By Mark Sundaram
What does Greek myth have to do with detective fiction? Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today we’re going to follow the “Clue” to find out.
The answer lies in the story of Ariadne and Theseus. Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, King of Crete. Minos failed to sacrifice a particular white bull to the sea god Poseidon as he’d promised, and so that god punished him by making his wife Pasiphae (mother of Ariadne) fall in love with the bull, and... well, let’s just say that the result was a half-man / half-bull, the famous Minotaur. So King Minos puts the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, puts his daughter Ariadne in charge of the Labyrinth, and feeds the Minotaur the seven youths and seven maidens that Minos extracts from the city of Athens as a tribute. This is where Theseus comes into the story. Theseus comes to Crete to kill the Minotaur and free Athens of its obligation. Upon his arrival, Ariadne immediately falls in love with him, and promises to tell him how to accomplish his task if he’ll promise to marry her and take her away with him. She gives him a sword and a ball of thread for him to unravel as he goes into the Labyrinth. After killing the Minotaur, he is able to retrace his path by following the thread and escapes. Theseus does then take Ariadne away with him, only to later abandon her on the deserted island of Naxos on his way home to Athens. Jerk. Actually in some versions of the myth Theseus is made to leave her behind by a god, either by Dionysus because he wanted her for himself, or by Athene, goddess of wisdom and protector of heroes & of Athens, who leads him away for his own good. This practice of assigning motivations to the gods, especially for seemingly inexplicable or dishonourable actions by heroes, is common in Greek myth, and is sometimes seen as a very early theory of emotions and psychology.
But what does all this have to do with the word clue? Well the word used to be spelled c-l-e-w, and came from the Old English word clywen which meant “ball”, particularly a ball of string or yarn, and in some parts of Northern England and Scotland it’s still used in that sense. When writing about the story of Ariadne, clew was the word English writers, like Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, would use: “Thereto have I a remedye in my thought, that, by a clewe of twyn, as he hath gon, The same weye he may returne anon, Folwynge alwey the thred as he hath come.” In fact this mythological reference was so common that it came to have a figurative sense, and gradually the literal meaning of “a ball of thread” disappeared leaving only the meaning of “that which points the way to a solution”, by around the 17th century. So a whole new meaning for the word grew out of one specific narrative reference.
Of course the textile arts are a common thread in Greek myth, from the story of Ariadne and Theseus, to the spinning, measuring, and cutting of the metaphorical thread of life by the three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. The other really famous example is in the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, one of the heroes at the Trojan War. During Odysseus’ very long absence, a ten year siege at Troy followed by a ten year return journey home, Penelope had to fend off the advances of many suitors who wanted to marry her and take over the kingdom of Ithaca. One of the ploys Penelope used was to ask the suitors for a delay until after she finished weaving the death shroud for her father-in-law. Secretly each night she unravelled the previous day’s progress, thus ensuring it would never be complete--at least until her deception was discovered. Like Ariadne’s ‘clew’, Penelope’s unravelling became a common narrative reference, even in modern literature.
But back to the word “Clue”: it comes ultimately from an Indo-European root that meant “to gather into a mass, conglomerate, or curl” and leads eventually through various language paths like Germanic, Latin, and Greek to many modern English words such as glue, globe, claw, clench, cling, and clay. Through Greek we also get the word neuroglia or simply glia. The glial cells in the brain support and protect the neurons, the main brain cells involved in cognition, kind of gluing them together, hence the name, to collectively make up the grey matter of the brain, though recent research suggests that the glial cell may also play a more active role in cognition. But neuroscientists still have a lot of threads to unpick before they’ll have completely unravelled that mystery!
We now often think of clues, at least in terms of detective fiction as well as in real life criminology, as trace evidence: fibres from clothing, DNA, footprints, etc. that a criminal leaves behind at a crime scene. This idea in forensic science was first formulated by Edmond Locard, that every contact will leave a trace, and the criminal will both leave behind and take away physical evidence which can be used to solve the crime. This is now known as Locard’s Exchange Principal. And perhaps the most famous and transformative example of trace evidence --and the most cliched detective story clue--is the fingerprint.
