Threading Through Labyrinths

“But when you have killed him, how will you find your way out of the labyrinth?”

“I know not, neither do I care: but it must be a strange road, if I do not find it out before I have eaten up the monster’s carcass.”

“… I will give you a sword, and with that perhaps you may slay the beast; and a blue of thread, and by that, perhaps, you may find your way out again”

It was not Holmes that first utilized clues to find his way, but a brave – or reckless – man who sought to end the strife between two countries. From the above text, it appears that Theseus only had cleos in mind when he decided to enter the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur, so I am sure in some way he was grateful for the forethought of Ariadne to give him a way to both victory and freedom.

But how exactly did Ariadne clue in Theseus? She gave him a ball of thread.

Indeed, the word for a ball of thread was once called a clew, derived from the Old English word cliewen. This is a globular ball “formed by coiling it [string] together”, like a ball of thread or a skein of yarn. But this word came to be used to refer to something we follow, like a trail of evidence. Perhaps this is because you have to follow the thread around to unwind the clew or skein.  The meaning of clew was reshaped into a “guide to anyone ‘threading’ his was through a maze or labyrinth” by author John Gay in his poem “Of Walking the Streets by Day.”

Thus hardy Theseus with intrepid feet,

Travers’d the dang’rous labyrinth of Crete;

But still the wandering passes forc’d his stay,

Till Ariadne’s clue unwinds the way.

Young Theseus followed a golden thread to lead him out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur, thus making a clew into a clue. A clue is what leads someone though “a circumstance” of “perplexity, difficulty, or intricate investigation” and can be “taken hold of and followed”. This is where the phrase “following a thread of evidence” or following a thread of “discourse, thought, history,” come from. In the case of Theseus, that clue was a lifeline to grab hold of. But for most of us, clues lead us to remembering a great detective. Aren’t these etymological clues interesting?

Blessings to you and yours,


Works Referenced

“clue.” The Online Etymology Dictionary. 2017. Accessed 8 May 2018.

“clue.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 

“clew.” The Online Etymology Dictionary. 2017. Accessed 8 May 2018.

Gay, John. The Works of Mr. John Gay: In Four Volumes. Dublin: James Potts. 1770. p. 116.


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