Monday, 2 June 2014

Clue - Theseus, Wool, and that Cretan Bull

A ball of string
Photo by Daniel KJ


Noun. Late Middle English.
[Variant of CLEW noun Old English cliwen, cleowen = Middle Low German, Dutch kluwen,
from base also of Old High German kliuwa ball sphere, probably ultimately related to CLAW.]

1 A ball of yarn etc, used to trace a path through a maze (as in the Greek myth of Theseus in the Labyrinth);
 a thing which guides through perplexity, a difficult investigation, an intricate structure. LME

2 NAUTICAL. The lower or after corner of a sail. L16

3 archaic. A ball of thread or yarn. E17

4(a) A fact or principle that serves as a guide, or suggests a line of inquiry,
in a problem or investigation, an intricate structure, etc. E17

4(b) A word, phrase, etc., indicating a word or words to be inserted in a crossword puzzle. E20

5 The thread of a story; a train of thought. M17

6 obsolete. A round bunch or cluster. L17-E18

7 NAUTICAL. The lower of after corner of a sail. L17

8 NAUTICAL. The series of cords by which a hammock is suspended. M18

clueless adj. without a clue; colloquial ignorant, stupid M19
cluelessness noun M20

A magnifying glass
Clue is one of those special words in English that comes packaged with both an interesting root and a fascinating story, for it takes us all the way back to Ancient Greece, to mythological Greece, to the time when the brave (but absent-minded) Theseus faced down and defeated the terrifying Minotaur. Theseus was already a bona fide hero before all of this, however, with a respectable body-count of monsters and villains to his name. On finally meeting his father King Aegeus of Athens (like every good hero, Theseus had daddy issues), he was horrified to learn that every ninth year seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian maidens were sent to Crete as a sacrifice to the terrible Minotaur, a tribute in blood for the time when Androgeos, the son of Minos, was killed by the Athenians. Oh, Minos was the ruler of Crete and the Minotaur's adoptive father, kind of; its father was actually a snow-white bull sent to Minos as a gift by Poseidon, but seemingly Minos's wife Pasiphae got a bit too friendly with it. And then she later fell in love with her own bull-son. Those Greeks! And you thought Jeremy Kyle was nuts ...

So, with his typical derring-do and have-a-go aplomb, Theseus volunteered to be one of the youths sent to sate the bloodthirsty Minotaur. He told his dad that he would sail out under a black sail and, on defeating the horrible bull-man beast, would return to Athens under a white sail to announce his victory. On arriving at the Labyrinth, Theseus was (badly) searched by the Cretan guards and (incompetently) stripped of all his weapons. However, Theseus's dashing charisma had clearly charmed Ariadne, daughter of King Minos (so step-sister of the Minotaur), for before he entered the Labyrinth she smuggled a clew to him, a ball of yarn so that he wouldn't become forever lost in its tortuous tunnels.

Drawing of a well-armed and armoured Theseus battling the Minotaur
I hope the men responsible for searching Theseus were severely reprimanded
(drawing by H.A Guerber from 1896)
Thus, Theseus tied one end of the clew to the entrance of the Labyrinth, and proceeded to venture to its heart where he encountered the bellowing Minotaur. In a titanic battle of bull sweat and heroic huzzah, Theseus slew the gargantuan beast with the sword he also (somehow) managed to smuggle into the Labyrinth. He then followed the clew back to the entrance, and emerged from the inky maze victorious, thereby freeing Athens from its terrible tribute. He got the girl (Ariadne), and sailed back to Athens like a boss. Oh ... except ... he forgot to change the black sails to white and his dad King Aegeus was so overcome with grief on sighting his ship that he threw himself off the Acropolis. And later he abandoned Ariadne (she was a bit of a whinge) and she hanged herself. As far as Greek tales go, though, that's a pretty chirpy ending.

An so we have the story behind the word clue, which was originally clew, and has developed from the sense of being something that guides one through a difficult or perplexing situation, to what is commonly understood today, as a thing, fact or principle that serves as a guide or suggests a line of enquiry. And who do have to thank for this? Ariadne of course, who, although she had confidence in Theseus to do the heavy-lifting where the Minotaur was concerned, wasn't so certain about his ability to remember his way back (this does sound awfully familiar). And her reservations were well-founded, as having done all the hard stuff he still managed to bugger it all up on the return journey. I do suspect arguments over all of this were ultimately what lead to the demise of their relationship:

"I don't need you, Ariadne! I'm Theseus, Greek hero! Defeater of the Minotaur!"