The development of the science of fingerprinting in the 19th century is somewhat murky and mired in controversy. We’ll start the story with Henry Faulds, a Scottish physician who went to Japan to found a hospital. While there, Faulds became friends with a naturalist, Edward Morse, whose study of shell mounds, basically dumping grounds for shells, had been praised by the likes of Charles Darwin. Morse had also become interested in Japanese pottery because of the fragments that were also often found in those shell mounds, and contributed significantly to the study of Japanese ceramics. Faulds accompanied his friend to the archaeological sites and noticed that he could see the labyrinthine pattern of ridges of the potter’s fingerprints still visible on the surface of the fragments. Struck by this clue preserved in the clay (remember, clay comes from that same IE root!) he surmised that the pattern of these fingerprints was different for each individual and could be used to identify them. He began to study the matter, collecting fingerprints and experimenting, and determined that they were permanent and unchanging over a person’s lifetime. Then one day, Fauld’s hospital was burgled, and though the police suspected a staff member, Faulds believed in the person’s innocence and used fingerprint evidence to prove it. Seeing the obvious importance of his discovery, Faulds brought his idea first to Charles Darwin who passed it on to his cousin Francis Galton. Galton, like his and Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, was a bit of a polymath. In fact, that’s kind of the point with Galton, a member of the great Darwin-Wedgwood family – that’s Wedgwood as in Josiah Wedgwood, noted not for studying pottery but making it. The family was filled with bright lights, and Galton was interested in studying the inherited traits of talent and genius, coining both the concept and the word “eugenics”, and the phrase “nature versus nurture”. Galton was also a counting fanatic, and tried to quantify everything mathematically, including women’s beauty, compiling a beauty-map of Britain (spoiler: London rated highest, Aberdeen lowest), and the efficacy of prayer (spoiler: none at all), and developed the science of statistics and the concepts of correlation, regression towards the mean, and standard deviation. So it’s not surprising that he’d be interested in fingerprinting. Except, he wasn’t at first–and when he did turn his attention to it some years later, he either ignored or forgot about the work of Faulds, leaving him feeling miffed, and instead turned to the evidence of a man named William Herschel. Herschel years earlier, unbeknownst to Faulds, began using fingerprints not for criminal detection but for contract verification. Herschel – and if his name sounds familiar, that’s because he was the grandson of the famous astronomer of the same name who discovered Uranus and son of another famous astronomer John Herschel, so I suppose genius ran in his family too – Herschel was an officer in India, who, having trouble with people pretending their signatures had been forged, hit upon the idea of taking fingerprints as well as signatures on contracts to avoid this. Herschel had compiled a large collection of fingerprints which he passed on to Galton, who established the scientific study of fingerprints and began a system for classification. Herschel later sent Galton’s book on fingerprinting to an old friend in India, Henry Cotton, chief secretary to the government of Bengal, who forwarded it to Edward Henry, the inspector-general of police in Bengal. Henry started to implement fingerprinting for police purposes, but finding Galton’s classification system too complex, developed (with considerable help from two of his Bengali assistants, Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose), a new simpler system, now known as the widely used Henry Classification System. Henry’s assistants didn’t, at least initially, get their deserved recognition for their work, so I guess this story is full of failure to give credit where it’s due.
In any case, in 1901, a fingerprint bureau was established by Edward Henry, now assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, and in 1902 a man named Harry Jackson became the first man in Britain to be convicted on the basis of fingerprint evidence for a thumbprint he left on a freshly painted windowsill – the crime: burglary and the theft of a set of billiard balls. A few years later in 1905 the brothers Alfred and Albert Stratton were the first to be convicted of a major crime, robbery and murder of a paint shop owner, due to a fingerprint they left on the cashbox.
But getting back to clues in detective *fiction*, the 1903 Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” by Arthur Conan Doyle, set some years earlier in 1894, had already featured fingerprint evidence in a murder case, not to mention many other stories using trace evidence and other forensic techniques, such as footprints, tobacco ash, and handwriting analysis – and, notably, the distinctive types of clay found on people’s shoes. Sherlock Holmes as a detective is in fact famous for solving crimes by searching for physical clues. Agatha Christie later on poked a bit of fun at Conan Doyle’s famous detective, including a very Holmes-like character, a police detective named Monsieur Giraud, in the novel Murder on the Links. Giraud is a meticulous clue-finder whom Hercule Poirot calls a “human foxhound”, and he is misled in the case by trace evidence. Poirot instead chooses to use his “little grey cells” (remember the neurons and glia of the grey matter), and solves the case through criminal psychology. As he says, “when you have two crimes precisely similar in design and execution, you find the same brain behind them both. I am looking for that brain, Monsieur Giraud, and I shall find it. Here we have a true clue - a psychological clue. You may know all about cigarettes and match ends, Monsieur Giraud, but I, Hercule Poirot, know the mind of man.” So like the Greeks using their gods as explanations for people’s actions, Poirot is concerned with the motivations behind the crimes. And this brings us full circle back to ancient Greek myth, which seems to have been a particular inspiration for Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot’s name is obviously reminiscent of the Greek hero Hercules, whom Christie specifically recalls with her book titled The Labours of Hercule, playing on the myth of the 12 Labours of Hercules. And one of her recurring characters, who is a mystery writer stand-in for Christie herself, is named Ariadne Oliver, bringing us back to the story of the Labyrinth. And finally, recalling both the figures of Ariadne and Penelope and the importance of textiles in Greek myth is Miss Marple, who is always knitting in her books; in the novel The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, when she complains to her doctor about being old and having to recuperate from an illness, this conversation occurs:
'And even my knitting - such a comfort that has always been, and I really am a good knitter. Now I drop stitches all the time - and quite often I don't even know I dropped them.'
Haydock looked at her thoughtfully.
Then his eyes twinkled.
'There's always the opposite.'
'Now what do you mean by that?'
'If you can't knit, what about unravelling for a change? Penelope did.'
'I'm hardly in her position.'
'But unravelling's rather in your line, isn't it?'
And so, we’ve followed the clew safely all the way through this labryinth of etymology, myth, history, literature, and science. I’ll be back soon with more etymological explorations and cultural connections, so please subscribe to this channel; you can also sign up for email notifications of new videos in the description below. If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section; you can also read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net.