Ariadne’s Clew – the name

Princess Ariadne lived in the palace of Knossos, on the island of Crete. Her father, King Minos, was a shrewd man. When his army defeated Aegeus, king of Athens, Minos demanded a tribute – every seven years Aegeus was to send the seven most courageous young men and the seven most beautiful young women of Athens on a boat to Crete. Whether they woud be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a hideous beast, half man, half bull, which was hidden in a labyrinth below the palace of Knossos, or whether they would become slaves and dance with the bulls, one thing was clear, they would never return to Athens.

On the third occasion of the tribute, Aegeus’ son Theseus volunteered – he wanted to confront the Minotaur and free Athens of its curse. When the young Athenians arrived in Crete, Ariadne saw Theseus among them and instantly fell in love with him. She couldn’t bear the thought of him being killed by the beast, so she went to Daedalus, inventor of the labyrinth, and begged him to tell her its secret.

At night, Ariadne visited Theseus in the palace dungeon. She gave him a clew, a ball of red thread she had spun, and his confiscated sword, and took him to the labyrinth. She waited outside, holding the end of the clew, while Theseus entered the labyrinth, unwinding the clew as he went, until he came upon the Minotaur deep in the heart of the maze. The Minotaur attacked, but Theseus was able to defeat it, slitting its throat with the sword. He then followed the thread to find his way out of the labyrinth, where Ariadne awaited his return.

The young lovers then fled Crete on Theseus’ ship. On the way to Athens, they rested on the beautiful island of Naxos. Here Ariadne fell asleep, and Theseus, either unable to find her, or impatient to get away, abandoned her there. Poor Ariadne then took up with Dionysus and probably had a happier time living there without distracted Theseus. Whether or not it was his remorse about abandoning Ariadne, Theseus’s story ended badly. He forgot to change his ship’s sails from black to white before approaching Athens, and his desperate father, seeing the black sails on the horizon, thought they meant his son had died in Crete and he leaped from the cliff-top in despair…

Endings aside, it is from this story we get our English word ‘clue’ meaning a hint or help in solving a puzzle. The clew, Ariadne’s thread, is also the word used for a rope that attaches to the corner of a sail. We chose the name Ariadne’s Clew, as Ben and I had been reading Ariadne’s story in a Cairo Jim book at the time we bought the boat.

Further reading:
Cairo Jim and the chaos from Crete by Geoffrey McSkimming

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