Red thread

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Over the years, I have come across the expression "red thread" in various and sundry circumstances.  The latest instance was conveyed to me by the French journalist and documentary director, Philippe Grangereau.  As we were working together on an illustrated piece of reportage about the Tarim mummies, he would remind me from time to time that everything that went into the text had to contribute and be related to what he called the "red wire" (speaking in English).  The first several times Philippe used that expression I didn't know what he was talking about.  Finally I asked him how to say it in French.  When he told me "fil rouge", I knew right away that he meant "red thread", and that fit perfectly with my understanding of the need for all the elements in the text to be related to the central narrative thread that ran through it.

When I grasped that idea, simultaneously a statement by Confucius from two and a half millennia ago flashed into my mind:  "My Way has one thread that runs through it" — supposedly referring to loyalty and reciprocity.  (Analects 4:15)

It's a unifying thread, but it's not red.

Nevertheless, as long as I have been studying Chinese folklore and legend, I've always been conscious of a veritable red thread:

Red Thread of Fate (Chinese: 姻緣紅線; pinyin: Yīnyuán hóngxiàn), also referred to as the Red Thread of Marriage, and other variants, is an East Asian belief originating from Chinese mythology. It is commonly thought of as an invisible red cord around the finger of those that are destined to meet one another in a certain situation as they are "their true love". According to Chinese legend, the deity in charge of "the red thread" is believed to be Yuè Xià Lǎorén (月下老人), often abbreviated to Yuè Lǎo (月老), the old lunar matchmaker god, who is in charge of marriages. In the original Chinese myth, it is tied around both parties' ankles, while in Japanese culture it is bound from a male's thumb to a female's little finger. Although in modern times it is common across all these cultures to depict the thread being tied around the fingers, often the little finger. The color red in Chinese culture symbolises happiness and it is also prominently featured during Chinese weddings, such as having both bride and groom wear red throughout the entire procession or at some point during the marriage rituals.


Yet this red thread of fate / marriage is quite different from the fil rouge that Philippe was talking about.  It is also unlike many other types of red thread that I had encountered in studying diverse cultures.  Here are some, nicely presented on Stack Exchange (selections):

In Swedish the expression "röd tråd" (literally "red thread") is used to describe that something follows a theme. For instance, if a piece of text has a "red thread", it's written with a consistent thought throughout the text.  [VHM: same as the French "fil rouge"]

The expression originates from the Greek mythology where King Theseus found his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth by following a "red thread".

It could also be derived from that formerly a red thread were found twisted in some cordage belonging to the English Navy. In a figurative sense first used by Goethe in his work Wahlverwandschaften.

I do not recall ever seeing 'red thread' used in English in such a sense.

"red thread" is used in Russian in such sense, and, interestingly, this expression is said to originate from red strands in ropes used by British Royal Navy.

I remember my English teacher using "red thread", but it seems that it was a literal translation of the German "roter Faden" (equivalent to Swedish).

Sherlock Holmes once remarked to Dr Watson: 'There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life…' (A Study in Scarlet)

But there, "scarlet" is the color of blood, not intrinsic to the "thread"   

The red thread as a metaphor for a consistent theme is not unique to Swedish. It probably originated not with Theseus, but with Goethe who wrote in Elective Affinities:

There is, we are told, a curious contrivance in the service of the English marine. The ropes in use in the royal navy, from the largest to the smallest, are so twisted that a red thread runs through them from end to end, which cannot be extracted without undoing the whole; and by which the smallest pieces may be recognized as belonging to the crown. Just so is there drawn through Ottilie's diary, a thread of attachment and affection which connects it all together, and characterizes the whole.

Genesis was written before Greek mythology existed, right? References to red/scarlet threads, then, come up first in the Old Testament.

Perhaps most famously, the harlot Rahab of the ancient city of Jericho, tied a scarlet cord in her window (she lived in the wall of the city). Eventually, when the walls of Jericho came down, she and her family were saved. (Joshua 2:1-21)

As far as "the red thread" being used for "theme":

Bible students sometimes refer to “the scarlet thread running through the Bible.” By this they mean that the Bible’s theme is Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for the redemption of mankind.

See this reference.

It’s not a safe bet to say that Genesis predates Greek mythology. Probably the opposite is true. According to Wikipedia, the currently predominant belief is that the earliest versions of Genesis probably date to some time in the early half of the first millennium BC; Greek mythology is definitely older than that. Great parts of Greek mythology can be traced back to common Indo-European mythology, several thousand years older, but even the more decidedly Greek mythology is attested in Mycenaean sites from the second millennium BC.

Of course, it’s a different matter whether the specific myth of Theseus and the Minotaur dates back that far. Its events are usually placed towards the end of the second millennium BC, but whether the myth itself is much older or significantly younger is pretty much anyone’s guess.

