Greek myth has its fingerprints all over the word "Clue"

This week's video explores the etymology of the word "clue", from Greek myth to detective fiction:

The idea for this one obviously came from the narrative metaphor of the Ariadne story leading to current meaning of the word clue, and the interesting references in Agatha Christie's writings to Greek myth made for a nice closed loop. The story of the development of fingerprinting, with the nice visual analogy between the contours of a fingerprint and the labyrinth of the Minotaur, became the centrepiece, and looking backward from clew "ball of thread" to the Proto-Indo-European root *gel-, leading also to clay and glia, gave some additional connections. I've already touched on the importance of narrative and metaphor, and for that matter on detective fiction, and Sherlock Holmes specifically, in "The Story of Narrative", "Paddle Your Own Canoe", and "A Detective Story" respectively, so in a sense this video is a culmination of that initial series of videos. Oh, and speaking of sailing technology in "Paddle Your Own Canoe", another meaning for the word clew is the bottom corner of a sail. And while I'm on the subject of links to previous videos, Chaucer has come up before, not only in "Paddle Your Own Canoe" but also "Cuckold", and Erasmus Darwin in "Coach" and "Gimlet". The illustrious Darwin-Wedgwood family will no doubt come up again.

And speaking of Geoffrey Chaucer, I should stress his importance along with other medieval and early modern writers for associating the word clew with the Theseus and Ariadne story. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the passage quoted in the video as the earliest with specific reference to the Labyrinth story. The passage is from Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, which recounts the stories of various virtuous women, several of them drawn from Greek myth. I mentioned some of the most obvious reference to weaving and other textile arts in Greek myth, the Fates, Penelope, & Ariadne, but it should also be noted that Athene herself, who appears in the story of Theseus leading him away from Ariadne, and in The Odyssey helping Odysseus as he arrives home to Penelope, is also particularly associated with weaving. For instance, there is the story of Arachne, a talented weaver who wins a weaving contest against Athene, and as punishment is transformed into a spider (hence "arachnids" as a term for spiders).  Athene is the goddess of wisdom, which for men expresses itself as strategy -- she was thus a goddess of that side of warfare as opposed to Ares who represented the bloodlust of war -- and for women expresses itself as weaving and other domestic arts. A double standard that reflects Greek patriarchy, but it shouldn't be forgotten that wisdom is being anthropomorphised as female, with her mother Metis also being associated with wisdom. There is indeed a thread of clever and cunning women running through Greek myths. Penelope is an ideal match for the cunning Odysseus (who was for instance the one who came up with the Trojan horse idea) because she too is clever, tricking the suitors to keep them at bay until Odysseus returns home.

Another interesting instance of weaving in Greek myth is the story of Procne and Philomela. As the story goes, when Philomela was visiting her sister Procne, her brother-in-law Tereus raped her, and in order to conceal the attack he cut out her tongue. Philomela, however, was able to communicate the crime by weaving it into a tapestry, and the two sisters are able to exact their revenge. Chaucer also includes this story in The Legend of Good Women. An interesting modern parallel to the idea of communication through textiles is the idea of knitting in code. During the Second World War, the British government banned the sending of knitting patterns out of the country for fear that they might contain coded messages, and in Belgium the resistance recorded the movement of trains in their knitting. And in a more literary example, Charles Dickens wrote of the macabre Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, who sat by the guillotine recording the beheadings in her knitting.  (See here and here for this and these and other knitting trivia from QI). An often repeated though unfortunately apocryphal story is that Irish knitters used the intricate patterns of Aran sweaters to identify the bodies of men drowned at sea. The story seems to have grown out of a passage in the play Riders to the Sea by the Irish playwright J.M. Synge, where a drowned man is identified not by a knitted sweater but by his knitted stocking: "It's the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three-score stitches, and I dropped four of them." (See here and here for more details.) Too bad too, because that story would make a nice parallel to the use of fingerprints for identification, tying clew and clue together again.

So back to fingerprints; the original motivation for the fingerprinting system in the 19th century was not so much detection but for identification of repeat offenders, who were supposed to receive harsher penalties. As a result of increased population and greater mobility throughout the country due to the industrial revolution, while it used to be the case that local repeat offenders would be quickly recognized, repeat offenders who moved around a lot were much harder to track. Before fingerprinting was settled on, a number of other systems of identification were mooted, most significantly anthropometry, a the detailed measurement of a person's physical characteristics similar to what we now call biometrics. A system for this was worked out by the French policeman Alphonse Bertillon, unsurprisingly attracting the attention of Francis Galton, who was interested in quantifying human heredity through both physical and mental characteristics. Edward Henry had also been using Bertillon's system in India, until Galton's book was forwarded to him. And speaking of Bertillon, he and his system are referenced twice in the Sherlock Holmes canon, in "The Naval Treaty" and The Hound of the Baskervilles, as being admired by Holmes, who is himself referred to as the "second highest expert in Europe" behind only Bertillon. And in a fictional crossover going the other way, Edmond Locard of Locard's Exchange Principle fame was known as the Sherlock Holmes of France. And of course, as is well known, the character of Sherlock Holmes is based on the real-life Dr Joseph Bell, a former medical school teacher of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was himself a pioneer of forensic science.

