Why A Clue?

You might not immediately associate the likes of Inspector Abberline, Sir Robert Anderson, Sir Charles Warren – nor, for that matter, any of the other detectives involved in the hunt for Jack the Ripper – with either Greek mythology or Geoffrey Chaucer, but hang with me for a moment and we’ll make the connection!


An important point that we make on our nightly walking tour of the Whitechapel murder sites is that one of the main reasons the perpetrator of the crimes evaded capture by the Victorian police was the fact that he left no clues behind for the police to follow.

Instantly participants on the walk know what we’re talking about when we say clue.


But, why do we call a clue a clue?

Well, it actually comes from the word ‘clew’, meaning essentially a ball of thread or yarn; and this is where the Greek mythology bit comes in!


According to Greek legend, Minos, the mythical ruler of the island of Crete managed to offend the Olympian deity Poseidon, the God of the sea. To cut a long story short, Poseidon had given him a white bull, which Minos was meant to sacrifice as a tribute to the deity.

Minos – who appears not to have been a great reader of Greek legends in which mere mortals succeed in offending the gods by not adhering to the terms of pacts made between them – managed to offend Poseidon by sacrificing one of his own bulls in the place of the one sent by the deity.

Now, if there’s one thing it was easy to do in ancient Greece, it was offend the Gods.

Man oh man could those Gods take offence – a fact that didn’t bode well for the mortal who’d managed to do the offending, since if there’s one thing Greek Gods excelled at, other than taking offence, it was meting out retribution on those who had crossed them.

And, it must be said, that retribution was seldom pleasant.


In fact, Poseidon’s revenge on poor old Minos was to cause his wife, Pasiphaë, to fall in love with the white bull and, having mated with it, she gave birth to a creature that was endowed with the head of a bull attached to the body of a man. This creature was given the name “Minotaur.”

As the Minotaur grew, he/it proved to be a ferocious creature who developed a ferocious appetite for human flesh.

So Minos hid him/it away in a vast labyrinth, the design of which was so cunningly intricate as to cause any person who found their way in to it to become hopelessly lost and they would find it impossible to find their way out again.

Obviously the Minotaur needed to eat and, in consequence, he was fed on a diet of  criminals who were pushed into the maze for him/it to gorge on.

However, every ninth year, the Minotaur required a dietary supplement in the form of a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens  that had been exacted on the people of Attica by Minos, on account of the fact that his son had been murdered in that region.

Still with me?


Well, two of these nine yearly tributes had been levied on the people of Attica and the third was approaching.

Now, as it happened, rank or birth held no sway when it came to this tribute. When it came to being eaten by the Minotaur, all were equal. It so happened that one of those due to be eaten as part of tribute three was Theseus, the son of the Athenian King, and he was duly packed off to the cells to await his fate along with the other nibbles.

However, Theseus decided that he wasn’t going to take this lying down and he became determined that, by fair means or foul, he was going to slay the Minotaur and thus free his people from the need for future offerings.

Aha, I hear you ask, but how was he planning to find his way out of the maze once he had done the necessary deed?


Well, since you asked, Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, had fallen in love with Theseus; and she had given him a ball of yarn which he tied to the portal on entering the labyrinth, and which he then unravelled as he picked his way through the twists and turns (or whatever it is that you find in a labyrinth to make it so labyrinthy) in search of his soon to be deceased foe.

Once the deed was done – and the Minotaur had been slain – Theseus and his band of ex delectable appetisers were able to follow the the unravelled yarn back through the labyrinth and find their way out again.



But, what’s this got to do with a clue?

Well, you have to move forward in time, to the Middle Ages to be precise and the time of one Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400).

By Chaucer’s age a ball of yarn was known as a clew.

In his poem The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer  featured the story of  Ariadne and the assistance she had rendered to her lover vis-à-vis the ball of thread and he included the lines:-

By a clewe of twyn as he hath gon
The same weye he may returne a-non
ffolwynge alwey the thred as he hath come.


By the 17th century, the universal reverence that later writers held towards Chaucer led to the figurative use of “clew of thread” as an expression for any guidance that would lead to a solution for a puzzle, problem or difficulty. It came to mean, quite literally, “that which points the way.”

And, as language evolved, words began to change their spellings, but not their meanings. Blew, for example, became blue; trew became true; and clew became clue.


By the late 19th century, thanks to the emergence and popularity of crime fiction, clue had become fixed in the popular imagination as something that might lead to the solution of a mystery.

Indeed, several other words that came to be associated with detective work did (and do) hark back to the original meaning of clue, or clew, as a ball of yarn.

Thus clues would be unravelled, threads would be followed, an investigation might have various strands and a criminal who told a tall tale might well be spinning a yarn.


Is it not, therefore, interesting to note that, the only actual clue that Jack the Ripper left behind should have been a portion of a garment – an apron – that would have been made up of many strands that would have been spun from a Victorian clew?