The "red thread" discussed in this post is completely unrelated to the notion from botanical pathology which refers to a disfiguring, but non-fatal, plant disease (especially of grasses) with that name.


Selected readings

  • "Long words" (6/25/18) — esp. this comment
  • C. Scott Littleton, "Were Some of the Xinjiang Mummies 'Epi-Scythians'? An Excursus in Trans-Eurasian Folklore and Mythology." In Victor H. Mair, The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia (Washington D.C. and Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Man and the University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 746-766.


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 6:17 am

    My German boss used to harangue us constantly about the red thread that we were always seeming to be missing in our presentations. It confused most of the team, who were from a Chinese cultural background and only knew of the marriage related red thread.

  2. Martin Holterman said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 6:29 am

    For completeness, the expression exists in Dutch as well. (And, accordingly, in some of my compatriots' more creative attempts at speaking English.)

  3. Sophie said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 7:27 am

    In 1990 in Jerusalem, a Moroccan Jewish woman tied a red thread around my left wrist, insisting in Hebrew that I not remove it. Wikipedia has an entry on the beliefs behind this in “Red string (kabbalah).”

  4. John Swindle said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 7:48 am

    The protective red thread around the wrist that Sophie mentioned is also present in some varieties of Buddhism. I’ve been given them by both Tibetan and Sri Lankan monks. There is also some discourse about the red thread of compassion or the red thread of life and its passions.

  5. DF said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 7:53 am

    I have never heard “red thread” in English, but there is a “golden thread” that I am familiar with being used in similar way.
    And when I try to google what myth a golden thread might come from, I get the same minotaur and bible stories as referenced in the post. Was there a historical moment when red thread changed to golden thread in English?

  6. Theo said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    Tangentially related:
    "I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love:" (KJV Bible, Hosea 11:4a)
    索 (lit. rope) to search, to seek
    Theseus's thread ("clue")

  7. jhh said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 8:04 am

    There was a Zen koan about "the read thread of passion that runs between the legs." I'm trying to stir this up from memory, but the phrase comes from Chinese master Sung-Yuan. The Japanese Zen master Ikkyu also talks about this. It seems to have something to do with the question of celibacy of the priesthood.

  8. jhh said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 8:05 am

    Erm, red thread ;)

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 8:11 am

    "The red string: A cultural history of a Jewish folk symbol," Elly Teman, in Jewish Cultural Studies (2008), S. J. Bronner, editor. With associated references.

    Thanks to Talya Fishman

  10. Celena said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 8:30 am

    I feel like this discussion is missing possibly one of the most well-known "red threads" of the internet generation – the red threads of conspiracies!

  11. Peter B. Golden said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 9:30 am

    In Russian, it – красная нить ("red thread") – is used to denote "a common thread" of thought: эта мысль проходит красной нитью через всю книгу "this thought runs as a red thread throughout the entire book"

  12. languagehat said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 10:36 am

    This was mentioned briefly above among a swamp of other myths and hypotheses, so just to state it clearly: "red thread" in this sense (ignoring Chinese folklore, Theseus, and other distractions) is (as Russian Wikipedia says) from Goethe, from whence "it became widespread in German and later in other languages." Goethe's story about "ropes in use in the royal navy" is probably either his invention or something he heard somewhere; at any rate, it's irrelevant to the spread of the metaphor (which, as someone said above, is not used in English).

  13. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 12:44 pm

    The Columbia University Buddhologist, Bernard Faure, wrote an entire book on the subject:

    The Red Thread (Princeton University Press).

    Thanks to Alan Kennedy

  14. A1987dM said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 1:39 pm

    In Italian, the translation "filo rosso" is very rare with this meaning but the French loan "fil rouge" is a lot more common.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 4:17 pm

    Is there any ancient source that describes Theseus’ thread as red? My suspicion is that that detail was invented to explain the “red thread”, perhaps in Swedish? Traditionally it was a clew that Ariadne gave Theseus in English.

  16. M. said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 6:59 pm

    See for a possibly exhaustive list of passages in the Jewish Bible and in the New Testament.

  17. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 7:50 pm

    @ Philip Anderson

    Plutarch (Life of Theseus 19) λίνον λαβών, but the legend is much older, coming from Mycenaean times (poems by Homer and Hesiod from around 700 BC). For the red color of the thread, it was a symbol of love and fidelity in ancient Greece. See the legend of Adonis, the lover of Aphrodites (and Inanna/Dumuzid).

  18. ohwilleke said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 8:48 pm

    "Red Thread of Fate (Chinese: 姻緣紅線; pinyin: Yīnyuán hóngxiàn), also referred to as the Red Thread of Marriage,"

    In my experience, and the concept is pretty ubiquitous in East Asian popular culture, this concept is almost always translated as "Red String" rather than as "Red Thread".

  19. Chris Button said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 9:24 pm

    I’m surprised no-one has yet mentioned the classic Jean-Pierre Melville film “Le cercle rouge”.

