is told in the presence of the picture, both are remembered. This explains why art is such a strong ally of religion. Sculpture and painting give to religion a permanent form and render it more intelligible by giving it an easy interpretation. Religion in turn sanctifies art and gives it authority. The Indians of the Amazon have no stories nor art of this character. All the tribes have stories accounting for the creation of men and animals; for the individual peculiarities of animals and for fabulous encounters between men and the animals. The following story is of an unusual type and the only one of its kind that I found in my six years of travel.

An old Marinau, or medicine man, had a beautiful daughter of marriageable age whom he was anxious to have marry a very strong man, stronger even than himself, if it were possible to find such a man. Word was sent out announcing the fact and calling for suitors. The jaguar, knowing himself to be the king of the forests, came first and to his surprise was rejected without serious consideration. Many other animals came in succession, each setting forth his claims to great power or ability, but all these were rejected also. Finally Kasum, the electric eel, came saying that he was stronger than all the others combined, but the old Marinau laughed at him and said, “You can do nothing; you are so small and insignificant it is presumptuous of you to think yourself worthy of my daughter. You should not dream of such a thing.” “Try me before you send me away,” said Kasum, “touch me and see for yourself how powerful I am.” So the Marinau laid his hand on Kasum and received such a severe shock that he was completely overcome and rendered unconscious for some time. When he had recovered from the shock and the surprise of it he said, “You are very powerful indeed; I think you will be the proper husband for my daughter. You are able to do things that even I cannot accomplish. I cannot command the thunder, the lightning and the rain. It is often very inconvenient to have the rain come. See what you can do to control it.” Later when the storm approached, Kasum divided the rain clouds to the right and to the left and sent them away to the south and to the north. The Marinau was very much pleased and at once gave him his daughter in marriage.

Today, when a threatening storm approaches, the Marinau goes out in an open space away from his house, faces the storm and repeats the following prayer: “Tuminkar, (the creator) in ancient times you gave Kasum power over the storm cloud to turn it aside. You have more power than Kasum. Turn this storm away; it will do us great harm to have it come now.” Then he blows his breath towards the storm and waves it aside with his hands; the right towards the south and the left towards the north, and returns to his house.

The story is told and the ceremony is performed by tribes of the Arawak stock who live in the forested country as well as by those living in the open savannah, although their prayers are seldom answered. It is not appropriate in the forests because the distant view of the storm and the parting of the clouds cannot be seen.

The electric eel is common in all the rivers of northern Brazil and the Guianas and is greatly feared by the Indians. It grows to the length of five feet and is able to give a very severe shock. According to reports along the Amazon, men are often killed by them. They are numerous about the wharves at Manaos, where several men are lost every year from falling into the water. It is the prevalent belief that these men, who are invariably good swimmers, are killed by the eels. The bodies do not rise to the surface and are never recovered. We experimented with one about two feet in length. The shock from it made us so uncomfortable that we did not care to try a larger one. An alligator three feet long which was placed in the same tank was greatly frightened when he received his first shock, but soon regained his composure only to receive another and another until the third day, when he died.

The marriage of the electric eel is of great historical importance because it definitely locates the home of the people at the time of the origin of the story. Their traditional home was in the savannah plateau, of Southern British Guiana, between the Akarai mountains on the south and the Pakaraimas on the north. Within this plateau there are numerous small round-topped mountains which bear sacred names. One is the stump of the tree of life which was cut down when the people told God they knew where he got the food he brought them daily and would no longer thank him for it because they could get it themselves; another is where the few people who escaped the flood were saved; another the former dwelling place of the creator, etc. More than a dozen places are so named and associated with the creator at the time when he lived on the earth. As will be seen later, this location agrees with that for the story of the eel.

It is interesting to note that the medicine man associated the shock from the eel with the thunder, lightning and rain. He at once asked the eel to try his powers on the storm cloud.

To the eastward the two ranges of mountains are low and near together, but as they extend westward they separate and increase in elevation from five or six hundred feet to two thousands feet on the south and more than eight thousand on the north. The storm clouds which come from the east therefore divide and follow the two mountain ranges, depositing their moisture and producing dense forests on either side. The rainfall of the savannah is less than half that of the forests one hundred miles away. At Boa Vista, on the Brazilian side, it is forty-two inches, while two degrees south it is nine or ten feet.

The eel facing the storm, or the east, turned away the clouds to the right, or south, and to the left, or north. The medicine man today does exactly the same thing in the same locality and the clouds obey him as they did the eel in ancient times and for the same reason. The story thus fits the environment of their traditional home and not only so, but that is the only locality in South America where it will fit.

W. C. F.

Cite This Article

Farabee, Wm. C.. "The Marriage of the Electric Eel." The Museum Journal IX, no. 1 (March, 1918): 77-79. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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