As for Francis Galton, the archetypal 19th century gentleman-scientist, though it should be noted that Galton himself was not directly related to Josiah Wedgwood (Wedgwood was Charles Darwin's grandfather on the other side of the family -- Erasmus Darwin was their common grandfather), the whole Darwin-Wedgwood clan was full of illustrious go-getters. Galton's other grandfather, Samuel Galton, was a founding member of the Lunar Society (previously mentioned here), along with Erasmus Darwin, as well as Joseph Priestly (previously mentioned here), in whose former house Galton was born. The Darwin-Wedgwood family also later includes the likes of composer Ralph Vaughn Williams and Anglo-Saxonist Simon Keynes (a connection of particular interest to me as an Anglo-Saxonist myself).  In addition to his important work on fingerprints and statistics, and his rather more questionable work on the pseudoscience of eugenics and that crazy beauty map of Britain, he is also significant for his pioneering of the science of meteorology. You can read more about him and his contributions to science in this article. One last bit of trivia about him: he worked out through careful study the ideal procedure for brewing tea, which you can read below, take from the excellent website, which has collected works available online:

Edward Morse is another fascinating Victorian polymath. In addition to his important work as a naturalist studying shells, as noted in the video he made pioneering contributions to the study of Japanese pottery, particularly the cord-marked pottery of the Jomon period (pictured in the video) which dates as far back as 16,000 years ago. He also wrote the book Japanese Homes and their Surroundings, which described the construction and furnishings of Japanese houses, including sections on bonsai and flower arrangement, and as a result of his friendship with astronomer Percival Lowell he wrote Mars and Its Mystery about the possibility of life on Mars.

I'll leave you with one last bit of trivia, concerning Agatha Christie. Reasonably well known is Christie's disappearance for a little over a week during the break-up of her marriage (the subject of a Doctor Who episode no less). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, surprisingly a proponent of the occult, even enlisted the help of a spiritualist to assist in locating her. But perhaps less well known is that she was one of the first Brits to surf standing up, a pastime she took up while on holiday with said former husband. Here she is with her surf board, apparently named Fred:

Story Time

This week it's story time on The Endless Knot YouTube channel:

This video marks the final part of the "Ways of Knowing" series of videos, which were the starting point to this video project, so you can now watch the whole set of four videos together on this playlist. These four videos together describe the foundations on which many of my videos will be based. From now on, the videos will mostly follow the pattern of starting off with a word and its etymology, and then from that jumping off point explore the web of history and culture that follows from the word. These webs draw on all three of these cognitive tools our brains use to make sense of the world, the stories we construct to manage the information, the metaphors we use to understand the unfamiliar, and the interconnective associations that tie it all together. And our use of language is at the heart of all of this. Furthermore, I try to use these three elements to make the information in the videos more memorable, by telling stories, pointing out metaphors, and making connections.

Unlike the other "ways of knowing" videos, this one wasn't adapted from an old blog post, but once I had started putting together the others I realised that narrative was the missing piece. The ideas here grew out of my teaching actually, first an English course in narrative (which was also the origin of "Paddle Your Own Canoe" which I've talked about before), and then later a course I developed on theories of mythology, which looked at both classical and world myths from a variety of different theoretical perspectives. What sparked the idea in particular is the etymology of the word "narrative" itself, since it's related to the word "know", a fact that I always point out to my students when beginning any discussion of narrative. I can't remember where I first ran across Walter Fisher and the narrative paradigm idea, but it was probably in some discussion of narratology. In any case, this idea dovetails nicely with my etymological observation, and also fits well into my broader interests in cognition, and the way language fits into this. Joseph Campbell, of course, comes out of the focus on myth -- and as well there are numerous other theoretical approaches to myth, such as those of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Otto Rank, Carl Jung, Vladimir Propp, Lord Raglan, Sir James Frazer, and many others, which all have a bearing on this topic. Robert A. Segal's Myth: A Very Short Introduction is an excellent brief rundown of the many theoretical approaches to myth (see the shownotes page for this and other useful sources). Of course I've mentioned Campbell, Raglan, and Frazer in a video already, "A Detective Story".

By the way, the story of Persephone has been in the news recently since a beautiful mosaic depicting her abduction by Hades has been uncovered in a tomb at Amphipolis. The tomb is particularly famous because it's thought to be connected to Alexander the Great (having perhaps been built for one of his family members). The presence of this story in a tomb makes sense given the association between Hades, Persephone, and death, and it raises the interesting question of how much the element of resurrection is implied by its inclusion in a tomb. A further point to note is that this tomb was probably created for Macedonian royalty, showing the spreading influence of Greek myth outside of its original area. For a more detailed rundown of the discovery see here. This discovery came too late for me to use the images in the video, so I've included them here.

The urban legend stuff about the alligators in the sewers also came out of teaching narrative and myth. The Snopes website is a useful repository for urban legends. In addition to the alligators, other urban legends which can be understood in terms of our contemporary cultural preoccupations include stories about vermin found in fast food and the babysitter receiving threatening phone calls which turn out to be from within the house. It's an interesting exercise to think about these sorts of stories and what they tell us about ourselves and the world we live in. I'd love to receive comments on any "modern myths" or stories that you think can tell us a lot about our culture and ourselves.