Gordian Knot

Gordian Knot
Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743–1811)

The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem solved by a bold stroke ("cutting the Gordian knot"):

"Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter" (Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 1 Scene 1. 45–47)



At one time the Phrygians were without a king. An oracle at Telmissus (the ancient capital of Phrygia) decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. A peasant farmer named Gordias drove into town on an ox-cart. His position had also been predicted earlier by an eagle landing on his cart, a sign to him from the gods, and on entering the city Gordias was declared king by the priests. Out of gratitude, his son Midas dedicated the ox-cart[1] to the Phrygian god Sabazios (whom the Greeks identified with Zeus) and either tied it to a post or tied its shaft with an intricate knot of cornel (Cornus mas) bark. The ox-cart[2] still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BC when Alexander arrived, at which point Phrygia had been reduced to a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire.

Several themes of myth converged on the chariot, as Robin Lane Fox remarks:[3] Midas' was connected in legend with Alexander's native Macedonia, where the lowland 'Gardens of Midas" still bore his name, and the Phrygian tribes were rightly remembered as having once dwelt in Macedonia. So, in 333 BC, while wintering at Gordium, Alexander the Great attempted to untie the knot. When he could not find the end to the knot to unbind it, he sliced it in half with a stroke of his sword, producing the required ends (the so-called "Alexandrian solution"). That night there was a violent thunderstorm. Alexander's prophet Aristander took this as a sign that Zeus was pleased and would grant Alexander many victories. Once Alexander had sliced the knot with a sword-stroke, his biographers claimed in retrospect[4] that an oracle further prophesied that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia.[5]

Status of the legend

Alexander is a figure of outstanding celebrity and the dramatic episode with the Gordian Knot remains widely known. Literary sources are Alexander's propagandist Arrian (Anabasis Alexandri 2.3) Quintus Curtius (3.1.14), Justin's epitome of Pompeius Trogus (11.7.3), and Aelian's De Natura Animalium 13.1.[6]

While sources from antiquity agree that Alexander was confronted with the challenge of the knot, the means by which he solved the problem are disputed. Both Plutarch and Arrian relate that according to Aristobulus,[7] Alexander pulled the knot out of its pole pin, exposing the two ends of the cord and allowing him to untie the knot without having to cut through it. Some classical scholars regard this as more plausible than the popular account.[8]

Alexander later went on to conquer Asia as far as the Indus and the Oxus thus, for Callisthenes, fulfilling the prophecy.


The knot may have been a religious knot-cipher guarded by Gordian/Midas's priests and priestesses. Robert Graves suggested that it may have symbolized the ineffable name of Dionysus that, knotted like a cipher, would have been passed on through generations of priests and revealed only to the kings of Phrygia.[9]

Unlike fable, true myth has few completely arbitrary elements. This myth taken as a whole seems designed to confer legitimacy to dynastic change in this central Anatolian kingdom: thus Alexander's "brutal cutting of the knot... ended an ancient dispensation."[10] The ox-cart suggests a longer voyage, rather than a local journey, perhaps linking Gordias/Midas with an attested origin-myth in Macedon, of which Alexander is most likely to have been aware.[11] Based on the myth, the new dynasty was not immemorially ancient, but had widely remembered origins in a local, but non-priestly "outsider" class, represented by Greek reports equally as an eponymous peasant "Gordias"[12] or the locally-attested, authentically Phrygian "Midas"[13] in his ox-cart.[14] Other Greek myths legitimize dynasties by right of conquest (compare Cadmus), but the legitimizing oracle stressed in this myth suggests that the previous dynasty were a race of priest-kings allied to the unidentified oracle deity.

Use of the phrase

  • In Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County, Bill Fordham uses the phrase to describe his marital problems with his wife Barbara when he says to her: "Just because you and I are struggling with this Gordian knot doesn't make me any less of a --"[17]

See also


  1. ^ Arrian, Anabasis Alexandri (Αλεξάνδρου Ανάβασις), Book ii.3): "καὶ τὴν ἅμαξαν τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν τῇ ἄκρᾳ ἀναθεῖναι χαριστήρια τῷ Διὶ τῷ βασιλεῖ ἐπὶ τοῦ ἀετοῦ τῇ πομπῇ." which means "...and he offered his father's cart as a gift to king Zeus as gratitude for sending the eagle".
  2. ^ The ox-cart is often depicted in works of art as a chariot, which made it a more readily legible emblem of power and military readiness.
  3. ^ Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 1973"149–51).
  4. ^ The theme of inevitability of victory after victory must have originated with Alexander's prophet Aristander, a man whose "prophecies he always liked to support", reported by Callisthenes, Alexander's court historian and panegyrist, as Robin Lane Fox observes (Alexander the Great 1973:149ff).
  5. ^ Today's Asia Minor would have been the ordinary connotation of "Asia" in the fourth century; "nobody, least of all Alexander, would have dared to claim that within eight years Asia would mean the Oxus, the crossing of the Hindu-Kush and a fight with the elephants of a north-west Indian rajah," remarked Robin Lane Fox in this context (Alexander the Great 1973:151).
  6. ^ The four sources are given in Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great (1973) 1986: Notes to Chapter 10, p. 518; Fox recounts the anecdote, pp 149–51.
  7. ^ Arrian, "The Campaigns of Alexander", p. 105, Penguin Group. 1971, and Plutarch, Life of Alexander, p. 19, The Modern Library. 2004 are secondary sources; Aristobolus' text is lost.
  8. ^ Fredricksmeyer, E. A. "Alexander, Midas, and the Oracle at Gordium" Classical Philology, Vol. 56, No. 3 (July, 1961), pp. 160–168 citing Tarn, W.W. 1948, [1]
  9. ^ Graves, The Greek Myths (1960) §83.4
  10. ^ Graves 1960, §83.4.
  11. ^ "Surely Alexander believed that this god, who established for Midas the rule over Phrygia, now guaranteed to him the fulfillment of the promise of rule over Asia," (Fredricksmeyer 1961:165).
  12. ^ Trogus apud Justin, Plutarch, Alexander 18.1; Curtius 3.1.11 and 14.
  13. ^ Arrian
  14. ^ Lynn E. Roller, "Midas and the Gordian Knot", Classical Antiquity 3.2 (October 1984:256–271) separates out authentic Phrygian elements in the Greek reports and finds a folk-tale element and a religious one, linking the dynastic founder (whether eponymous "Gordias" to Greeks, or Anatolian "Midas") with the cults of "Zeus" and Cybele. Both Roller and Fredricksmeyer (1961) offer persuasive arguments that the original name associated with the wagon is "Midas", "Gordias" being according to Roller a Greek back-formation from the site, Gordion.
  15. ^ Colless, Brian (1992). "Cyrus the Persian as Darius the Mede in the Book of Daniel". JSOT 56: 114. 
  16. ^ Sebald, W. G. (1998). The Rings of Saturn. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation. ISBN 978-0-8112-1413-1. 
  17. ^ Letts, Tracy (2008). August: Osage County. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc.. ISBN 978-1-55936-330-3. 


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