In a Word: Getting a Clue

Theseus, in the Labyrinth, with the ball of yarn.

A buff minotaur in a cave wielding a double-bladed axe.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

It’s hard to believe, but the board game Clue wouldn’t exist without the story of the Minotaur.

I say story, but really it’s stories. Over the course of time, retellings of the myth have introduced variations, some subtle, some not so much. Now there are as many versions of the Minotaur’s story as there are of, say, Spider-Man’s origin story. But like all those Spider-Man stories, certain salient features always remain, and through those commonalities we find a clue to, well, clue.

The story begins with the death of Asterius, the King of Crete. Asterius died with no blood heirs, but he did have a stepson, Minos, who claimed that the gods had ordained him as the next king. (It wasn’t such a far-fetched claim; his father was Zeus.) To prove that the gods were in his corner, he told the people of Crete, he would pray to Poseidon to send him a bull, which he would promptly sacrifice.

And Poseidon did send him a bull, perhaps the greatest bull ever seen on Crete — strong, virile, and all white. To the people of Crete, that was proof enough that the gods wanted Minos to be king.

But if a bull could be too perfect, this one was. Minos was so taken with the creature that couldn’t bring himself to kill it. Instead, he sacrificed a different bull in its place.

Poseidon was rather upset by this turn of events, and also rather petty and cruel, as all the Greek gods are. To punish Minos for going back on his word, he made Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, fall in love with the bull. Moving quickly past the biological portion of the story, the result of Poseidon’s punishment was the birth to Pasiphae of a boy named Asterius (after his grandfather) who had the body of a human but the head of a bull.

He became more widely known as the Minotaur, which literally means “Minos’ bull” — that ­-taur is related to the zodiac Taurus. The name was bit of a misnomer, though, because the Minotaur wasn’t Minos’ son, but it was Minos’ burden — at least the way the story is told.

Minos couldn’t have this creature wandering the streets around the palace in Knossos, not only because the Minotaur was disturbing to look at but because he was a constant reminder of Minos’ failure. So he had the craftsman Daedalus (sort of the Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Edison of his day) build the Labyrinth, a massive underground maze that would hide Minotaur from the world.

As if the story weren’t dark enough already, the Minotaur, unlike an actual bull, was a carnivore. To keep the creature fed, Minos demanded that, either every year or every nine years depending who’s telling the story, Athens should send seven young noblemen and seven young noblewomen to be cast into the Labyrinth, where they would get lost, then found, then eaten. Surprisingly, Aegeus, a king of Athens, in order to make up for an earlier geopolitical gaff involving the murder of Minos’ son Androgeus, agreed.

But Aegeus’ son, the hero Theseus, wouldn’t stand for it. Well, he stood for it for a little while, but then he wouldn’t stand for at anymore! When the third time for Athens to send sacrifices to Crete came around, Theseus volunteered to be one of the sacrifices — also vowing to kill the Minotaur and free the citizens of Athens from death and disgrace.

Though Theseus was extremely confident that he could defeat the Minotaur, he wasn’t so confident he could find his way out of the Labyrinth. But when he arrived in Knossos, he found a little help. Minos’ daughter Ariadne immediately fell in love with him. Not wanting her newly discovered paramour to die in the Labyrinth, Ariadne poked around for some solution that would guide Theseus out of the maze — and she found one (with perhaps a little help from Daedalus)!

She ran to Theseus and gave him a sword, a ball of yarn, and some simple instructions for finding his way back — but not before persuading him to marry her.

When he entered the Labyrinth, he secured the loose end of the yarn near the entrance and unspooled it as he traveled through the maze. To find his way out, then, he simply had to follow that thread and it would lead him back to freedom. In Middle English, such a ball of yarn was called a clew, and clue became a more common spelling of the word. The clew in the story began as a direct reference to the ball of yarn, then to the unspooled yarn marking the path, and then — by the 17th century — to the more abstract idea of a thing that points the way toward a solution, the clue we know today.

Though the story of the Minotaur is decidedly Greek, it was the telling of the story among English speakers that gave us clue. The word traces back to the Old English cliewen “ball,” which comes from the Germanic language traditions of northern Europe.

Though that’s the end of the story of clue, it isn’t the end of the tale, the telling of which leads to another word’s etymology:

Theseus did indeed kill the Minotaur and, following the trail of yarn, escaped the Labyrinth. Afterward, he and his beloved Ariadne set sail for Athens. Though perhaps she wasn’t quite as beloved as she thought. On the way back, they stopped on the island of Naxos to celebrate. There, one of two things happened: Either Ariadne got drunk, passed out, and didn’t make it back to the ship before they set sail again, or Theseus deliberately left her on the island. Either way, she didn’t make it back to Athens with him.

Theseus’ return, which should have been a cause for celebration, turned tragic, however. Telecommunications at the time being more or less limited to how loudly one could yell, Theseus’ father Aegeus hadn’t gotten word of his son’s triumph. But before he’d departed Athens for Crete, Theseus told his father that when his ships returned, they would come under white sails if Theseus had survived and under the normal black sails if he had died. But on the trip back, whether because he was distraught at having lost his love or was just dealing with a bad hangover, Theseus completely forgot to switch out the sails!

From high above the bay, Aegeus saw Theseus’ ships return under black sails. Believing his son to be dead, the distraught king threw himself into the sea and died. That sea which took Aegeus’ life also took his name, the Aegean Sea.

Featured image: Fotokvadrat / Shutterstock

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