The (un)real eel deal: eel-fishing LARP

The anticipated highlight is the all-night session known as the ålagille, which marks the end of the LARP. Here, boisterous songs are performed, local legends and eeltastic myths told…

The small wooden boat breaks the ocean waves. It is a cool autumn night, and the new moon shines down on the shores of Hanö Bay, bathing it in faint light. As the boat draws ashore, an old man with a great bushy beard and baggy linen clothes climbs over the railing; he carries a large open box dotted with small holes. Thumping sounds come from inside. As he walks past you, you see that it is full to the brim with eel. The man fires off a wry grin. “That’s the last sumpa”, he says, in Skånsk-inflected English. “Are you ready for the feast? I hope you brought bäsk a’plenty!”.

Eel fishing has been part of the culture and identity of Skåne since the 13th century, when the area was part of Denmark. Local fishermen lived part of the year in small huts known as ålabodar, venturing out on the ocean during the so-called “eel darkness” every four to five weeks. Here, they collected the eel that had been caught in the hommar, the large tube-shaped nets whose construction was a closely guarded secret passed down between generations. After this, the eel were moved to the hole- covered boxes known as sumpar, in which they were kept until the time had come for the legendary eel feast, the ålagille

However, following the near extinction of this mythic and mysterious marine morsel in the 2000s to 2020s, the practice was banned in 2028 by the government in a move that sparked great controversy among the few remaining eel fishermen, and also drew the criticism of the UN body UNESCO. Now the advent of hydroponic and aquaponic fish farming in the last five-six years has sparked a new boom, as a few firms—in Skåne, but also in eel-loving Japan—have cracked the secret to breeding these mysterious and elusive creatures in captivity. And so, in a few locations at least—most notably Åhus and nearby villages on the east coast of Skåne, such as Kivik—eel is back on the menu, and back in the net.

Not everyone approves, however. The practice has been criticised by ecosystem diversity activists for what they argue is its shallow conceptualisation of sustainability. According to these critics, eel farm owners are just “playing god”, controlling both nature and other species according to their own whims. Despite this backlash, eel fishing LARPs have grown popular, in defiance of their humble beginnings.

It all started when former Gotland Mediaeval Week coordinator Georg Rahman moved to Åhus and met fifth-generation eel fisherman Bo-Gunnar Vapp. Together, they decided to recreate the latter’s childhood experiences of eel-fishing for the benefit of the public, in order to finance the transformation of their houses into flood-proof houseboats. By combining Rahman’s skills in LARP design and Vapp’s deep knowledge of the cultural heritage and its associated practices, they created an immersive two-day participatory roleplay experience. Three times every autumn ten people gather in Bo-Gunnar’s old ålabod to take on the roles of 19th century eel fishermen—complete with all the swear-words, booze and eel-dishes such a lifestyle entails! 

Participants are first taken to the outside of the ålabod, where the gamesmaster explains the rules of the LARP: no modern swear-words allowed, no eating of anything non-eel-based, and no breaking out of character (except in an emergency). After that, costumes are provided, and the game is on! From making hommar and setting them in the ocean to collecting “caught” eel—actually aquaponically grown and placed there by the organisers, don’t worry—and turning them into various dishes, it’s all eels, all the time. 

The anticipated highlight is the all-night session known as the ålagille, which marks the end of the LARP. Here, boisterous songs are performed, local legends and eeltastic myths told, the locally produced hard liquor known as bäsk liberally poured, and various forms of eel devoured with ferocious glee. There’s no party like it on earth, so they say—though it may not be to everyone’s taste, whether literally or figuratively! If it sounds like your sort of thing, be sure to book early: tickets are as limited as the eel supply, and tend to sell out fast.

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