"You? A hero? Ha! May I remind you, Theseus, that without me you literally wouldn't have had a clew!"

"Oh for ... would you ever shut up about that stupid ball of wool!? That 'wouldn't have had a clew' line stopped being funny about five years ago. And I would've remembered the  way out ... eventually ..."

"Oh. Like you remembered about the white sail? The white sail I left ironed and folded on the deck for you? The one about which I specifically said: 'Now Theseus, darling, you won't forget to put this up will you? Because if you do forget, your drama queen of a dad'll only go and think you're dead and, without sensibly waiting for confirmation, will throw himself off the top of the flippin' Acropolis!?'"

[Sound of door slamming shut.] 

"Theseus? Theseus, darling?"

A magnifying glass

Do please string your most heroic comments together in the box below.


  1. 1. Ed. It's really none of my business, but one would have expected a special dedication to Clueless somewhere in this post.

    2. Oh my God, MEN! What on Earth was he doing and he forgot to change the sails?

    3. I remember our teacher narrating this kid-friendly myth to us in Elementary school. When I heard about the whole sail thing I was overcome by desperation. How can one be so stupid?

    4. Hilarious ending. I can relate. (But if Ariadne kept nagging him all the way to Athens, she would be a Cassandra, right?)

    1. 1. Oh hush. Stop trying to stir up trouble you! Actually, when I first read this word, I thought "Hey, I'll do something for Clueless!" But then I got caught up in the whole story of Theseus and completely forgot. Still, he got the 'carrot' post, which was the one he wanted.

      2. Theseus was a strong, valiant man, but he was clearly an idiot.

      3. D'you know, this is a Greek myth that I specifically remember learning in primary school too! I remember us all sat in a circle, cross-legged, gawking in awe at the thought of being fed to the beastly Minotaur!

      4. If she did indeed nag him so, and correctly predicted what his dad would do, and Theseus ignored her, then yes, she is a Cassandra. But, Evi, just between you and me, I did take a few artistic liberties with that script - Ariadne may not have been quite such a nag. In fact, it could be that Theseus had asked her to hoist the white sails while he went off fishing with his mates. In that case, it's all her fault.

  2. Get clued up and then you will be clued in.

  3. One thing always buggered me on this (hi)story- how was he supposed to unroll the clew? Did he went into the labyrinth walking backwards?

    Don't think the guy's the brightest from the pack (takes after his father obviously, but let's not speak ill of the dead) but this is an important detail...
    AND - when he found a dead end and had to start again did he roll back the spare? For how long was he in the labyrinth?

    Yes, I've been catching up with "Elementary" but that's not the point.

    The point is that all suggests that Ariadne killed the half-brother (can't blame her... who'd like to have that guy around at family gatheringsl?) then found clueless guy, jumped into the boat and on their way to Athens she doctored him - over and over - on the tale to tell others hence the non-change of sails because when approaching coast the guy thought he would rather be blasted to Kingdom come by daddy dear canons than have to deal with that for the rest of his life. In a ISLAND!!!
    The hanging was, in fact, for him (he was, after all, responsible for dad's death!) but when she saw it she decided the knot was not right, jumped on the stool and proceeded to make it right (history omits her OCD but the choice of clew instead of bread crumbs is a dead giveaway in my opinion ;)), got entangled on the rope and ooops... "Karma is a b***"...
    Funny the word didn't pass to Portuguese. At all. I'm not a Martha Stewart but no words related to knitting, wool whatever sounds remotely close to Clew ;)

    1. You should be an investigative journalist, Teresa. You could publish a setting-the-record-straight type book. The words wool, yarn, ball, maze, bull - they all offer countless opportunities for puns.

      I do, however, suspect that unravelling a ball of yarn while walking forwards wouldn't be quite as difficult as you think. I confess I haven't tried it, but I am possessed of an untested confidence that, yes, I would be physically capable of doing so if circumstances so required.

    2. We're not talking about Eddies.

      But that I would like to see - a sword - was it a sword? (late here I have no time to read your post ;)) - in one hand, a clew in another and trying to find your way through a Greek Labyrinth all this while watching your back in case step-brother-in-law-dear jumps you. All this from a guy who not even remembered to change the sails pffffttttttt

      Trust me on this. The Greek never thought Evies would grow up to enjoy Dexter ;) (or they would've told MY version)

      Good Night you Princes of Lexicon, you Princes of Lexicolatry!

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