Labyrinths and clues


IF THE WORD ‘labyrinth’ does not lead us eventually back to the very earliest human communities, it has a good try. The Greek labyrinthos appears to be a linguistic echo from Egypt and Asia Minor. It is possible that it relates to labrys, a double-edged axe, emblem of the Cretan royal family. No one is certain, since tracing the origin of the word ‘labyrinth’ is itself an etymological labyrinth. It creeps into something like modern English as laboryntus in Chaucer’s House of Fame and has become by the early fifteenth century laberynthe, a maze. Except for specialised usages the terms ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ then become almost indistinguishable in English. Fanshawe’s seventeenth-century Horatian translations talk about clews and mazes, so we are back with the Cretan labyrinth and Ariadne’s bobbined thread, which permitted Theseus to find his way out of the maze after he had executed his monster. Such a thread was a clew, or ball of yarn, providing us with our modern word ‘clue’. THE SENSE INITIALLY was of a structure designed to baffle and disorientate; to prevent curiosity; to hide that which must not be found, either because it was sacred or because it was shameful. It may not always be a minotaur in there (and see below), but there will be something whose immediate disclosure is either undesirable or forbidden. It could be a monster, a priest or a crocodile.

more from Alan Wall at The Fortnightly Review here.