  20. jhh said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 10:29 pm

    Aha– Bernard Faure! That's probably why that tidbit of info about Buddhism and sexuality was in my head :) I thought he was an outstanding teacher :)

  21. Charles Antaki said,

    July 27, 2022 @ 10:05 am

    In the 1970s there was a televised European game show (in the UK, "It's a Knockout", France "Jeux Sans Frontières" etc) in which teams representing middling cities played jokey physical games against each other (tug-of-war on slippery ground, that kind of thing).

    I vaguely remember that there used to be a "fil rouge" round (called that even on English TV). Wikipedia has it that it was a single-person challenge which every team had to send one representative to attempt. These individual challenges popped up between each of the team games, so I guess that was the 'thread' element.ères

  22. tedpamulang said,

    July 27, 2022 @ 10:06 am

    "Benang merah" (red thread) is also used in Indonesian to mean "common / consistent / recurring theme", possibly borrowed as an idiom from Dutch (cf. Martin Holterman's comment).

  23. Stephen Hart said,

    July 27, 2022 @ 3:36 pm

    "Red thread" also occurs in Scottish folklore as protection against witches.

    I first heard this in the Steeleye Span song Twelve Witches:
    Rowan tree, red thread
    Hold the witches all in dread

    In older versions:
    Rowan-tree and red thread
    Make the witches tyne their speed.
    (where "tyne" appears to mean "lose.")

    Rowan Tree and Red Thread: A Scottish Witchcraft Miscellany of Tales, Legends and Ballads – Together with a description of the Witches ̓ rites and Ceremonies by Thomas Davidson 1949

    BTW Rowan = Mountain Ash, a member of the rose family.

  24. Sanchuan said,

    July 27, 2022 @ 5:33 pm

    I'm personally more familiar with the phrase "Ariadne's thread", which I now realise may carry a sightly different connotation, although it obviously derives from the same myth (cf's_thread_(logic)).

    I wonder now about the usage distribution of Ariadne's thread vs Theseus's thread vs red thread in English (or other languages).

  25. Alexander Pruss said,

    July 28, 2022 @ 12:09 pm

    In the philosophy of time, people talk of the "thin red line". The idea is that we represent possible futures for the universe as a branching tree (e.g., if you roll a die, there are six branches [not counting weird options like the die exploding]). The "thin red line" is then a line that goes through all the branches that will IN FACT be taken. And of course there is a lot of discussion as to whether there is any "thin red line", what exactly this figure of speech means, etc. E.g.:

  26. Victor Mair said,

    July 28, 2022 @ 9:41 pm

    The more I read and reread these wonderful comments on so many aspects and dimensions of the red thread (by no means a "swamp" or "distractions"!), the more I came to the realization that they amount to a Junian archetype. Lo and behold, when pursuing that insight, I discovered the following:

    "Following the Emotional Red Thread", by Dr. Seth Isaiah Rubin; Jungian analysis with David L. Hart in Swarthmore, PA!


    "Tracing a Red Thread: Synchronicity and Jung's Red Book", by Nancy Furlotti, Psychological Perspectives, 53.4 (2010), 455-478; published online: 29 Nov 2010.

    The Red Book, or Liber Novus, is C. G. Jung's personal journal that he wrote to document his inner exploration from 1913 to 1925. It is the magnum opus from which Jung formulated all his theories and to which he returned for study the rest of his life. It has recently been published by W. W. Norton, edited by Sonu Shamdasani and translated by Dr. Shamdasani, Mark Kyburtz, and John Peck. This is the third book published by the Philemon Foundation, whose mission it is to raise funds to support the publication of all of C. G. Jung's unpublished writings.


    "…select only one concept, idea, archetype that has been present throughout your life like the mythological red thread…"



  27. Bob Ladd said,

    July 29, 2022 @ 10:31 am

    Just confirming (from my own experience) the comments above that the red thread metaphor seems to be pretty common in Dutch and that Dutch speakers of English frequently use it when speaking English.

  28. Anthea Fleming said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 1:09 am

    The red strand in British naval cordage was known as the Rogue's Yarn – an anti-theft device.

  29. Terpomo said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 9:18 am

    "In Japanese culture it is bound from a male's thumb to a female's little finger"- what do writers of same-sex romances do if they wish to use the same trope? Just have it be from both parties' thumbs or little fingers correspondingly? Have it according to which takes on a 'male' or 'female' role? I've read a few Japanese same-sex romance stories, but off the top of my head I can't think of any that used the trope.

  30. Sanchuan said,

    August 9, 2022 @ 6:52 am

    Another close synonym of "red thread" (and "Theseus's thread" and "Ariadne's thread" and "fil rouge" and "thin red line" and all the others mentioned upthread (!)) is "through-line", usually employed in narrative/literary/cinematographic contexts.

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