The Eel in the Barrel game was a popular game played by Venetians since ancient times. Although it is a bygone game, it consisted of catching an eel, golden-brown in color, with one’s teeth while it swam around in a tub filled with water blackened with cuttlefish ink.
Cuttlefish, in the same family as octopuses and squid, use their ink to elude predators. This ink is stored inside an ink sac which would be squeezed into barrels and mixed with water for this long-ago Venetian game. Among many of the ancient Venetian amusements, the Eel in the Barrel was one that demanded brave participants since eels have many sharp teeth.
The Eel in the Barrel game dates back to 1721 and was played in Saint Luca Square (Campo San Luca) in Venice. While it’s not exactly on one’s list of things to do in Venice, the history of the game is rather interesting. The square was adorned with damask and colourful flags. A wooden stage was erected “about three-men high.” Here a marionette in the shape of a worn-out old woman wearing a white cap on her head was displayed half-way through Lent, which is when the games were most often played.
Although many other games were enjoyed during this time, one of the most beloved, believe it or not, was the Eel in the Barrel game. The eel was alive so catching it amidst the murky ink undoubtedly proved admirable. While there are no records as to what the prizes may have been for the winners, it’s not difficult to imagine Venetians cheering on the winners who caught the most eels (in their mouths, no less)!
Glorious Venice wine consumption then commenced (or perhaps had already begun, especially for the game participants), along with music and traditional Venice cuisines. The effigy of the old woman was cut in half releasing brightly-coluoured flowers and confetti for the sheer enjoyment of Venice youngsters. As time went on, it became tradition to actually set the old woman afire.
Today a marble pedestal can be found in Saint Luca Square. It is thought to have held a flag pole where a banner would be hoisted on Venetian public holidays, and of course for the game-playing. Indeed, many Venetians deem Saint Luca Square to be the heart of Venice.
As an aside, Venetians still love their eels, but not for catching with their mouths during the Eel in a Barrel game. Their love of the eel has evolved to include a variety of eel-based Venetian dishes which are consumed on a regular basis by Venice residents. These include Anguilla cotta in Tempera (which is cooked eel); eel-stuffed pasta, considered to be quite a Venetian delicacy; bisàto (marinated eel); and a specialty dish most often found in Murano Island (near Venice) which is bisato su l'ara (eel roasted with bay leaves).